A Chinese kid and his hoops dream from Texas to Manila: Adrian Wong’s story

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This post originally appeared, as is, here

Making it to the big leagues, appearing on National Television, and playing for a nationally acclaimed team is a dream for any basketball player here in the Philippines. Ask any kid in the street playing on any kind of court what they dream about when it comes to basketball, and chances are they’ll answer you, “Gusto ko po maglaro sa PBA.

The sad reality is that, not everyone is given the opportunity to be able to play in the PBA. Some kids can try, but chances are they won’t make it. The ones who are given the most attention are either Fil-Foreigners who performed admirably in the respective schools that they played for, players who have shown their wares in the local leagues in the country or players who stand at 6’5” and above and are immediately given the “This kid should play for Batang Gilas” tag much like other fancied vertically blessed Pinoys.

Adrian Wong doesn’t fit in any of those categories.

He played in the States, but he wasn’t highly sought after.

He didn’t play locally.

He definitely does not stand at 6’5”.

Despite that, he still has the opportunity to be the next big thing in Philippine Basketball.

As pure as water

It was a busy Tuesday morning in the Gonzaga Cafeteria in the Ateneo campus. Students were seen chatting with each other, while others were cramming their homework due for the next period. Of course, others were munching on the usually oily, unhealthy yet undeniably delicious food that they were eating. All of a sudden, Adrian went inside the cafeteria, wearing a slightly oversized white t shirt, paired with shorts that were slightly baggy. Some students saw him and had different reactions. Some were weirded out. Some had faces which said “Who the heck is this guy?” This then brought me back to a conversation I had with a friend a couple of weeks before Season 78 started.

“Sino yung Wong? Fil-Am ba? Parang kamukha ni Derrick Rose ha.”

Basta Fil-Am. Magaling.”

I was definitely right about calling Adrian magaling. The Fil-Am part? With the way he dressed as he approached me, you couldn’t go wrong by calling him a Fil-Am. Once we started talking, he crushed this common misconception regarding his ethnicity.

“I’m pure Filipino, but I was born in Texas. I grew up in Dallas, Texas,” mentioned Adrian. Yup, it is true. Adrian is actually 100% Pinoy, but he was born in the States. Both of Adrian’s parents are Filipino, but Adrian was born and raised in Texas. The Wongs ended up in the States because of work, since both of them are nurses. By blood, Adrian is pure Filipino. But the culture that he was immersed to as he grew up, gives him the American features which most people see in him. The way he dresses. The accent. Even that swagger which he carries himself with. Even though that may be the case, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t care about the land that his parents came from.

Kid Adrian

“I always wondered, if I grew up here [In the Philippines], what my life would be.” When he was a kid, it really was just a dream, as he had no plans of living in the Philippines. He was happy with where he was during his childhood.

“It was great [his childhood]. I got to hang out with all my friends.” Adrian’s childhood was simple. He had friends, he played games and just had fun. Basketball was the farthest thing from his mind. Until his dad did the most Pinoy thing that a dad would do for their son; make them play basketball.

Starting out his hoops dream

Let me refresh you with the #OOTD of Adrian during the day that we met.

Slightly oversized white t-shirt. Slightly baggy shorts. Shoes that aren’t Stan Smiths, Ultra Boosts, or any of those popular shoes kids wear nowadays. He didn’t look anything like the stereotypical basketball player. He looked like a stressed out college student more than anything. That’s how he actually was before he even started to play basketball. He looked nothing like a basketball player. He was just a simple kid having fun.

“I started basketball in 2nd grade. My dad signed me up for this skills thing,” shared Wong about his roots with Basketball. Think of it as Adrian, the 2nd grade kid, being dragged by his dad to join the Milo Best summer camp. Being the kid that he was, he had mixed feelings with what he was about to be dragged to. “I was excited but I was scared at the same time, because I didn’t know what to do. It was my first time touching a basketball. Dribbling, putting the ball in the basket.” It was a scary leap to take, but it was one that was worth it. Adrian met the sport that he was going to love for the rest of his life. “After that, I just knew I loved the game. I just built it from there.” Learning the sport wasn’t enough. Adrian wanted to take the next step when it came to this new love which he was introduced to.

Bucks

At first glance, when a person hears the name Wong, chances are, the person who carries that surname will be associated as someone of Chinese descent. This was certainly the case when it came to Adrian, and it didn’t exactly help when it came to his first practice in a basketball team. “In our first practice game, we were running late, and Adrian was the last player that his late coach (Jerry Poda) was waiting for and he was already dismayed on the kind of players that he had,” mentioned Adrian’s dad, Dandy. “When (Coach Jerry) looked at whole else was not around, he saw this last name Wong, and he said to himself, ‘Oh God, not another unathletic Chinese kid!’” Thing was, Adrian was not just some unathletic Chinese kid.

