NMJC's Filipa Calisto's Quest For Less And More
The rain had begun to fall, but the horrors did not start until around 8 p.m.
On March 14, 2019, Cyclone Idai hit Beira, Mozambique - the home of Filipa Calisto.
The family provided shelter, as always, for the 19-year-old girl.
She needed it, now.
So, they did everything they could.
They sat in complete darkness and prayed.
Growing up Moz
Seven years earlier, a friend of Filipa’s relayed some intriguing information. A basketball coach offered free instruction to anyone interested.
Affectionately nicknamed Filly, the shy girl had been curious about the sport.
“I saw kids playing and I just wanted to join.”
Calisto’s only problem: convincing her father.
Filly’s dad had set strict value-based rules, and education took priority, with college as the goal. Calisto rarely left home other than to attend school or church. So, if the household needed anything, her father went and got it.
She felt excessively sheltered, then.
A nervous Calisto mustered up the courage and asked.
“Can I play basketball?”
Her father just looked at her. Filly could feel his familiar gaze upon her.
He then he jumped at the opportunity for his little girl.
“I was surprised because he was the first person that supported me. He took me to go buy shorts and shoes.”
Beginning to Ball
With her parent’s approval, Filly attended her first practice.
Conducting an activity on her own turned out to be refreshing.
The group would get together outside in an open area with just a hoop, much like American middle-school blacktops.
Though athletic, performing the simplest basketball drills proved daunting for Filly. Dribbling and passing did not come easy for her either. The excessive up and down movement of her body combined with a less than optimal hand motion created an uncontrollable bounce.
“I just sort of slapped the ball,” Calisto said.
Controlling the ball dominated her thought process so much that she forgot about the other people on the court. Frustration set in.
Collect those thoughts.
Now try again.
And again. And again.
After a few weeks - she still didn’t have it. She couldn’t get her mind and rhythm to catch up with her physical attributes. But she knew if she couldn’t dribble, she couldn’t play.
Somehow, she had to anticipate the movement of the ball while simultaneously avoiding others.
She could quit, but that would eliminate her reprieve from her father’s sheltering.
So, she tried again. And failed again.
And then - she did it. And she did it quite well
Not long after, the coach formed teams to compete against others in the area.
Then, Filly’s natural athleticism led to an invitation to join a more advanced team. There she learned from girls who had a better understanding of the game.
“Those same girls had been practicing since they were seven or eight years old. I wanted to do what they were doing.”
Calisto had trouble dribbling to her right. Layups were a problem as well.
“Going hard to the basket was one of the first ‘major’ moves I could not complete.”
Her coach tied her left hand behind her back and told her to attack the right side of the rim. From footwork to leg placement, Filly thought about the movement before she could do it.
Right-foot, left-foot, jump.
Thinking about a layup slowed her down.
If she tried not to think about it, she would take an extra step which resulted in a traveling call.
Right-foot, left-foot, jump.
After many practices and the occasional use of her right hand in games, using both sides started to feel normal.
The look of her dribbling and layups began to blend in with the rest of her teammates.
“Those girls helped me build my desire to be better. It drove me to be better.”
Her accomplishments led to something bigger. She was good at something that gave a little bit of what she sought: independence.
Her parents very much wanted her to go to college, but she wanted to play basketball which had become the love of her life. She then figured out how to appease her parents and herself: She would play basketball in college.
And with that, a dream was formed.
Aspirations for growth remained, but her surrounding area did not have the necessary resources to improve.
Basketball did not run year-round, and Calisto wasn’t allowed to venture far from her home. These restrictions delayed her basketball development.
From scissor bounces to stationary dribbling, there are countless of ways to improve skills without a hoop.
Calisto’s problem - she did not own a basketball, nor would she receive one for another two years.
Filly needed to practice. So, she did.
In her head.
Filly thought about how to accomplish certain tasks and applied those thoughts whenever she stepped onto a court.
At home, she mimicked moves by pretending to hold an imaginary basketball. That became the only way to develop in the offseason.
