The gym bleachers shook with stomping feet.
Spectators clapped, cheered, and yelled encouragement.
This game, their last of the Walla Walla University Friendship tournament, felt like all the others they had played over the previous two days: the Pohnpei team looked like a home team.
But these basketball players had actually come halfway across the world — from a tropical Pacific island in the Federated States of Micronesia to midwinter Walla Walla, Washington.
The idea for the trip began a month prior — when Walla Walla University student and former student missionary Kenneth Johnston returned to Pohnpei Seventh-day Adventist School to visit — and progressed to full-fledged plan at breakneck speed. For every difficulty in planning the trip, an answer appeared. To Johnston’s disbelief the majority of funds needed were raised within two weeks.
“We said ‘yes’ and then just basically rode prayer and faith literally every step of the way. It’s a miracle we’re here,” Johnston said.
This was the first trip to the mainland United States for most of the students from Pohnpei. Stepping off the plane in Seattle in late January, they saw strange clouds appear in the air.
That’s your breath, one of the coaches told them.
“No way!” many students exclaimed as they blew clouds of vapor and walked through them, entranced.
In Walla Walla, they saw real, live horses. One student tried an out-of-season strawberry. “It is so good! Where can I get some more?” he wanted to know.
There were many firsts, but a sledding trip to the mountains left the most indelible impression. When asked what was their favorite thing from the trip, there was no hesitation. “Snow!” they chorused in unison.
When the basketball games finally started, many Pohnpei players and fans didn’t know what to expect. Any worries were quickly dispelled. The Pohnpei women’s team lost only to a team from San Gabriel Academy in California en route to second place in its bracket. The Pohnpei men’s team lost a hard-fought first game but dominated the next three. It ended up in a three-way tie in their bracket, and through a series of tie-breaking tournament rules, was placed in the fifth-place final.
In the team’s final game, it came out playing their signature tough, fast-paced game, and with the help of a suffocating full-court press, gained a quick lead it would never relinquish. But in a trip of many surprises, one more remained after the final buzzer. A mistake had been made in interpreting the bracket tie-break rules and tournament officials announced Pohnpei would share first place.
The celebrations were destined to continue for a long time.
“I think their island is going to be very proud of them,” Pohnpei’s head coach and Walla Walla University student missionary Michaela Garcia said, pausing between many hugs and team photographs.
But to Johnston the basketball had always been incidental.
“I think hopefully this trip will allow these kids to say, ‘Hey, I could go to this school. I could go to the U.S. and do something really special,’” he said. “These kids just mean so much to so many of us.”
It wasn’t a home game, though maybe it was.
Alex Aamodt is a junior English major at Walla Walla University.