Story by Aaron Kandell
Photos by Ryan Foley
Music pumps over the loudspeakers, drowning out the cheering fans as the players charge onto the court. All the greats are here: numbers 8, 6, 23. Only this is not Madison Square Garden, and the names above those numbers aren’t Bryant, James, Jordan. This is the Pälolo Valley park gym, and the jerseys displaying the star players’ names read Dar Dar, Two An and Yos.
“Welcome to the opening games of the second annual All-Mike Basketball Tournament!” a hyped-up announcer shouts. Close to four hundred people pack the bleachers: uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and dozens of jubilant toddlers stamping their feet. Then, as at any sporting event, everyone rises for the national anthem—or in this case anthems—one for each of the three island nations represented on the court: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The stakes are high in today’s game: This is the first rematch between last year’s two finalists, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae and Chuuk State. It’s also the first game in a season that runs eight weeks; in that time, twenty teams will play more than ninety games in gymnasiums throughout town, from Pälolo Valley to the University of Hawai‘i’s Klum Gym. But more than bragging rights, the players in these games earn something deeper: a sense of pride in their identity as strangers in a strange land.
Since their inception two years ago, All-Mike men’s basketball and women’s volleyball tournaments have galvanized the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i. Thousands of people showed up to the inaugural season’s basketball championship at the Blaisdell Arena. “The fact that we were there changed a lot of people’s thinking,” says Dr. Wilfred Alik, head of the Micronesian Health Advisory Coalition (MHAC) and co-chair of the tournament. “It’s often a struggle just to gain access to public courts.” Because of the negative stereotypes surrounding Micronesians in Hawai‘i, many thought that playing in a big venue like the Blaisdell would be impossible. “Many were downright scared,” says Alik, “but sitting in the Blaisdell Arena, the feeling—that sense of empowerment— was palpable.” Word spread across the Pacific, and Micronesian pride rippled throughout the islands of Oceania.
“Players want to fly in, the demand is so high,” Alik laughs. “We didn’t have a choice this year. We had to bring the tournament back.”