After that practice, Coach Jerry wound up telling Dandy that he found a gem. Adrian was indeed a gem. After just one year of playing the game of basketball seriously, Adrian already got into an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team with the Net Raiders basketball team. However, that squad discombobulated, so Wong transferred to the Texas Select team. As a freshman, Adrian was already part of the varsity team, which seldom happens in big high school programs in Texas. He would stay in that Texas Select team until his Senior Year in High School, and at the same time, he would proceed to attend Trinity High School over at Euless, Texas. In Trinity, Adrian wound up being teammates with the guy who blocked LeBron James during his first year in the NBA.

Myles Turner

“Playing with Myles [Turner] was great. He’s a great teammate, he’s really one of the nicest people I ever met. He really cares about you, and everyone around him.” Like any good point guard, Adrian helped in making Myles look really good against competition. At the end of High School, Myles was headed to Texas to play for long-time Longhorns basketball coach. He was projected by many to enter the NBA Draft come 2015. For Adrian? He was in a crossroads after High School.

Going Through the Crossroads

Coming out of High School, Adrian was being offered by one Division 1 school, multiple Division 2 colleges and a number of community colleges for free. The problem was, Adrian had doubts with the Division 1 school offering, so he opted not to go there instead. With those schools out of the way, Adrian’s dad started to look at the Philippines as a possibility for his son.

Entering the season, Adrian was viewed by many to be a Fil-Am kid. That meant that Ateneo approached him thanks to one of its alumni members, offered him a scholarship and a roster spot in the team. Simple right?

Not exactly.

In fact, unlike other Fil-Ams who are given offers right off the bat, Adrian didn’t receive any offers from any schools. It was Adrian’s dad himself who had to think of schools where his son could go to. Dandy’s wife, Rose, was the one between the couple who was born and raised in Manila, so she gave the father three choices. It was Ateneo, La Salle or Adrian would stay in the States.

Layup

The Wong family first approached La Salle, since one of their recruiters, Tony Johnson, was the cousin of the aunt of Dandy. Adrian was good to go to La Salle, but there was a problem. Adrian’s brother, Dan, was being offered to go to St. Benilde instead of the UAAP school DLSU. This didn’t sit well with Adrian’s father. “I know for sure Adrian won’t survive in a different country without his older brother by his side, he’s never been to any country aside from Texas.” Option 1 La Salle was a no-go for the Wongs. It was time to go blue.

“My dad sent a video (of me playing) to Coach Bo [Perasol]. I don’t know why Coach Bo opened the video, he (Adrian’s dad) just e-mailed it. I’m pretty sure Coach Bo gets a lot of emails, I’m not sure why he opened that (the e-mail of Adrian’s dad) particular e-mail,” mentioned Adrian. One click and Adrian’s road to Ateneo just begun. “After that day, Coach Bo contacted my dad. It just flowed from there.”

Contrary to stories that have been shared between some alumni members, Adrian’s dad is not an Ateneo alumnus. Adrian’s dad came from Divine Word University of Tacloban, where he played volleyball and basketball in intramurals (meaning, he wasn’t playing sports professionally or in amateur leagues). The closest affiliation that Adrian’s family had with Ateneo was courtesy of Adrian’s cousin. “The only type of affiliation that I had with Ateneo was with my cousin. She just went here, and she graduated. Then she was telling me ‘You should go to Ateneo!’”

It was time to come home. Come home to the place that was simply just a dream to him during his childhood.

Adjusting to the Heat

The cafeteria that Adrian and I we were chatting in, it was quite notorious around the Ateneo campus for being quite warm. Students were packed inside as if they were sardines in a can, and surrounding them were a bunch of stalls cooking greasy cafeteria food which students consumed as their meals on a daily basis. I was already used to it, I’ve been living here all of my life. In theory, Adrian should be used to it too right?

He used to live in Texas, the place known for cowboys, rodeos and gun fights in deserts. There shouldn’t have been that much of an adjustment right? Not exactly.

Big timeee

One adjustment that Adrian had to undergo was with his surroundings. Contrary to stereotypes, the area that Adrian lived in Texas was a city. Buildings, a normal neighborhood, just like the ones we see in movies. In theory, kind of like the Philippine setting. The only difference was, in Texas, the surroundings were more open.

Much like the cafeteria that we were in, the surroundings of Metro Manila was jam packed. “There’s so much cars, so much people, I sweat every day. It’s freaking hot, humid, man. The heat here (in the Philippines) is humid heat. The heat here is like humid heat, the heat in Texas is paso heat. You really get burned.” When it came to basketball, not only did Adrian have to sweat. He had received a ton of burn early on in his stay as well thanks to the style of play in the country.