AfroBasket, a competition for Portuguese speaking African nations, reached out to see if she wanted to play for Team Mozambique.
She did and led that team to a tournament championship.
Her reward: an invitation to the 16 and under Mozambique National Team.
This came as a surprise, but this placed her closer to her dream of playing college basketball. International games also meant more independence.
“I was excited because most of the girls who are on that team come from the capital (Maputo). They rarely select girls from outside of that area.”
Filly had to earn playing time, yet the opportunity enhanced her college basketball prospects.
The girls from Maputo bonded quickly with each other while Filly had to adapt to the style of her team.
Though talented, learning a new system relegated her to the role of bench player. Filly wanted to be a starter. Until then, she would play hard whenever her coach needed her.
Her first preliminary game matchup came against Mali, long considered the best basketball developing nation in Africa. With her parents watching from the stands, Filly scored four points in 16 minutes.
But, Mali won the game.
Upset at their loss, her team went on to defeat Rwanda 96-22 in the second of four prelim matchups.
Filly played 12 minutes and recorded six points. She began to feel like a valuable member of the rotation even though she did not start.
Tunisia and Angola also fell to Mozambique to round out the prelims, but things changed. Filly played sparingly. The starting five logged heavy minutes while the bench players sat and watched.
She began to doubt her ability.
Filly cheered for her teammates and competed hard when called upon.
The hope of being part of the rotation lingered. It would be a step in the right direction to becoming a starter.
Her team pulled out a 48-46 victory against Egypt, but once again Filly did not didn’t see much of the court. She missed her only shot attempt in two minutes of play.
The next day in the semi-finals, Filly registered five minutes. Unfortunately, Mozambique fell to Nigeria 54-51. This sent her team to the third-place game against Angola.
Filly held out hope for this last game.
Maybe she’d start.
Perhaps she’d get a lot of playing time.
Conceivably she could score double digits.
No, no and no.
She didn’t start. She played a mere 10 minutes and tallied a single steal as her only stat.
Worse still, Mozambique lost to Angola 62-56 despite beating them in the prelims just four days prior. She sat on the bench shocked at how quickly things could turn.
Discouraged, her dream of playing collegiate basketball felt like an unattainable goal.
Her only comfort, the shelter her family provided.
Second time around
During the almost two-year gap in-between FIBA championship play, competition amongst local teams determined who would represent Mozambique.
The more she played, the more independent she felt.
With her experience and continued skill ascension, her country honored her again. The six-foot guard received an invitation to play in the FIBA U18 African Championship Tournament.
Filly wanted to show everyone that she developed into a much better player than the reserve guard role she filled on her last FIBA team.
And after losing to Mali in the under 16U tournament, Calisto desperately wanted to face them again.
They became the barometer by which she gauged her progress. If she could show she belonged with the players from Mali, perhaps a college would take notice.
Mozambique did not get grouped with Mali in preliminary play, so her revenge would have to come in the knockout stages.
Now a starter, Filly began by scoring three points in a 61-32 win over Cape Verde. The second game went even worse for her as Filipa failed to score in the 53-46 victory over Rwanda.
Thoughts about her disappointing performance from two years earlier became more frequent.
Filly finally erupted by scoring 21 points against Egypt winning 57-45.
Calisto followed that up by scoring 18 points against Uganda in the quarterfinals allowing her team to advance with an 86-31 victory.
Validated, her once diminished hopes of playing college basketball returned. Her desire for independence grew. She showed that she could do this.
Filly wanted to continue her breakout performance in the semi-finals against Angola.
Early in the first quarter she started to run down the court.
Filipa made an aggressive cut but rolled her ankle; immediately she dropped to the ground.
She winced as her ankle throbbed and she could feel her pulse through the location of the pain.
As she laid on the court, her eyes began to water.
Her ankle started to swell.
Trainers told her she needed immediate medical attention.
“I did not want to leave my teammates.”
Filly delayed the hospital visit so she could cheer from the bench.
