In a world where sports reigns supreme ... a player goes beyond his comfort sphere and travels to places unknown to experience the game of basketball on the other side of the planet.
That player and adventure-seeker is Ernesto “Ernie” Lopez, a senior at Peñasco High School who received the invitation to participate in the 29th Annual Down Under Games in Australia this past spring, and responded rapidly to attend the games which took place mid-July. Lopez committed himself, mentally, physically and financially to do something out of the ordinary for his senior summer. And in the wake of his dive into the unknown, created lasting memories for himself.
He picked up some sound basketball advice along the way as well.
Established in 1988, the Down Under Games started as a way to introduce American football to New Zealand and Australia. Eventually, the games grew to include basketball in 1996, cross-country in 1997, wrestling and volleyball in 1998, track and field in 2000, and golf in 2003. The games are set up for high school juniors and seniors from the United States to visit Australia and to compete in their respective activities – organized by staff and volunteers from the United States to provide this unique opportunity for student-athletes.
Their mission statement is as follows: “Down Under Sports believes that sport is the international language common to all countries and people around the world to help remove cultural and international barriers. Therefore, the mission of Down Under Sports is to promote the growth, development and self-esteem of the individual athlete through sport; to raise the level of awareness and competition to the benefit of both the host country and the participating athlete; to forge friendships that bridge the gap of both distance and time through mutual competition that promotes health and sportsmanship.”
Located in the city of Gold Coast, in Brisbane, Australia, the games also provided players and teams the chance to play organized games using International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules.
The Down Under Hoops Classic is an annual tournament that intertwines practice sessions, social get-togethers, historical tours and sight-seeing with a player’s respective team. The actual tournament is a jam-packed event that provides teams at least eight games and championship rounds against other squads from the United States, New Zealand and Australia. This year’s competition was held at the brand new Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre.
“We were the first athletes to use the state-of-the-art facilities,” said Lopez, who had to acquire a passport to travel to Gold Coast. “The Commonwealth Games are going to be in Gold Coast next year , so we got to break in the new courts that were built for the upcoming event.”
The Commonwealth Games is an international multi-sport event that brings together over 5,000 athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations within the British Empire every four years – similar to the Olympics, where the venue rotates to a different country or territory within the empire.
And, like the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, the Down Under Games provided gold, silver and bronze medals for the top three teams in each sports category.
Lopez was assigned to a team that was comprised of five players from New Mexico. Joining the power forward on the 10-person “Falcons USA” team was Anfernee Callado and Tyrese Morgan from Dulce, Cole Yearout from Hope Christian (Albuquerque) High School and Tyler Roberts from Evangel Christian Academy (Albuquerque). Also on the Falcons were three players from Colorado and a pair from Wyoming. The Falcons were coached by fellow New Mexican, Derek Bean – former head coach of the Hatch Valley Bears and newly hired coach of the Hot Springs (Truth or Consequences) Tigers. They were good enough to earn the bronze medal losing just one game to the eventual gold medalists.
“I did this to experience something new,” said Lopez, who, with the help of his parents, raised the necessary funds to travel. “This was also a way for me to get out of my own personal comfort zone.”
“It was a lot of work to do the fundraising, but if you get an early jump on it, the money can be collected pretty quick,” said Ernie’s mom, Roberta. “We held frito-pie sales, bake sales and scraped whatever we could to cover the costs.”
“It really was a community-wide effort,” said the elder Lopez, who mentioned a fundraising basketball tournament really helped to kick-start the process.
“I have to admit it was a bit nerve racking,” said Lopez’ father, Leroy, who has experienced travel abroad due to his service in the military, but was considerably less enthusiastic about sending his son halfway around the world by himself. “But his mom and I wanted Ernesto to show the way for other kids from around here, that they can get out and experience something like this firsthand.”
The path to Australia was itself a bit of a life-lesson. Ernie flew from Albuquerque to Phoenix to Los Angeles to Brisbane. The final 13-hour leg of the trip meant that Lopez lost a day when he crossed the international date line somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
“I left Peñasco on a Monday morning and arrived on Wednesday morning,” said Ernie. “I still don’t quite understand what happened to Tuesday, but I got my day back when I flew back home.”
The different time zones also made communicating with each other a bit of a challenge as well.
“We had to get creative with the times we would check in with Ernie,” said Roberta, who used her hands and fingers to recite the math used to calculate when both parties were awake. “It definitely required some research.”
In any case – funding challenges and time differences aside – everyone agreed it was a worthwhile experience.
“I would absolutely recommend this to anyone who wants to try something new and exciting,” said Ernie. “It was worth it.”
Currently, Lopez is a starter on the Peñasco Panthers boys basketball team – playing in the power forward position for first year coach Brandon Gurulé. After high school, Lopez will continue the exploration of his world and himself – following in his father’s footsteps by joining the Army. His mom confirmed Lopez was sworn in Oct. 4 in Albuquerque, and will begin basic training in July 2018.