Manifest It: New York Knicks' Filipino therapist's dreams are bigger than basketball

Alder Almo - Philstar.com
Manifest It: New York Knicks' Filipino therapist's dreams are bigger than basketball
Erwin Benedict Valencia
Photo courtesy of Erwin Benedict Valencia

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey – Six years since reaching the Filipino’s ultimate American Sports dream, Erwin Benedict Valencia is still waiting for a fellow homegrown Filipino to crack the NBA. 

Valencia, the New York Knicks' Team Physical Therapist and Wellness Lead, is hoping that might come soon in the form of 7’2” wunderkind Kai Sotto.

The 18-year old Sotto has joined the G League Pro Pathway Program in preparation for his bid to become the first ever homegrown Filipino player to get drafted in the NBA.
Valencia was also an 18-year-old teen when he first dreamed of the NBA.

“We are a culture that loves basketball especially the NBA. And for me, I said I would love to be part of that,” Valencia told Philstar.com.

Back in the 90s when internet was still in its infancy in the Philippines and NBA games on TV were scarce, Valencia had to be creative in carving his unconventional path toward his dream.

His journey took him to a long winding road, but it’s a story of a phenomenal perseverance through a series of detours and roadblocks. Eventually, he found his way back to his goal when he just let it out in the universe and manifested his dream. It’s a story that he hopes would inspire more Filipinos. 

'Amboy' kid

Born to Filipino parents in New Jersey but raised in Texas, California, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, and lived in multiple states in the US and cities around the world, Valencia considers himself a third-culture kid. 

He moved to the Philippines at the age of two and attended Ateneo de Davao for the early part of his primary education. His parents sent him back to US to live with his uncle in California when the country experienced political unrest, which culminated in the People Power Revolution in 1986. 

When things began to settle down in the Philippines, he came back. But this time, his family has moved to Makati City, where he continued his primary education at Colegio San Agustin.  

He was always the "amboy kid" in school who couldn’t speak straight Tagalog. 

It wasn’t until his sixth grade that he fully embraced being a Filipino when his family moved to Alabang in Muntinlupa City and he transferred to De La Salle Zobel. 

The campus security guard introduced him to AbanteTonite, Eat Bulaga and the now-defunct noontime show Lunch Date, which helped him brush up his Tagalog.  

Soon, he would blend in with the other kids in school and bond with them through sports. 

Visualizing his dream

While Valencia was gifted with a decent height, being taller than most Filipino kids, his basketball experience was only limited to being a co-captain of their SMAA basketball team in De La Salle Zobel.  

So, he thought of a different way to get to the NBA.  

Initially, he saw sportscasting as his ticket. 

“I wanted to do that and appear on TV but my dad was like, ‘anoanak, walangperadiyantsakamedyomahirap (My dad told me there’s no money there and it’s difficult to break through in TV industry). So, you better set your sights on something that’s more lucrative,’” said Valencia, who later went on to flirt with his initial dream of a TV career when he finished second in the Channel V’s search for the first Filipino VJ. 

Being the typical Filipino kid who doesn’t want to go against his parents’ wishes, he had to rethink his options. Definitely being the first Filipino NBA player was out of the question. And he wasn’t inclined to becoming a coach or a team manager either.

He asked himself: “What are the strengths that I have? It’s caring for people.So, I found a way to prepare me for that path.”

It wasn’t until the 1995 Super Bowl between his favorite team San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers when he figured out exactly how he could get to the NBA. 

“During acommercial break, I saw a lady there who was a physician with a note at the bottom that said… MD, Sports Medicine,” Valencia recalled. “What the heck is that?” 

With Google still a few years away from taking over as modern-day encyclopedia, Valencia had to go the old school way. He spent countless hours in the library to search for answers. He also started to source out more NBA games and was always fascinated with the guy in the corner who goes to the player when he’s injured. He would soon touch base with his cousins in the US to inquire about sports medicine and started looking for schools. 

He was restless and relentless. 

“Then I woke up one morning and I had this vision that was as clear as day. I saw myself standing in an arena where the light is still dark. There’s a crowd, and a combination of smell of popcorn and hotdogs,” Valencia said.

Baby steps

During the time when most teens are still figuring out life, Valencia was ahead of the curve.  

He already knew what he wanted. Everything he did next was to get closer to his dream. He stayed home for college but attended one of the top universities in the Philippines.  

“I ended up taking Physical Therapy at the University of the Philippines-Manila instead of Psychology. Going to UP was one of the steps, so I continued to research,” he said. 

