By Gabrielle Mix, Special to the Independent
Many aspiring athletes who dream of playing on a professional team typically anticipate support in the stands from friends, family and fans.
For others such as Noah Blanton, of Laguna Beach, playing professionally means seeing the world. Basketball has taken this 22-year-old 8,000 miles away from home, to Hong Kong.
Though he played basketball throughout his life at the Boys and Girls Club, Laguna Beach High and Westmont College in Santa Barbara, he said he did not know he wanted to play professionally until a couple of years ago.
While at Westmont on a basketball scholarship, Blanton won the Character Award during the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs this spring. A spring 2018  graduate, he is one of few athletes to play professionally straight out of school. Out of approximately 18,000 men’s college basketball players, only about 750 or 1.2 percent went on to play internationally in 2017, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association website. Blanton’s confidence on the court in college stood out to a friend, Chris Appel of Laguna, who introduced the idea of playing basketball abroad to him and a Westmont teammate, Jerry Karczewski.
The prospect of doing what he loves while traveling to a foreign country hooked the young athlete and, about a month ago, his bags were packed for Hong Kong to join team Yuk Fai.
“I’m still adapting to the language, but our teammates are kind enough to show us around and help us adapt to their culture,” Blanton said.
Two of few Americans on the roster, Blanton and Karczewski had a lot of acclimating to do. Aside from trying to learn a complicated and new language and understand the other cultural nuances any foreigner experiences, Blanton had to make adjustments on the court as well.
He has noticed that athletics are less influential in Hong Kong’s popular culture compared to the United States, perhaps because the stadiums are only slightly larger than high school gyms and practices are only scheduled three times a week. However, Blanton said the crowd’s excitement during games shows that “for entertainment purposes, the people in Hong Kong do love basketball.”
Blanton has also noticed differences in the game itself. “It’s far more physical and aggressive back home than it is here, which I think gives Jerry and me an advantage,” he said.
His mother, Mary Blanton, an El Morro Elementary teacher, said “Noah has always been super athletic.” He comes from a storied line of athletes, including his uncle, Dain Blanton, a gold medalist in beach volleyball in the 2000 Olympic Games. Blanton followed in his uncle’s footsteps by playing volleyball throughout his life before focusing on basketball his senior year of high school.
 As a youth, when Noah started performing complicated skateboard tricks, Mrs. Blanton knew he was especially coordinated. This athleticism shifted to basketball when Blanton would practice increasing his vertical reach by seeing how close he could get to the top of the doors in the Blanton household.
“I had tons of little fingerprints marking up my door frame so he could see how close he was getting to the top. I didn’t wash them off because, well, they were just so sweet,” Mrs. Blanton said.
Mrs. Blanton believes Noah first took an interest in basketball because of his older brother, Bryce’s, influence. Blanton said he looked up to his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. The two would shoot hoops for hours as kids.
“I will say that the constant laughter more than made up for the house sounding like a gym,” Mrs. Blanton said.
Bret Fleming, Blanton’s high school basketball coach, said Blanton’s body type at 6’5’’, his athleticism and skill set, worked to his favor in the sport.
Fleming knows the Blanton family through church, the community and basketball camps. He described his former player as a “terrific young man.”
While Blanton is lucky to have grown up in a supportive and close-knit community and family, that has made his move across the Pacific more difficult. He said he misses his family and friends just as much as they miss him, but he keeps connected via video chat and group messages.
Regardless, Mrs. Blanton said, “our family is thrilled that he has the opportunity to follow his dream. He’s always wanted to visit Asia, so to go there and play professional basketball is an answer to prayer.”
Although Blanton will only be playing on Yuk Fai until the end of the season in July, which is half as long as a regular six-month NBA season , he hopes to continue to play basketball abroad. “I’d like to play in Europe or another part of Asia and use the game to see more of the world,” he said.
Fleming believes Blanton will be successful as a professional basketball player as long as he “embraces the grind.”
“You gotta treat it like a job and constantly be looking to improve,” he said.
Mrs. Blanton said, “I hope he continues to follow his heart and walk through the doors God opens for him. I think that’s a very brave and satisfying way to live one’s life.”
To Blanton, playing basketball means more than fulfilling his professional dreams. “My motivation comes from people who haven’t believed in me in the past, and from people like my family who believe in me no matter what I do. I want to prove the former wrong and I want to make my family proud,” he said.
After he retires from pro sports, Blanton hopes to bring another goal to fruition, one that will bring him back home and take up another family tradition. Utilizing his college degree in education, Blanton wants to teach elementary school in the states.
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