Chillin' In Chile With Candice Wiggins

Candice Wiggins, a seven-year WNBA veteran, is a guard for the Los Angeles Sparks. Courtesy of Candice Wiggins

The U.S. Embassy Santiago along with the NBA and WNBA teamed up for an educational and sports diplomacy envoy in Chile. Being the bold and fearless traveler that I am, I welcomed the opportunity to do something dynamic for a group of people who live their lives on the other side of the equator. I stepped into the country with no specific goal in mind, and left feeling as though we left a tremendous impact on Chilean society.

The trip began extraordinarily, with a quick flight to the city of Concepción and a visit to Fundación Teletón, a rehab center for children with various disabilities. The altruism surrounding this center is astounding, as the clinic is completely free and open for all children ages 0-24, no matter their financial circumstances. With the glorious staff they have assembled, it is a world of hope for those who were innocently born into this world with a horrific disadvantage.

You would never know it, though; the children we met there were courageously and heroically choosing to live their lives with a smile. Later on, Alex English, Daniel Soares and I all got in our wheelchairs and played basketball against the kids, which only opened our hearts even more to the circumstances some of them are living in. It was thrilling to see them all take their best shot against an NBA Legend and a WNBA pro and watch them light up when they hit a big-time shot.

After our hearts grew 10 times bigger, it was time to do some clinics and further inject the virtues of the NBA and WNBA into the country of Chile.

Chile is a country that is not known for its basketball (fútbol is tremendously more popular). In fact, it’s not really known for any competitive sport, due to the general nature of its citizens. Chileans have adopted a culture of passivity when it comes to sports, and nobody really knows why. We knew this was going to be a challenge, but we were ready to do something to help mobilize the sports culture. The good news is that although initially very introverted, they are open to new experiences, and were exceptionally warm and welcoming to the NBA and WNBA.

What captured my curiosity was the source of their passivity. The cultural norms in Chile are to relax and have a good time, and to not take competition too seriously. They see competition as a very negative thing, something that brings out all the bad traits in one’s character, such as aggression and violence. And to that end, they have a point.

We had to find solutions to their lack of competitive fire. Alex English reintroduced them to the word “pasión,” and I tried my best to communicate and apply my competitive philosophies and tactics. The results were pretty spectacular.

I learned that the Chilean basketball players were just like us in America; they too want to know the answer to the Great Debate of 2014. Aptly put: Kobe or LeBron?

We were able to show and teach the people of Chile that competition can actually bring out the best in people, when it’s carefully managed. Traveling around to various universities and high schools allowed us to impact a young impressionable generation by answering their numerously diverse questions about sports. Initially they were very shy and standoffish, but once we engaged in conversation they immediately began bubbling with inquisitiveness and desire. Some of these kids were students who were studying to be P.E. teachers and coaches one day, and it’s our sincere hope and belief that they will earnestly pass our message of passion and competition along to the next generation.

My highlight of the trip was our visit to SENAME, which is Chile’s service that deals with youth in problems with the judicial system. After the basketball, we were able to sit down and talk to these boys, and while the future for some of them might not be so bright, I could see a couple of boys nodding emphatically once my words were being translated into their language. If nothing else, we brought them hope for a better future, and I learned that for some of them, that was enough to make them feel like a NBA All-Star.

Another highlight included the various clinics we hosted at several locations, one of them being the city Valparaiso, where we got to indulge in a sip of Chilean history and culture, in addition to firing up an already motivated young group of talented female hoopsters. I was so impressed with their skill, talent, work ethic and motivation I told them that I was challenging some of them, if not all, to make it to the WNBA one day. They gleefully and triumphantly accepted.

Coming in with zero expectations, this is one thing I know for sure: Even though the NBA and WNBA officially left the country, you won’t be finding anyone near a basketball court simply just “chillin’” in Chile anymore.