He would often tell his classmates that he’ll be the first Filipino doctor in the NBA. Then he met the man who would unlock the door for him to endless possibilities. 

Dr. Raul Canlas is a renowned Orthopedic Surgeon in the Philippines. He was the go-to-guy of Filipino athletes for their injuries at that time. Canlas’ wide range of experience in the sports medicine field included a half-year fellowship with the Los Angeles Lakers. He became an influential figure in Valencia’s pursuit of sports science. 

“He gave me great ideas, information to move forward from there,” Valencia said. 

After finishing his college degree at UP, Valencia set in motion his grand plan of reaching his dream. 

Dream chasing

The final year at the turn of century will be remembered in the NBA historyfor so many things. The 1999 lockout season. Michael Jordan’s second retirement. The Knicks (Valencia’s future employer) Cinderella run to the NBA Finals as No. 8 seed. Tim Duncan’ first of his five NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs.  

It also marked the year Valencia returned to US to ultimately chase his NBA dream. 

His first stop was in Fremont, California. 

“I got an internship at an outpatient clinic to qualify for the licenses but this is not what I want. I want to get into sports. I finally had internet, so I researched for schools,” Valencia said. “I literally cold call, sent emails.”

His persistence bore fruit when he got accepted for a pioneering MastersProgram at Plymouth State in New Hampshire. That started his addiction to education. He collected diplomaslike an exuberant kid in an arcade earning tickets to land his prized toy. 

By the time he reached the NBA, Valencia’s resume was as stacked as Michael Jordan’s accomplishments on the court.

He has a Masters of Education in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine degree from Plymouth State in New Hampshire, a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy with concentration in Manipulative Therapies from the University of St. Augustine in Florida, post-graduate fellowships at Yale University and Regis University and an Advanced Diploma in Coaching (Executive & Leadership) from New York University, and Graduate Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology from University of Pennsylvania. The list goes on. 

First major break

From East Coast to West Coast then back to East Coast, Valencia was driving at an insane speed chasing his dream. But life reminded him that sometimes you need to pump the breaks and it taught him that there was no short cut to success. He needed to go through the process. 

After failing to land an internship with the Golden State Warriors in 2002, Valencia literally drove back to the East Coast and while on the road, he got a call that he was accepted in Ivy League’s Yale University for a post-graduate fellowship program. Afterwards, he worked in New York for two years while waiting for the elusive NBA shot.  

With NBA spurning him in his first try, heset his sights on the Major League Baseball and interviewed for an internship with the Boston Red Sox. He did get his first big break at MLB. But not with the nine-time World Series champion. 

“When I was at a workshop conference in Vermont after this interview with the Red Sox, I was like this kid sitting in front of this class and every time the instructor asked a question, I’ll answer. Then in day 2 of the class, the instructor was like: ‘Look kid, I don’t know who you are but you seem to answer every question that I ask so I just wanna let the people at the back here if there are people who works in professional sports maybe you want to talk to this kid’,”Valencia recalled. 

One of the teams in attendance were the Pittsburgh Pirates. What happened next should go down as a stuff of legend. 

The Pirates’ representatives in the workshop heeded the instructor’s unsolicited advice and approached Valencia during the break.

“They asked me If I was trying to get into baseball and I said yes kinda ironically I just got an interview with the Red Sox and it was great but I’m open,” Valencia told them. To which the Pirates guys replied: “You know what we don’t have a car, if you drive us into a diner, we’ll buy you a lunch and we’ll listen to your story.”

And the rest, as they say, was history.

Valencia got his feet wet in the Pirates’ minor league team. He lived in a motel with a bunch of 18-year old Latin American kids who, like him, were chasing their American sports dream. 
“Parang Resident Advisor (I was like a Resident Advisor). I was driving them, living with them in the same hostel. It was a challenging year but I learned so much,” Valencia said. 

He learned how to deal with professional athletes. He learned to develop and prepare an athlete for the next level. He also learned how to create short- and long-term rehabilitation programs. 

“It was a great learning experience for me and fine-tuned me to prepare for this path,” Valencia said. 

Despite getting an expanded role and a salary raise every year, Valencia has always thought he’s made for the major sports leagues.

In 2005, he took his chances and got an interview with the Chicago Cubs for a bigger position. It snowballed and he received three offers around the Major League Baseball. 

He ultimately decided to return to the Pirates not only because he owed them a debt of gratitude but they were also the team who put forward a godfather offer – a three-year deal, a newly created position for him with their Major League team and unlimited educational scholarship. 

“They were the first to give me the opportunity to learn. They gave me the best offer and I felt like I could grow,” Valencia said. 

