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I Speak Mamba: Val Chua’s focus lets her stay the same beast

Waking up at dawn to work out. First in, last out. Playing through an injury. No excuses, no days off. Giving it everything you’ve got. And then giving some more. This is the language of Mamba Mentality. To celebrate Mamba Mentality Week, SLAM Philippines tells the stories of five athletes who have something in common: […]

Waking up at dawn to work out. First in, last out. Playing through an injury. No excuses, no days off. Giving it everything you’ve got. And then giving some more. This is the language of Mamba Mentality.

To celebrate Mamba Mentality Week, SLAM Philippines tells the stories of five athletes who have something in common: they all speak the same language as the legendary Kobe Bryant.

Photo from Val Chua / Illustration by SLAM PH

In sports, focus has become synonymous with Kobe Bryant. Playing one-on-one to win 100-12, counting 400 makes in practice, tearing an achilles and making two free throws anyway – these are stories that would make anyone scratch their head in confusion, at least until you told them Kobe did that. Then they’ll probably just nod, without doubt or any need to verify. And the next time they work out or sift through dense spreadsheets and reports, maybe one of those anecdotes will pop back into their mind and make them go that little bit harder.

Kobe’s focus is usually remembered as intensity and obsession, as many teammates and slain fourth-quarter opponents will testify. After all, it’s produced many of our definitive Kobe moments: that teeth-baring scowl, dozens of game-winners, and his catharsis on the scorer’s table, drenched in confetti.

Zooming out, however, offers a slightly different perspective – one that can’t be reduced to fiery emotion or attention to detail. Kobe’s life demonstrated focus in a bigger picture than we’re used to: a continuous commitment to greatness. He was absolutely a great player, and after those days were over, we got to see him as a loving father, an insightful mentor and supporter, and an inspiring storyteller. To be great in all of these roles is no easy feat, and it revealed to us his profound understanding that circumstances will change but his effort and identity should not.

Understanding that aspect of Kobe’s focus is just as important to us in the grand scheme of things as it is in individual moments, especially since we frequently find ourselves in transition. For many of us, his unwavering commitment to improvement and excellence will be a source of inspiration, and for those at a crossroads in life, it can provide clarity and assurance.

Photo from Dominique Chua

Val Chua’s story speaks exactly to that effect.

“I’ve been into basketball for as long as I can remember… My dad bought me a small hoop when I was a kid and my love for the game grew from there,” she shares. That love fueled years of improvement and Val earned a spot on the high school varsity team of the Jubilee Christian Academy. Opportunities to advance in the women’s game were hard to come by, but Val’s development coincided with the start of the National Basketball Training Center (NBTC) which has since become one of the biggest grassroots programs in the country.

“In my senior year, I got an invitation to join the NBTC camp and some of the collegiate players were helping out to coach. That’s where I met Mariana Lopa and Trina Limgencgo and they were the ones who asked me to try out,” she explained. Her hoop dreams continued at the Ateneo De Manila University, where she played a key role in ending the Lady Eagles’ five-year Final Four drought.

Her life as an athlete gave her plenty to reflect about because of the challenge it presented and the adversity it put her through. “A lot of times iisipin mo talaga in the morning ‘Okay, nilalagnat ba ako baka pwede ko na lang siyang gawing excuse para hindi ako pumasok o mag-training today,” she says with a laugh.

Val admits that she only began to discover Kobe’s legendary work ethic towards the end of her collegiate career, but she didn’t have to know about the Mamba Mentality to live by it through all the 4 AM wake-up calls and grueling training sessions. But even now that her playing days are over, Kobe’s example gives her an important perspective on her professional career and what lies ahead.

“I think it’s bigger than even he thought it would be. Today, everything is so dramatized, especially on social media. Yeah, Kobe won his titles, but the grind, the work he put in, the injuries he went through – that’s something I take a lot from.”

Photo from Dominique Chua

Encountering Kobe’s story in her final playing years also gave her much needed guidance at a difficult crossroads. After dedicating her entire life to playing the game, Val now had to face the prospect of the rest of her life away from the court – a feeling many athletes, especially women in the Philippines, have to contend with.

After retiring from the game, Kobe dove into business and investments, established the Mamba Academy to develop young players, and started a line of storybooks and short films, even winning an Academy Award for “Dear Basketball”.

“As a fan, I was never really introduced to this side of Kobe,” says Val. “He seemed so happy, he had no identity issues that athletes usually encounter post-retirement. It was actually super inspiring, especially when I finished college. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s actually a next step that you don’t see a lot of players do.’”

Watching Kobe redirect his focus and work ethic in the years after donning the Purple and Gold gave her the assurance she needed in moving on from the Blue and White. For Val, that began with holding on to the same love that kept her going as a young girl shooting hoops at home.

Following her playing career, she joined the coaching staff of the Ateneo Women’s Basketball Team, leading the underdog squad to a Finals appearance in Season 80. After two years with the team, she began to look further for ways to set up a future she can be proud of. She ventured into the corporate world for a short while before eventually finding her way back to the game with Titan and SLAM Philippines, where she’s built a career in sales and marketing.

That process of finding her way has given her a great appreciation of how far she’s come. “When you start with your career, you kinda start from zero, but you just keep doing what you think you need to do… And eventually I found my way here. I really couldn’t have imagined working for a basketball company like Titan and SLAM.”

“It doesn’t feel like it’s work,” she continued. “It’s still basketball. It’s a different type of competitiveness and intensity, but a lot of the things I learned as an athlete can still be applied. I think it’s a blessing in that sense and I don’t take that for granted.”

A lifetime playing the game and a career celebrating and growing it has also pushed Val to give back, with a special focus on supporting young women who share the same love for the game that she had.

Photo from Girls Got Game

Val does work with Girls Got Game, a non-profit organization that empowers women through sports, setting up camps and clinics designed to grow the game and instill lessons for life. “When I look back, there wasn’t really a lot of opportunity presented to us. Being an athlete was just something I luckily came across, but I can’t say the same for those in underprivileged areas,” she explains. “[Girls Got Game] is really about making sure that these kids grow up. They can learn these life skills that no one really gets an opportunity to learn until they’re grown up or further along in life.”

“I used to think that making the Final Four or even just making varsity from a relatively unknown school were achievements enough already. But looking back, everything I’ve done after playing the sport feels just as important also,” beams Val. Taking inspiration from Kobe’s unrelenting focus in his playing career and beyond has taken Val to places she never thought she would get to, and her continuing love for the game and commitment to sharing and celebrating it will continue to take her forward.

“It’s just about looking back and staying in check, knowing that I was blessed with a lot and how important it is to keep giving back.

Kobe’s memory lives on in Val and in anyone who strives to be good at what they do, wherever life takes them.

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