Mormon Newsroom
News Story

Basketball and Service Unite Tongan Youth

Peni Lakai, bishop of Tonga’s Nuku’alofa 10th Ward (congregation), of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, felt inspired to use basketball as a way to combat the influence of drugs and pornography on the youth in his ward.

In addition, he wanted to give them a chance to develop their talents and have fun at the same time.

In 2018, Bishop Lakai volunteered to help coach and train Lopeti Piutau who had been selected to play for the Tonga national basketball team at the FIBA Polynesian Basketball Cup in Samoa. 

The FIBA Cup was organized in 2018 to strengthen the level of competition within Oceania and to create new national rivalries. 

Lopeti, along with only five other teammates, enabled Tonga to outlast American Samoa to win the bronze medal. 

As a result of this achievement, the team qualified to play in the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa and Lopeti was selected as a team member.


Lopeti’s success on the basketball court was not without its share of challenges. He was motivated to play and work hard, but didn’t have a coach or even a venue for practicing. 

After fasting and praying about his challenges, he visited with Bishop Lakai about his goals and the difficulties he was facing. 

Problem solved. Bishop Lakai volunteered to be his coach and trainer and allowed Lopeti to practice at the local church building. 

In addition to their physical training, they often fasted and prayed in faith, seeking divine direction and knowledge. Lopeti credits his success in making the Tonga national team to God.

After the tournament in Samoa, Bishop Lakai realized that he could use basketball as a way to help the youth in his congregation and eventually young people throughout the island. His vision was put into action in his own congregation, by first organizing what locals call "missionary basketball." 

With assistance from others, including Lopeti Piutau, who volunteered as a coach, a committee was formed to organize training, coaches and venues to expand the program throughout the stake (a group of congregations). 

What started at the congregation level as a youth activity has now expanded to include the entire stake.  Each team member was challenged to invite a friend to participate. These friends were likewise challenged to invite other friends. As a result, the number of participants grew to 84 and included 28 individuals who are not Latter-day Saints.


A first ever event was held at the Nuku’alofa Central Stake, with four teams participating:  Baby Dragons, Baby Lions, Dragons and Lions. Players were all decked out in new uniforms. 


Sione ‘Aho, aged 15, captain of the Lions team, said that he learned discipline and obedience, which has blessed his life, strengthened his relationship with his family and especially his younger sister.


He further said that this experience has elevated his educational pursuits, reduced stress and strengthened his testimony as he continues to love and obey his parents, siblings and his teachers at school.

Bishop Lakai credits the success of the basketball program to the committee members, Lopeti Piutau, and Elder and Sister Evans (a senior missionary couple), who overcame many challenges and obstacles along the way.  

In particular, Sister Suliana Vea, an 84 year-old widow, assisted in food preparation for practice days. She currently serves as the Chairperson of the Missionary Basketball Committee.

Lopeti Piutau expressed his gratitude to God, saying, he knows that "Heavenly Father has blessed me with such a talent, which enables me to be better and share with the youth of Tonga.” 


“I believe if we have faith in the Lord, live our goals, Heavenly Father will perform miracles and the Missionary Basketball Team has witnessed countless miracles which have changed lives for the better and have taught the youth of Tonga in various aspects of their individual lives.”

Newsroom contributor: Bishop Peni Lakai, Nuku’alofa, Tonga

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