He was the first Rehabilitation Director in Major League Baseball and thus became the first Filipino to be hired full-time on a medical staff for any major US sports team. 

“That was the next seven years of my life, probably the best years of my life learning,” Valencia said with smile. 

“I finished my doctoral degree. I learned all the techniques because I wanted to be the best clinician in the professional sports. I had every certificate. At one point I had 32 to 34 letters beside my name.  Ang haba-haba ng business card ko (My business card became long because of those titles) and I was like at the end, ‘why am I doing this?’ In the end, you don’t really need all of this. Who cares? What they care about is the experience that you have and the people that you know,” Valencia added. 

Rest, share and recover

Valencia was again living in the fast lane, catching big breaks after another. He was having the time of his life in MLB, building a reputation as a Polymath. 

As he began to accumulate more learnings and experiences and getting exposed to the world, Valencia expanded his dreams. He was always the smart kid that possesses a big heart.  

Following the conclusion of the 2012 season, he left the Pirates after he was inspired by their manager to serve and give back. 

Valencia used his platform to raise money for kids in Dominican Republic, Africa and Florida. 

“2012 changed my life into something bigger,” Valencia said. 

It was indeed bigger than his sports dream. With his NBA dream temporarily sidetracked, he travelled the world and in 2013, he co-founded the socially-responsible global education company KINETIQ which aimed to provide grassroots and “next step” knowledge in sports medicine, wellness and performance art to institutions with no readily access to it. He also founded the Grasshopper Project, a mentorship program for future thought leaders and change agents in the world of movement.  

“It became a social enterprise. I followed the Toms (Shoes) business model: 1 to 1. If I do an event in the US, I’ll do a free event in somewhere else like in the Philippines, Cambodia, Czech Republic, Poland then I would give it for free or at a little cost,” Valencia explained. 

It was a refreshing two years for Valencia after more than a decade of chasing a lifelong dream. 

Manifesting his dream

Valencia’s entry to the MLB was quirky on its own way. But his breakthrough to the NBA was quirkier in itself. 

Exactly 18 years since he first dreamed of getting into the NBA, the big moment finally arrived. 

It was his 36th birthday. He broke his annual tradition of hosting a big party, and instead decided to give out hugs to over 300 random people in Prague, Czech Republic along with his local friends.

“I woke up in my friend’s couch in Prague. When the sun rose up, I gave a prayer to the universe – thank you for allowing me to travel for two years. I lived this life I’ve always dreamed, travelling, teaching people and giving back but I’ve never asked before for anything but this time I would like to ask for an opportunity to make the dream that I had when I was 18 come true,” Valencia said.

Two days later, NBA offers started pouring in from San Antonio, Chicago, Detroit and New York. 

The Heat was appealing to him because of Fil-Am coach Erik Spoelstra. His Miami contact was even giving him a vision where he and Spoelstra could work and run clinics together in the Philippines.

The Pistons, meanwhile, offered the most money and an expanded role in the organization.But in the end, he gravitated towards the Knicks which was located in a city where he had more connections and made him comfortable since relocating to US. And most importantly, because of the man at the helm in the Knicks organization at that time.

“Imagine working with the guy who helped create Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and learn the Zen ways,” said Valencia. “I’m a hippie, so when I had the opportunity to know him and learn how he does things, it was a dream come true to me.”

It was just too good to pass up. 

Born ready

Valencia started out as a Team Physical Therapist and Assistant Athletic Trainer for the Knicks. 

It took him two months before he had his first personal encounter with his revered idol.  

Jackson would recount to him his Philippine trip in 1984 with other NBA legends where they were gifted with Barong Tagalogs and encountered local basketball legends Sonny Jaworski, the Loyzaga brothers whom he fondly remembers. 

Their conversations would range from sports to life and his Zen ways. He always sensed a kindred spirit in him.

In 2015, Valencia interviewed for promotion to head the Knicks’ medical team.

After presenting his pitch deck, the interviewing committee asked him a final question: “Are you sure, you’re ready? Your resume speaks for itself but are you ready for this?” 

“And I answered, without hesitation. I look up and said,‘I was born ready!’ And I was like, everyone stopped and oh no, this will go one or two ways: a. I like your confidence b. who the heck do you think you are? I was so nervous,” Valencia recalling that moment. 

“Then to my left, I heard Jackson’s voice: ‘I think you’re ready as well!’”

In that particular moment, Valencia realized he has made the right decision to follow his heart when he picked New York among other NBA cities. He became the Knicks’ Director of Training and Conditioning, a role he held until 2018. He relinquished the post to leadand focus more on their space and wellness program.

