Two weeks before Mother’s Day, on April 29, the country’s most prominent mother, First Lady Atty. Marie Louise “Liza” Araneta Marcos, accompanied by President Bongbong Marcos, hosted a “Sports Day” charity event for abused and abandoned children at Malacañang attended by NBA Basketball Hall of Fame awardee and China’s 7’6” sports icon Yao Ming (who delivered an extemporaneous speech in English extolling friendship between two countries and sports for kids), world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao (who gave a speech in Filipino), China Ambassador Huang Xilian (who gave a speech on strengthening cooperation between Filipino and Chinese nations) and other officials.
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The First Lady is daughter of a late basketball Olympian
The event was a mix of basketball and other sports activities, children’s party and gift-giving of school supplies and toys to disadvantaged kids, including orphans and those without mothers. Not known to many, the Ateneo de Manila University and New York University-educated lawyer and college professor First Lady Liza is daughter of the late Ilonggo Olympic basketball athlete Manuel “Manolet” Ledesma Araneta, Jr. who competed for the Philippine national team in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
Also seen at the gathering were Vice President Sara Duterte Carpio with her kids (she kept a low profile, supporting the event from the sidelines in a white T-shirt and blue jeans), Tourism Secretary Christina Garcia Frasco (who gave a speech), Presidential Communications Office Secretary Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil, Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) general manager Mel Robles, Social Secretary Bianca Zobel (who told me she’s the granddaughter of the late Ayala Group boss Enrique Zobel, whom I interviewed before for a STAR column at his former one-hectare home in Ayala Alabang), Deputy Social Secretary Dina Arroyo Tantoco, Valenzuela City First Lady Tiffany Chua-Gatchalian (who accompanied disadvantaged kids from her city’s Bahay Kalinga) and others.
There were no other journalists at the afternoon event. The First Couple mingled with the children, agreeing to have photos taken with them individually or as groups, both taking time to sign autographs on basketballs or shirts or papers.
Seated beside me on my right was Yao Ming’s devoted and unassuming wife former Chinese national team basketball athlete Ye Li, who carried a backpack with his things. I chatted with her in Mandarin and remarked that her husband spoke very fluent English; she noted they had lived several years in the US. Ye Li is also a devoted mother herself: her 13-year-old daughter Amy Yao Qinlei was born in Houston, Texas.
‘Basketball Diplomacy’ overcomes international politics
Since the goodwill charity event led by Yao Ming happened amidst continuing territorial disagreements at sea, I told the Chinese diplomats with Ambassador Huang that what they were doing could be described as “basketball diplomacy,” reminiscent of the early 1970s goodwill “ping-pong diplomacy” between table tennis athletes that helped mend ties between China and the US.
When BBM saw former Senator Pacquiao at the charity event, he warmly hugged him like a long-lost friend. It was the first encounter between the two since the heated May 2022 presidential election, where they were rivals.
The donor for the charity event was the Filipino-Chinese business community led by Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII) newly elected president Dr. Cecilio Pedro, executive vice president Victor Lim, vice president Antony Chan and this writer as board member. Dr. Pedro said: “We support the First Lady’s civic project and other socio-economic initiatives of President Bongbong Marcos for national progress. We also support promotion of cooperation and friendship between the Philippines and China, as exemplified by this civic event with Yao Ming and China Ambassador Huang Xilian. We also wholeheartedly support basketball and sports development.”