“It (the style of play in the States) was much different than out here (in the Philippines), because it’s way more physical out here. Everyone told me to get ready for that. When I came here, I thought I was already prepared, but that wasn’t the case. Being out here is pretty tough.” However, everything wasn’t so bad when it came to living in the Philippines. “I like that everything can be delivered. Even my dog was delivered out here!” The adjustment was tough, but that didn’t mean that he was alone. His parents were left back in Texas, but he still had his brother, Dan, with him here in the country.

“He’s (Dan) basically my best friend out here. He teaches me a lot. I actually really look up to him, because he’s much older than me, so he’s much wiser,” Adrian shared. “Being the middle child, I always wanted to be competitive. I always hate it when I’m wrong. Even though I know he’s (Dan) right, I don’t want to admit I’m wrong.” Despite the little sibling rivalry that he had, Adrian is still thankful that his brother came out here with him in the Philippines.

Other than his brother, there were other people who helped Adrian adjust to life in the country. One was former Ateneo Blue Eagle and current Meralco Bolt Chris Newsome, who was the one who gave the Wong brothers a tour around the campus when they first arrived. Another was Von Pessumal, who Adrian treated as his second brother here in the country.

“Von’s fantastic. He’s been helping me throughout the season, actually, encouraging me. He’s always so positive. If my brother wasn’t here, he’d probably be my older brother. My relationship with him, I like it.” If Von was his older brother, Coach Bo was kind of like his father here in the country.

“He’s fantastic. He has a lot of pride with winning. He emphasizes winning a lot,” Adrian shared regarding Coach Bo Perasol. “He just believes in me a lot. I just feel it with him. I’m just not sure why, but when I first met with him, it just clicked. It’s just this feeling you can’t explain.” Despite all of the help that he received, the sickness that most players coming from the States get. Homesickness.

“It’s just natural to feel homesick. I had some thoughts about just quitting, going back home.” Adrian knew, however, that there was a reason why he was in Loyola Heights. “I know God put me here for a reason. God wouldn’t put you in any situation that you wouldn’t be able to handle. I just stuck through it. God put me in this position right now, and I’m having fun right now. It’s all good.”

The adjustment was done. Adrian had finally become accustomed to living here in the Philippines. Time to play some ball.

Spectator first

In Adrian’s first game as a Blue Eagle, he was up against a monster FEU team projected to dominate the UAAP for Season 78. He was actually excited for the game, not feeling much nerves. He only played a couple of minutes, getting hit by Mike Tolomia with some veteran moves. He played 17 minutes for their first game, but it went down-hill after that.

Before the season started, I had Adrian pegged at the wing position. I thought he would play around 15-20 minutes per game, with some minutes being dedicated to him playing the point guard position for bully ball line-ups. That definitely wasn’t the case.

For the games after that FEU game of the Blue Eagles for Season 78, Adrian was given limited minutes. He was apparently pegged at the guard positions, having to go up against guys like Matt Nieto, Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani for minutes. Those three guys were proven already given all of their accolades, so it was tough for Adrian.

“I thought I was going to get moderate minutes, but, one game I didn’t play. It was coach’s decision, all he does is decide what’s best for our team. I got his back.”

It must have been tough for Adrian, having to just sit there, watch his team struggle during the first round of action. His size and ability as a wing player who can also play the 1 position could have been vital for the losses of Ateneo against UST and La Salle. Come the second round, however, it was time to shine for Adrian Wong.

Breakout

October 11, 2015.

It was the start of the second round of action in the UAAP, and tension filled the air of the Araneta Coliseum. It was the first game ever since rumors of Coach Bo Perasol’s firing came to light. Lots of uncertainty was in the minds of Ateneans, and reports of Jerie Pingoy suffering a sprained ankle in practice days before the clash against the monsters from Morayta made things even worse.

Calm down, everybody. Adrian Wong is here to the rescue.

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As Adrian and I talked about his breakout game against FEU, he couldn’t help but smile. Entering the game, Adrian just remained relaxed. “I wasn’t really that nervous. I knew the coaches trusted me to bring down the ball.” Usually Coach Bo would play Adrian as a 2, but against FEU they insisted on playing him at the 1. This resulted in some great production from Adrian early on. “I got a feel for the game early. I was the first one off the bench. After I hit that first three, I knew it was going to be a good game for me. I just felt it. It was just a combination of trust between me, my teammates and the coaches.” That trust would not go to waste, as Adrian churned out his best game of the season (at that time), by scoring 14 points on 4 of 8 shooting from the field.

It was sky high from Adrian after that, as he continued to get minutes as the main point guard coming off the bench behind Matt Nieto. Adrian would masterfully set the tone for the team, setting the play well which would lead to easy baskets for the Blue Eagles. The Adrian Wong that only a select few knew finally made himself known to the Ateneo community.

