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Filipino doctor doing work from Manila to the NBA

Filipino therapist Erwin Valencia talks about following his dream that led him to the NBA.

It seems like ages ago, but the New York Knicks’ thrilling season opener over the Boston Celtics was one of the most memorable—and entertaining–moments of this NBA season. 

Filipino therapist Erwin Valencia, who was there at the Madison Square Garden that night, remembers that opener as one of the most unforgettable games he had ever attended. 

“When New Yorkers are winning, they will let you know they’re winning,” Valencia shares. “There was practically a parade outside. I [had difficulty hearing] for 24 hours.”

The sheer pandemonium of that game typifies the craziness of NBA fandom. But Valencia wasn’t just one of the 15,000 fans in attendance that night—far from it. He was courtside, sitting alongside the coaches and players, as the team physical therapist and wellness lead of the Knicks. He’s the first homegrown Filipino to be part of the medical staff of any American professional sports team, and in general, one of the few Filipinos to be part of an NBA team in any capacity. 

It had always been a dream for Valencia, who was raised in the Philippines, to make it to the NBA. He played basketball for De La Salle Zobel in high school, but quickly realized that he wasn’t making it to the league as a player. Instead, he pivoted to a career in sports using one of his biggest strengths.

“I asked myself, ‘What is my superpower?’” he says. “My superpower is taking care of people. This is how I am where I am now.”

After earning a degree in Physical Therapy from the University of the Philippines, he moved to the United States to further his studies in sports medicine. He then landed a job as a minor league baseball trainer and strength coach. He rose through the ranks and made it to the major league, which eventually led to a call from the New York Knicks years later to be part of their medical and performance staff. 

Valencia knew he needed to bring something different to make a career out of sports medicine in the US. His Filipino upbringing helped differentiate Valencia from the rest; he uses concepts from the manghihilots and albularyos, and uses indigenous plants when treating his players. Heck, he even makes the Knicks players apply White Flower—the essential oil used by every tita and lola in the Philippines—to energize them during games.

Valencia is a nurturer at heart, which also explains his passion for mentorship. His appearance at the ANTA Sneaker Talk in Makati on April 23 doubled both as a discussion on all things shoes and NFTs, and as a motivational speech for every Filipino trying to make it to the NBA. 

“I take the time to spend time with someone that, sinendan ako ng message sa Instagram or Facebook. Especially kapag Pinoy ka, I’ll be there for you as long as you showed up for me, and that when you come to me and I teach you lessons, gagawin mo,” Valencia says, before offering anyone in the crowd to message him on Instagram for guidance or a cup of coffee. 

The ability to be a mentor is what Valencia cherishes about his stature as one of the first homegrown Filipinos to make it in the NBA. He remembers when he first got the Knicks job, a reporter asked him to give advice for any Filipino kid trying to make it to the NBA. 

His three-step advice: visualize the dream, prepare for the path, and manifest the opportunity. It’s all about doing the work and trusting the process.

“I never imagined myself at the Mecca, the Madison Square Garden, which is the most amazing arena you can play basketball in,” Valencia says. “[But] it’s funny sometimes, when you dream of something, it does come true. Don’t try to push, push, push all the time. When you let it go, magic happens.


(Photos from Erwin Valencia’s Instagram; ANTA)