• Stephen Tsai @ the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Mission accomplished, Villa now puts focus totally on basketball


JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Hawaii guard Jessiya Villa shot the ball during the first day of basketball practice on Saturday.

During a two-year church mission in Ghana, Jessiya Villa often was asked how his day was going.

“Eye,” responded Villa, using the Twi-dialect word (pronounced Ay-yay) for “good.”

These days, life is “eye” for Villa, who is a freshman guard for the University of Hawaii basketball team.

Down 20 pounds since his senior season at Kahuku High, when he was the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s 2017 Player of the Year, Villa is physically fit at 5 feet 11 and 161 pounds. He has received a fair share of reps since the Rainbow Warriors opened preseason training last weekend.

“He’s a pretty committed and determined kid,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “He’s come back (from the mission) physically ready to go. He’s going through the process right now.”

Villa admittedly matured during his evangelistic work in an African country in which 2.8 million — 10 percent of the population — are living in extreme poverty, according to a 2018 World Poverty Clock report.

“But that’s from our perspective,” Villa said. “For them, they think they have all the treasures in the world. They’re happy. They’re approachable. You can talk to anyone. Similar to the Polynesian culture, everyone is family. It’s open. If your kids come into my environment, I’ll watch them, I’ll feed them, then take them back home.”

Villa said the residents, whom he described as “humble and down to Earth,” lead a no-frills life. He said he was fond of the cuisine, including a meal called banku. He said corn dough and cassava are pounded together, then boiled into a mush resembling mashed potatoes in texture. Banku is broken into pieces, which are dipped into a tomato stew flavored strongly with spicy ginger. And then the banku is swallowed.

“You don’t chew it,” Villa said of the cultural practice. “You’ve got to swallow. The food is designated for you to swallow.”

Villa happily obliged. “If I go into another culture, I’m going to adapt to what they expect out of me as a foreigner,” he said.

He also abided by the missionary’s rule of putting the mission first. That meant exercises were limited to the pre-dawn hour before his studies and work began. He installed a bar across a doorway for pull-ups. Each day, he did 50 crunches and 200 push-ups. He would dribble a soccer ball until locals joked: “That’s not how you play.” He then would simulate dribbling motions.

After returning to Hawaii in July, Villa turned his focus fully to basketball. “This is my dream,” he said. “This is what I want to fulfill. That’s been my plan since I was little, ever since I stepped on the court and played. My dad put me in the gym and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do — if you want it.’ ”

His grandfather, Bill Villa, is Chaminade’s athletic director. His father, Kahi Villa, played professional basketball in the Philippines and baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system. His mother, Suelan Villa, was a basketball and volleyball player at Brigham Young-Hawaii.

The best part about being home? “I’m playing basketball every day,” Villa said.

Mission accomplished, Villa now puts focus totally on basketball

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