The second round was over. Adrian finally made himself known. Ateneo was placed as the 3 seed, going up against the same FEU team that Adrian broke out against. This was an Ateneo team that somehow figured things out. But at the same time, this was the playoffs.

It was playoff time. Final Four. A completely different monster compared to the elimination round. Turns out Adrian Wong would turn the Final Four into his stage once again.

Breaking out, then breaking hearts

Before going inside the Araneta Coliseum for the Final Four game between Ateneo and FEU, my friend asked me about my thoughts on the game at hand.

“So, sino tingin mo mananalo?

Siyempre logical choice FEU. Domination nga diba? Pero I have a good feeling about Ateneo’s chances.”

Bakit naman?”

“Trust in Adrian Wong.”

The game started out close between the Blue Eagles and the Tamaraws for the Final Four clash. FEU would try to stretch the lead, but Ateneo would remain feisty. The Blue Eagles would continue to fight, and this led to a crazy 4th quarter.

FEU slowly pulled away early on during the final canto, but the Blue Eagles tried to make a run. Of course Kiefer and Von posted their usual numbers, but another backcourt member went to work and sparked the Blue Eagles. That was none other than Adrian Wong.

Wong would hit threes left and right, further solidifying his bid to be a corner three darling, and his defense on the backcourt members of the Tamaraws was nothing short of stellar. But when it comes to people’s memories regarding Adrian and that fateful FEU match, it’s this.

30 seconds to go. FEU ball. Tolomia has the ball in his hands. He dribbles the ball around. Waits for an opening. Zigs zags his way through the defense, finds Russell Escoto.

Escoto takes a jumper. Too strong. Ball ends up with Adrian with 12 seconds left on the clock. Open driving lane. Time to go coast to coast.

The eyes of Ateneo fans widen. IT’S AN OPEN LANE TO THE BASKET. Wong has the ball in his hands. He drives to his right, is denied by Roger Pogoy. Some fans have some violent reactions.

HOY P**A FOUL YUN G**O!!!!!”

SA KALIWA KA DAPAT SUMAKSAK ANO BA!!!!!”

Those reactions could matter less. Tolomia grabs the rebound. He takes a tough lay-up, it misses. Mac Belo is there….

And the rest is history.

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Most will remember that game as Kiefer’s final game. The lasting image would be of Kiefer and Von hugging. But what people didn’t catch was Adrian, down, in dismay.

He knew the game was on him. He could have easily tweeted “on me” if he had to. But he knew, that game was on him.

The discussion around Wong’s shot centered around two questions:

“Was it a foul by Pogoy?”

and,

“Should Wong have drove left instead of driving right?”

Those questions will simply remain as “What if”. What matters are the “What is” and the “What will be”.

Ateneo lost. That’s the “what is”. The “what will be”?

Well, I see Adrian outside of the press room, all dressed up. I get to chat with him just for a while.

The dream continues

Me: “Hey man, good job earlier. You’ll get them next time. See you next season.”

Adrian: “Thanks man.”

Fast forward to Season 79, Adrian and the Ateneo Blue Eagles found themselves in a completely different situation compared to before.

No longer did they have Coach Bo Perasol at the helm. Instead, it was Coach Tab Baldwin calling the shots for the Blue Eagles.

No longer did the Ateneo Blue Eagles have Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal leading the charge of Ateneo. Instead, eyes were set on Adrian Wong to lead the Blue Eagles, given his breakout performance last season.

During the course of Season 79, Adrian struggled at the lead role, looking stifled every time defenses would attack him. This was something new for him, since he’s always been so used to being a role player rather than being “the guy” for a basketball team.

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At the end of it all, the Blue Eagles ended the season second to the La Salle Green Archers. The Blue Eagles exceeded expectations, while Adrian, to be frank about it, failed to live-up to the expectations which people tagged him with.

As I watched Adrian sing the Song for Mary one last time this Season 79, his eyes are filled with tears. But beneath those tears are lessons and experiences which will only make him better as the years go by.

After all, Adrian still has at most 3 years of basketball left with the Ateneo Blue Eagles. He has a ton of time left to prove everyone that he can be “the guy” that people had him pegged as before the start of Season 79.

But for Adrian, surely playing basketball here in the country is already enough. He wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place. He was supposed to just be “another Chinese kid”, unathletic but a genius at Math. Instead, Adrian went beyond that and pursued his hoops dream. There were bumps along the road, but somehow, he finds himself here in the streets of Manila going for that dream. It’s been harsh, but as I see him walk out of the Araneta Coliseum for the last time this Season 79 with a smile on his face, I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Un-watermarked photos c/o the Wong family