“Kulelat naman UP eh!”
That was the reality that the UP Fighting Maroons men’s basketball team and its fans had to deal with during most of the recent UAAP Seasons. Year after year, enduring long losing streaks and dwelling at the bottom of the standings were common staples for the UP hoops population.
The years of UP’s mediocre basketball program reflected on the PBA. In the recent seasons, while students and alumni from other UAAP schools have stars like Terrence Romeo, James Yap, LA Tenorio and Mac Cardona to look up to, Iskos and Iskas have role players like Jireh Ibañes, Jay-R Reyes and Raul Soyud to root for.
But the 2017 PBA Draft may signal a change in the course of PBA aspirants and fans from UP, as the hope of the entire UP basketball community rests on the shoulders of the league’s newest Ka-Barangay, Jett Manuel.
Jett Manuel, Fighting Maroon
“I think they’re the only team that believed in me coming in from high school.”
That’s how Jett Manuel thinks of UP. After his stint at Xavier school, he played for UP from 2011 to 2016. During his stint as a Fighting Maroon, he experienced the worst and the best of playing for Diliman. He watched from the sidelines as UP went winless on Season 76. He also played on long losing streaks and was part of the ‘bonfire’ squad that ended the win drought. He was also part of the team that started the #nowheretogobutUP resurgence during Season 79. During that season, UP won five elimination games, the most they had in recent years.
Jett best described the feeling of experiencing both sides of UP. “Experiencing yung first part, yung mga 0-14, I never wanna experience that again,” Jett said during an interview at the SLAM Draft Suite. “Happy ako na kahit di ako part ng aabot ng Final Four, at least masasabi ko na part ako ng nag-jumpstart… masimulan ko yung resurgence [ng program],” he added.
Jett paid UP’s trust back with his play on the floor. Throughout his UAAP career, he averaged 9.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists. Perhaps, his best year came during Season 79, where he averaged 15 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists. It was also his best shooting year, since he knocked down 40.2% of his field goal attempts, including 32.4% from beyond the arc.
Win or lose, Jett is happy that he played for one of the best universities in the country. “Sobrang iba yung feeling talaga. I know it wasn’t the winningest of programs. Pero I realized na you make do with what you have. Nandoon pa rin yung support ng community. And iba siyempre, one of the best schools academic-wise in the country. So nandoon yung pride,” Jett recalled.
From King Maroon to Civil Engineer
When asked about how he felt about being crowned as King Maroon, Jett was just happy that his hardwork paid off. “Masarap yung feeling na ganun pala yung naa-achieve mo through hardwork more than anything else. Hindi yung parang limelight lang tapos may accolades ka. Na-achieve mo lang in your own small way,” Jett said.
But being the King Maroon didn’t come without any sacrifice.
During his time at UP, Jett made sure that he was as good as a student as he was as an athlete. He recalled how he worked two-a-days to improve his level of play during regular season. After the evening team practices, he had to study until the wee hours to prepare for his subjects the following day. He devoted most of his time to academics and basketball that he never enjoyed the social life of a typical college student. “Siyempre priority natin, studies. Di ako masyadong lumalabas with my friends. I tried to [join an] org[anization], pero hindi posible. Priorities lang talaga.”
It was good that his sacrifices paid off. He graduated with the degree of civil engineering and earned his license during the November 2016 CE board exam.
Living the PBA dream
Jett knows that he has to set aside being a full-time civil engineer now that he is one step closer to achieving his PBA dream. But instead of becoming a full-time PBA player, he intends to juggle his time between basketball and their family business where he can exercise his profession. “I realized na hindi ako makakapasok sa 8-5 job because of PBA…especially right now, yung draft, yung preparation, I’m really focused on basketball. Pero yung outside hours, doon na ako pumupunta sa parents ko [for the family business],” Jett explained.
He believes that his stint at UP has taught him how to win games. “I think the exposure I got there helped me a lot with learning how to play, learning how to win, because we weren’t winning before then we ended up winning the latter part,” Jett told the media during the SLAM Draft Suite.
Moreover, he hopes the he can translate all his basketball experience, including his international stint at the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, to the PBA. “International basketball is completely different: the coaching style, the players you go up against…I think, carrying over to the PBA, I have to learn how to be consistent. I can’t just have one good game, then the next game, I won’t play well,” Jett answered the media.
Jett knows that the road will be tougher for him given that only a limited number of Fighting Maroons who transitioned from college to the pros. But he is confident that with the work that he has put in, he can fit in a team like Ginebra who is in need of a knockdown shooter and a reliable defender.
When asked whether he wants to play for a contender during the SLAM Draft Suite, his answer was pretty clear: “I wanna win na. Sawa na ako sa star player pero talo. Contender na role player pero contributing to the team. I don’t need to be the star.”
An inspiration to aspiring college athletes
Jett hopes that his story will become an inspiration to other players that being a student-athlete is a doable task. “Ako kasi, hindi naman ako ang pinakamatalino, pero nagawa ko. Nag-excel ako in both aspects. Parang yun na lang yung gusto ko na ma-feel na, ‘uy, kaya pala’. Tapos maiisip ng ibang tao na kinaya ko so kaya rin nila,” Jett exclaimed. He also wants to inspire the younger generation of ballers to do well in school. “Yung mga players din, yung ma-realize nila na hindi lang basketball, merong magagawa after, so seseryosohin nila yung aral nila,” he further explained.
Down the road, Jett wants to be remembered as an engineer who was able to contribute to Philippine basketball. He also intends to continue his profession and study overseas.
Jett Manuel, the GINgineer
Jett was drafted 12th overall in the 2017 PBA Draft by no less than the reigning champion Ginebra. He is thankful, and looks forward to playing for the Barangay. “Excited ako. Medyo shocking at overwhelming kasi Ginebra has the best fans in the PBA. Exciting kasi sobrang rich din ng history ng team,” he replied in jest in an interview after the draft. He also looks forward to learning from Coach Tim Cone and future legends LA Tenorio and Mark Caguioa.
He regrets that he missed the chance to play with one of the best guards in the PBA, Jayjay Helterbrand. “Sayang nga na di ko na naabutan si Jayjay. Pero ganun talaga, he has achieved so much during his career, na-feel na niya na it’s time to let go,” he reacted. But even if the former MVP’s place has been vacated, he acknowledges that it’s a tough task to follow the path of Jayjay and his running mate, Mark. “Napakalaking footsteps na kailangang sundin if ever,” Jett exclaimed. “Pero hindi naman goal na mapalitan sina Jayjay and Mark. They’ll be The Fast and The Furious forever,” he added.
Personally, he just wants to contribute in any way that the coaching staff asks him to: whether spreading the floor with his outside shooting, defending from end to end, or doing the little things on the floor.
Only time can tell whether Jett can be the most successful Fighting Maroon of this century. But for now, he’s just happy that he has the chance to show what he can do with one of the greatest teams in the best basketball stage in the Philippines.