“He (Phil Jackson) was the person who allowed me to share my passion for meditation to sports. All this while I just kept it to myself but because he’s the guy in front who’s pushing it, it helped us introduce meditation to the athletes then it turned to the creation of the first meditation program in the NBA then because of that,” Valencia said. 

Even after Jackson left, the Knicks maintained Valencia’s program. The daily In-Season breathwork, Intention-setting, and Meditation program, a passion he’s been personally practicing for more than 30 years, becamea staple in their team practices. 

Valencia brought a wholistic approach to athlete wellness and care that has become a trend in the modern NBA. Combining his knowledge in Sports Science, Manual and Movement Therapies, Mindfulness and Executive Life Coaching, he provided not only physical relief but also mentally and spiritually. Knicks players christened him with nicknames such as Shaman, Yogi, and the Asian Guru. 

Long before load management and mental health among players became mainstream topics in the NBA, he’s been preaching about their correlation (load management as relates to mental and emotional stress) since he entered the league in 2014.

Valencia said, “My job in baseball was to rehab players when they get injured. I still do that but I guess my biggest role comes from the well-being of the players. What can I do so that the injuries that are small doesn’t get to the bigger situation?What can I do to incorporate a truly wholistic sense for the players and teach them meditation, allow me to have them practice yoga?”

Bigger than basketball

Aside from those fan boy moments with Phil Jackson that he could only dream of when he was a kid watching the Chicago Bulls’ reign in the NBA, he also had the thrill of his life when he met Michael Jordan. The NBA legend revered as the GOAT would tease Valencia as the kid everyone was talking about in New York. His brief encounter ended with Jordan telling him to take care of his guy Carmelo Anthony, who was the Knicks’ star player at that time.

Just like Jackson and Jordan, Valencia has become an icon in his own right.In his field, hewas considered to be the combination of Elon Musk, Tony Robbins, Bruce Lee and Richard Branson. He was even called Unicorn.

Aside from his Knicks job, he also serves as the Director of Medical Performance Services for Baseball New Zealand and is a consultant to the South African Baseball Union, Czech Republic National Baseball team, LG Twins Professional Baseball Team and is the Sports Physical Therapy Expert for the Philippine Physical Therapy Association. 

As a student of life, Valencia knows no limits. 

As a trail blazer, he dreams of having more Filipinos break barriers and reach the NBA. But more than inspiring and offering his blueprint for success, he dreams of a lasting impact that goes beyond basketball back home.

“I think one of my great missions is to come home to the Philippines and create this well-being community, people that can share ideas and share the space before they fall into depression. Not just in the Philippines but in Asia. Being somebody that’s going to be in the face of it, being able to talk about it in a more scalable and more grassroots, creating programs nahindi lang para sa may kaya (not only for those who are well off) but for everyone else,” Valencia said.

He added, “For me, how can I make that sense of mental health and well-being more understandable to normal person and use the lingo of sports to understand. How can we use the sports to integrate that and allow these people to have conversation?”

Attitude and effort

Valencia’s circuitous route to his NBA dream not only prepared him for the big moments but also taught him so many things in life. 

“In order for you to get to where you want to be – visualize it, prepare for the path, then manifest it,” he said. 

“I say manifest it because the year prior I got to the Knicks, that was December 2013, I had an interview with an NBA team and when I didn’t get it, I was so frustrated. I thought that’s it,” he recalled. 

Since then, he changed his mindset. 

“I knew I was meant to be here. That’s my dream and then the moment I let go of it, you know what if it’s not now, it’s fine,” he explained. 

When he didn’t aggressively made moves to chase his dream and just shared his positive disposition, paying it forward then that’s when good karma happened. 

“Because sometimes we forced things so much but when, in fact, we just have to be prepared for it. Then continue to make yourself better. When you make yourself better, other people who want to work with you will be like ‘You know what I like who he is now. I may not like him before because he was not qualified for what we want but I like who he is now’ and that’s when it happens,” he said. 

“The key is to work with yourself and not get frustrated chasing for something. If you make yourself better, people will recognize you,” he added. 

Valencia is a living proof that dreams do come true when you work hard for it and manifest it. His inspiring storyis encapsulated in aphrase he learned from Clint Hurdle, the Pittsburgh Pirates manager, during his time in MLB. 

“The only thing we can control is attitude and effort, the rest we leave up to the universe.”


Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in Jersey City, New Jersey and writes for the New York-based sports website empiresportsmedia.com.

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