Calisto had invested so much time with her teammates that she considered them family. She sat on the sideline and watched while dealing with both the physical and mental agony of not being able to help.
Mozambique defeated Angola 53-49 and advanced to the championship game against Mali.
The X-ray results led to the end of her tournament play. ed out on the highly anticipated rematch. Luckily for her, a diagnosis of “only” a severe ankle sprain provided some relief.
The next day, her squad faced Mali without her.
“I wanted to test myself against the best. I was disappointed.”
Mali defeated Mozambique in the National Championship game 86-33. They had been the opponent she chased for so long and that opportunity had now passed.
Just preciously seeking independence, she now craved the support only her family could provide.
As she sat with her team and waited for medals and awards to be handed out, she wondered what could have gone differently.
She knew she earned a silver medal, but her mind wandered into the “what-if’s” as the announcer’s voice kept echoing through the loudspeaker.
Her focus remained elsewhere.
The loudspeaker jolted her back into reality.
Wait, did he just say Filipa Calisto?
Yes, he did.
What did that mean?
That meant she needed to hobble to the podium. Filly had just been honored as a first-team All-Tournament selection.
The elation of being recognized as a top basketball player allowed her to momentarily celebrate her accomplishment. Her dream of playing college basketball felt realistic.
“It was a normal sunny day until 6 p.m.,” remembers Filly, then 19. “The government for our city told everyone not to leave. My mom and dad did not go to work that day.”
The rain began to fall.
She thought to herself, it might not be that bad. Debris began to blow all over their neighborhood as the rain intensified.
She huddled around her living room with her parents and three siblings as they could hear the storm getting louder and louder.
Filly started to cry.
Her heartbeat started to race.
A fear of the storm destroying their home or hurting her family became real.
They had experienced storms before, but this did not compare.
“It felt like the cyclone was in our living room,” she said. “We could hear and feel how hard the rain was. Prior to covering our windows, we could not see anything through them.”
They heard people yelling for help.
Someone banged on the door.
Their neighbors desperately seeking safety.
The Calistos had a choice to either keep their home shut and hopefully secure, or let them in.
Her father opened the door.
Filly understood the need for shelter on multiple levels.
Winds, thunder, lightning, and destruction drowned out the normal night sounds. Everyone feared falling asleep – and its impact on avoiding death.
But eventually exhaustion overcame. Filly dozed off in the living room along with the rest of her family.
When she awoke she checked.
Is everyone still alive?
Mom and Dad, alive.
Her siblings – alive too.
When the Calisto family emerged from their home that morning, a shocking scene remained. Roofs ripped off houses. Lots where homes used to stand reduced to rubble. Slices of trees laid scattered everywhere. Filly didn’t have to take more than five paces before she stepped on fallen debris.
It looked like a war-zone.
Cyclone Idai claimed 1,600 lives in the East African nation. The storm left an estimated 3 million people displaced as thousands of homes laid damaged or destroyed.
Despite the direct impact, somehow, someway, the Calisto residence went untouched. The family vehicle survived any major damage as well.
The storm not only left damage and severe flooding throughout the area, but a cholera outbreak added to the devastation.
While assisting with the cleanup, she knew she had been blessed but, Calisto wondered if she had accomplished enough in her life.
The shy girl realized she needed to find balance between her family and who she needed to become.
Filipa had been sheltered. There had been times when she needed it, while at other moments, she knew she did not.
Once things settled, her focus shifted back to basketball. Despite the exposure she gained in her homeland, U.S. colleges did not line up to recruit her. A year had passed since the national tournament and the feeling of disappointment overwhelmed her.
Enter Rick Reeves, Head Coach for the University of the Cumberlands. Reeves had a conversation with one of his current players, Silvia Veloso, who is from Beira, Mozambique. Veloso played for the national team and their conversation sparked his interest in Calisto.
Reeves reached out to Austin Mefford, who at the time coached at Seward College. Mefford had conducted extensive research on Filipa as part of his continuous efforts to recruit outside of the U.S.
