Former CNMI national player Jericho Cruz maybe playing for Guam now, but this hasn’t stopped his former teammate in the CNMI national team and one of his first basketball coaches from cheering for the 6’1 NLEX star in the Philippine Basketball Association.
Cruz and the Guam men’s national basketball team went up against Hong Kong last night and again on Tuesday, June 15, in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers in Amman, Jordan. At stake, is a spot in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup set for August in Indonesia.
“I’m happy that Jericho Cruz is able to take part in representing the Marianas regardless if it’s playing for Guam or the CNMI. Hopefully one day, the CNMI will qualify for those bigger regional competitions and we’ll be able send our own team,” said James Lee, who is now the president of the Northern Mariana Islands Basketball Federation and played with Cruz in the 2010 Micronesian Games in Palau.
Lee said even at a young age Cruz oozed potential and he’s proud of what his former teammate in the CNMI national team has achieved playing professional basketball in the Philippines.
“Even when he was on island, I remember him being this young skinny kid at the Garapan basketball court playing for G-Rollers,” said the now Marpac beverage sales manager.
Lee believes that Cruz is not the exception when it comes to basketball talent in the Commonwealth, as there are other local players who can mirror his success. He also hinted at recruiting his once-upon-a-time teammate to cultivate the basketball talent in his home islands.
“I personally believe we have a lot of potential athletes here that can go pro as well. Many if not all are limited though, from basic training/guidance to being able to go off-island and try out… that is something I’ll be working on and hopefully one day be able to provide a link for our potential athletes, whether it’s stateside at the university or in the Philippines. Perhaps Jericho would be able to assist on that as well since he already knows the people there,” he said.
Rollers Basketball Association head coach Joe Diaz said his first encounter with Cruz was when the future PBA star was just a scrawny 12-year-old when the RBA was still called the Garapan Rollers.
“It all started when his late dad, Mr. Jose Cruz, brought him to the Garapan court on our practice day. Jericho was 12 years old when he started with us. He quickly picked up the game naturally so I said to my wife, Vern Babauta (co-founder of G-Rollers), that this kid is going somewhere in basketball,” he said.
Unfortunately, there was no league on Saipan during that summer so Cruz’s parents decided to enroll their son to a one-month basketball camp in the Philippines. He returned to Saipan a much improved player and went on to win MVP awards in island age group leagues in the U12, U14, and U16.
After playing college ball at Rizal Technological University and Adamson University, Cruz was drafted ninth overall in the 2014 PBA Draft by NLEX and Diaz said he couldn’t have been prouder for his one-time G-Rollers player. “When Jericho was drafted in to PBA I was so proud of him with the hard work that he put in with the time with us on the G-Rollers.”
On Cruz’s stint with the Guam national basketball team, Diaz said at first he questioned the move, but after some thought realized that his former ward still represents the Marianas while suiting up for the U.S. territory.
“I’m also so proud that he’s helping our neighboring island and to see him play with the Guam national team is a great opportunity since it’s a very highly competitive team. Coach E.J. Calvo is also a great coach so Jericho is in great hands,” he said.
Aside from playing for the CNMI, Cruz also suited up for the Philippines in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Both the Micronesian Games and the SEA Games are not FIBA-sanctioned tournaments and that’s the reason Cruz remained eligible to play for Guam, where his family has roots.