Did The ESPN Announcer Say Panama?
It would be difficult to study in the United States, especially at a member university of one of the NCAA power conferences, as I did at Georgia Tech and the ACC, and not take notice when March Madness arrives annually. Basketball is king during those weeks leading up to the national championship and this year was no exception.
The pandemic canceled last year’s tournament and scrambled many schedules this year, but the madness arrived right on schedule and I found myself over the weekend scrolling through the various games. When I hit upon the first game of the SEC tournament against the winningest college basketball program, the University of Kentucky and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, I did a double-take when the ESPN announcer started naming the starting five for the Bulldogs and announced one of the guards was from Panama City. Not Florida, Panama.
I knew I had heard it right because there stood what appeared to be his parents jumping up and down waving a Panamanian flag. Iverson Molinar, six foot three inches and 190 pounds, wasn’t just on the team, he was one of the best players with an intensity you could almost feel through the television. As it turned out he won that game for Mississippi State by sinking two free throws with seven seconds remaining in the game. It was a historic loss for Kentucky and it was the Panamanian who had kept the Bulldogs in the game and eventually the victor!
Panama is a small country and basketball is not a highly played sport here. We participate in the FiBA, an international organization that plays for a World Cup every four years, but it is nowhere near as popular as soccer and THAT World Cup! It certainly does not bring the fever college basketball brings annually in the United States.
I did take pride when I saw how good Molinar was and how he and his parents wanted everyone to know he was representing Panama just as much as he was winning for Mississippi State. Playing for a Division One university is not a small accomplishment and it came with a great deal of sacrifice from both Molinar and his parents.
Both of his parents were star athletes in their youth but they had different life experiences. Molinar’s mother, Leyza Jones played volleyball and was given the opportunity to play in the United States, first in high school in San Diego and then in college in Texas. She says it changed her life and that even though she didn’t want her son to move from home at 15-years-of-age, she knew she had to “not be selfish” and let him go. They talked on the phone every day while he improved his basketball skills.
His father, Manuel Molinar had a similar opportunity to play basketball in the US, but the older Molinar’s father would not allow him to leave Panama to study and train. And, that changed his life. He knew firsthand what not getting the opportunity would mean so he helped pack this son’s suitcases and gave his blessing. The younger Molinar spent his high school years perfecting his English, making the grades and finally ending up at Mississippi State after rejecting offers from other schools such as Arizona and Kansas State.
Panama is known more for importing great baseball players and now for the soccer team that went all the way to the World Cup in 2018. Molinar’s success in 2021 ended with the next game when the Bulldogs lost to the eventual SEC Conference champions Alabama, but he’s just getting started. Next year he will be a Junior and NBA scouts are already sizing his skills. His summer is planned and it includes almost nothing but training.
Even though the Panamanian won’t be playing in the “Madness” this March, it’s still a great story and it illustrates how Panama is becoming more and more used to being on the world stage. So many people think of Panama as third world and it’s simply not true. We have poor people and we have ultra-wealthy people, but we also have a large and growing middle class who enjoy a rousing game of soccer on a pleasant weekend afternoon where everyone throws beer and screams a little too loud. We kick soccer balls with the Germans and we clash on the basketball court against highly-ranked teams like Kentucky. Major League Baseball teams wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are if we didn’t send them a baseball player or two each year.
Come down and visit! In addition to highly skilled athletes we also have stunning beaches, old-world charm, world-class restaurants, more bird species than found in Canada and the United States combined, eco-friendly escapes and some of the best sport fishing in the world. Oh, and we have that Canal!