Coach Reeves then contacted Filly to gauge her willingness to come play in Williamsburg, Kentucky.
The moment caught Filly by surprise.
She had almost given up hope.
Her eyes filled with tears of joy.
Questions arouse with this big news.
Although they were happy, both parents had reservations with the entire recruitment process. Thoughts of false promises with bad intentions became some of their initial concerns.
Where is Kentucky?
Is it safe?
How do we pay for this?
Reeves knew he had to try to convince the Calistos to let their daughter come play for him. Once they became comfortable and their questions were answered, her parents prepared themselves as best they could to see their daughter realize her dream on the other side of the world.
The balance was starting to shift.
Filly’s attention turned to the necessary steps following her acceptance. She needed a student visa to travel abroad. Unsure of where to start, Calisto reached out to a few friends who had come across this issue and were already playing in the United States.
Filly found out that she had to write a letter to her embassy explaining her reasons in hopes for a face-to-face sit-down. The in-person meeting would decide whether she could enter the United States, but the screening process could take several months.
After sending off her letter, the anxious Calisto had to wait for a reply. A few weeks passed before she received her preliminary invitation to speak with the proper authorities.
All that stood in her way from her dream - a government official’s approval.
Filly payed for a plane ticket without any assurances her request would be granted. She flew to speak with approving authorities in Maputo. Thoughts of rejection filled her head.
What can I do if this isn’t approved?
She sat alone with a man who asked various questions.
A nervous Calisto answered as best she could.
He asked a few questions in English.
Filly exhausted her vocabulary to show she could speak it to display fluency. The truth – Filly knew very little.
After two months of waiting and a lengthy meeting with officials, the visa got approved; her dream remained alive.
After a painful goodbye, Filly arrived in America not knowing what to expect.
Going to a new country with a limited English vocabulary only added to her problems. She no longer had the direct support of her family.
“I became a bit homesick. I wasn’t sure I made the right decision.”
Filly began her career vying for playing time much like her first international competitions.
That experience taught her that becoming a role player is an important job.
Contributing was her primary focus yet becoming a starter remained her future goal.
On Nov. 1, 2021, Calisto made her debut for the Lady Patriots. She played three minutes, recording three rebounds while turning the ball over twice in a 99-90 victory over Reinhardt University.
Though mixed results, she could finally call herself a collegiate athlete.
Filly thought the feeling of reaching her goal would have been more rewarding. She pressed forward hoping for change.
Two weeks later, she scored two points and grabbed two rebounds while playing six minutes in a 94-56 victory over Murray State University.
Those same feelings remained.
Filly accomplished her goal while escaping the restraints of a sheltered life yet the independence she sought came with feelings on loneliness.
To make matters worse, Filly developed discomfort in her knee.
Concerned, she alerted the training staff. As a precaution, they sent Filly to receive an MRI.
Tests revealed Calisto tore her ACL.
Her season - over.
What’s surprising, the injury appeared to be old.
This means Calisto had torn the ligament sometime while playing for the national team prior to her landing in Kentucky.
Without knowing it, Filly had been practicing and playing through the injury.
She needed the shelter, now.
After surgery, she began rehabilitating with the school’s medical staff which brought challenges of its own.
“I remember athletes from other sports gave up on their dreams because of the rehab.”
A football player, with the same injury, could not overcome the physical and mental demands of the recovery process and decided to leave the university. Filly didn’t want to go down that path, so she pressed forward in hopes playing again.
The friends she made during her time of need helped, but her own self-evaluation provided the motivation to succeed.
“I had to try to keep my mental health well. I had to remind myself that everything is going to be okay. You have to accept what you are going through and get through the steps that will help you overcome the situation.”
Getting back to playing became her goal, the solitude of recovery provided direction.
Calisto learned much more about the organization of American sports. Cumberlands plays in the NAIA division and Filly believed she could garner more attention if she played elsewhere.
