Despite Gilas not arriving, RHJ still beloved by Filipino crowd.

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Aug 28, 2023, 10:28 AM ET

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hurriedly brought the ball down the court, looking for a spot to launch a three-pointer to keep his team in the game.

Jordan was down 85-81 against favored New Zealand with less than 15 seconds to go, and Hollis-Jefferson knew he had to act quickly.

He took a dribble to his left and let fly a triple, drawing contact from Yannick Wetzell as he landed. As the shot went it, the referee whistled Wetzell for a foul.

The Mall of Asia Arena crowd erupted in cheers. They had decided much earlier who to root for in this game, but now they about to take it to another level.

As Hollis-Jefferson lined up to take the bonus free throw, chants of “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” started flowing from the rafters. Hollis-Jefferson made the free throw — his 38th point of the game — and Jordan hung on to send the game into overtime.

New Zealand eventually prevailed 95-87 after holding Hollis-Jefferson to just one point in the extra period and virtually eliminating Jordan from FIBA World Cup 2023.

But the serenading he got from the Manila crowd will stay with him for a long time.

“It means a lot,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s an honor. There’s definitely only one Kobe [Bryant] but to feel that love and energy, coming down the stretch, hitting those big shots, God was with me and Kobe was with me for sure.”

It’s not just the clutch shot that reminded the crowd of the late great Bryant.

Hollis-Jefferson breaks a resemblance to the Laker great, plus he wears the no. 24. It also helps that the Philippines is home to millions of Lakers fans, and that Hollis-Jefferson is already a familiar face to them, having recently led the TNT Tropang Giga to a PBA title.

He was scheduled to have dinner with Tropang Giga coach Jojo Lastimosa after the game.

“It’s awesome,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s great to be back, experience that love and appreciation that Filipinos have for basketball. It’s a wonderful feeling. Anytime you go across the world and get love and support, it means the world.”

A former NBA first round draft pick, Hollis-Jefferson is a big reason why Jordan entered the tournament with dreams of advancing to the second round. Competitive losses in their first two games have already made that impossible, but the hope is that this will be a long-term arrangement that will bear fruit down the road.

“We talked about it being long-term,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m still fairly young in the basketball world, so we talked about it being long-term for sure.”

Playing in the World Cup had been a goal of Hollis-Jefferson, and he instructed his agent to ask around and look for naturalization opportunities in Asia.

The Philippines, he said, had initially expressed interest.

“I heard they were interested,” he said, of Gilas Pilipinas. “But they have Justin [Brownlee] and Jordan Clarkson. Those are great players. That’s no knock to them.”

He eventually came to terms with Jordan’s basketball federation, just days before the World Cup opened last week. But he had been practicing with his new teammates even before then and already left a good impression.

“He’s an amazing player,” said Jordan’s point guard Freddie Ibrahim, who backed up Hollis-Jefferson with 22 points against New Zealand. “Since he joined us, he’s slowly just been getting better and better with us.

“He never really forced himself on us in the beginning which is great. And to see him kind of shine here at the biggest stage is just kind of what you expect from a guy of NBA caliber.

“I’m very lucky to share the court with him and be his point guard. He’s very patient with me and he gives tips and stuff like that. It’s a good experience for me, definitely.”

The experience has also been good for Hollis-Jefferson, who added: “It’s been going good. It’s been an experience, it’s been an honor to be able to represent a country, get to know a different culture, different background. I’ve just been taking it all in.

“I would say it’s been an honor to be in the World Cup, to get this experience. Our group, extremely tough, talented teams in our group.”

Jordan will wrap up its group stage schedule on Wednesday when the play United States, a team they have virtually no chance of beating and one that Hollis-Jefferson had once hoped he would be representing at this level.

But after six seasons he found himself out of the NBA in what he called a humbling experience.”

“Once I was out of the league, I had to reevaluate myself,” he said. “I came out of high school, I was top 25 [in his draft]. I was in the green room for the lottery.

“I felt like I was on a pedestal. I felt like I could do anything I wanted. Not being in the NBA, not having a roster spot kind of woke me up to humble myself.”

He still hopes to make it back to the NBA, but in the meantime he wants to impart his knowledge to as many Asian players as he can.

“I think if (Asian players) really focus on working out individually, if they improve their individual talent, that will only take their team talent to the next level,” he shared.

“And then dropping your ego and pride or thinking you’re entitled to have something or you deserve something, I think once guys start to let that go and work on their game, I think it will definitely rise.”

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