After looking at her options, she set her sights on playing Division I basketball in the NCAA.
Without reason and on feelings alone, Calisto believed a move to the NJCAA would give her the best chance at reaching the highest level of collegiate basketball.
She went to coach Reeves for help to make a calculated decision.
With D1 as her new goal, Filly made another jump.
If not for the storm, there was a chance Filly might have stayed in Africa. She had now traveled across the U.S. to attend another school.
Calisto transferred to play with Coach Austin Mefford, now at New Mexico Junior College (NMJC) in Hobbs, New Mexico.
While at Seward, coach Mefford helped get Calisto to the University of the Cumberlands.
Reeves returned the favor and contacted coach Mefford to help Calisto transfer to NMJC.
So why New Mexico?
Their roster had three other girls who played basketball in Africa. Although she did not know them personally, talking with teammates that had familiar backgrounds made her feel comfortable.
Calisto immediately felt good about her decision and operating on her own became easier. The instant connection and close relationships she developed in New Mexico provided a temporary solution to her family void.
A happy Filly could now just concentrate on basketball.
With the physical portion of her rehabilitation process complete, the mental part of getting over an injury lingered.
When she first started to practice with her new teammates, doubt crept into her mind.
Will I injure myself again?
Am I fully healed?
It limited the beginning of her first season at New Mexico.
“I am still working on it. I’m scared of doing something I used to do before. Sometimes I doubt myself.”
Those mental limitations affected her on-court performance throughout most of the year. In the last month of the season, those reservations started to fade.
On March 2, 2022, Calisto scored four points in the first half in a game against Clarendon College. In the second half, the Lady T-Birds extended their lead several times only to see it shrink with a Clarendon rally.
With 7:21 remaining in the fourth, Calisto hit a three pointer to push the lead back up to five. That shot bought her more playing time from the coaching staff.
As the seconds ticked away, Calisto managed to get open again.
She pulled up just like the many times had done before in practice.
Filly hit another three.
The game was still undecided, and she was still on the court. Her confidence grew. Up seven with just over two minutes to go, New Mexico knew Clarendon would fight back. Once again, the team looked to Filly for an answer.
Calisto used a pick to get free.
She took a pass on the left wing behind the arc.
Without hesitation, Filly pulled the trigger.
Her shot rattled in.
It was the final dagger.
Filly wound up scoring a career high 16 points in an 80-68 victory over Clarendon College. An elated Filly celebrated with her teammates.
While she would have loved her parents to see her that day, it did not dilute the moment.
Best of all, she did not think about her knee.
A week later, Filly and her teammates celebrated NMJC’s first region title since 2016 when they defeated South Plains in the Region V title game. In her first year, the Lady Thunderbirds were headed to the NJCAA National Championship tournament.
Although her team was eliminated in the round of 16, Filly had finally found a balance between her family and who she wanted to become.
Over the summer, Calisto had a chance to go back home and visit her family. In what used to be a place to escape, is now a safe haven. The shelter provided by her family is a familiar one that became missed along her journey.
Nowadays, time with her family is an escape from basketball.
In an offseason without rehab which allowed her to focus on improving, Calisto would love the chance to become the 122nd Lady Thunderbirds player to go on to a four-year college.
Before she can do that, Filly must prove to everyone that she can reach her potential.
“Filipa would be the eighth player I have coached from Mozambique,” said Mefford. “She is a leader on and off the court. I look forward to see what she can do after putting aside so much adversity.”
While still trying to gain ground on an injury that derailed the beginning of her collegiate career, her in-class performance never faltered.
Calisto, along with five other teammates, kept a 4.0 GPA through the spring semester. For her efforts, the NJCAA announced her as an All-Academic first team selection.
Even through all that, developing into a great player on the court still drives her.
“I believe that I am still going to improve,” she said. “I expect to be essential to my team.”
While she hopes those NCAA offers come, the independence she found while maintaining a family balance has prepared her for any adversity that might come her way.
She now knows she can go home for support, or shelter in place.