F the future: The SLAM Rising Stars Classic is all about the now

Waiting.

I’ve always hated it, never really saw the point of it all. Waiting is often a sign of inefficiency: a driver’s license renewal taking too long, a burger order incorrectly punched in, or a city-wide traffic scheme that’s been outdated for decades.

The product of all those tiny little failures adding up? The sum of a collection of illegally swerving, lane-changing, counter-flowing idiot drivers? You, in the middle of a jam, waiting.

(I began writing this piece in my head while I was in line for immigration, exiting Singapore. Waiting.)

I missed the SLAM Rising Stars Classic because I was out of the country, but the Punks and Hype players we selected absolutely did not disappoint, creating buzz that rippled all the way from Mandaluyong to Orchard Road.

A five-star athlete, a steel-blooded point guard, a couple “That can’t be a 17 year-old” giants, and some of the sweetest strokes that side of the sea; people were watching, talking about these All-Stars. All this with a Presidential debate on TV at the same time.

High school students. High school players. On the largest stage anyone has ever put them on. And nobody, not them, not the scouts present, not the fans in the stands, not a young, new editor all the way in Singapore, none of us, were waiting. Their time was now.

Growing up however, high school was all about just the wait: preparation, getting set for the next step, a slow, often painful, staring game with a clock. No you can’t take the car out on your own yet, or drink, or go out past midnight, or this or that or be taken seriously as a basketball player.

Almost every time we’re presented with a talent at that level, we ask ourselves, “Will he translate?” I’ve always found that question troublesome because it’s always asked. All the goddamn time. Ironically, there’s only one answer that satisfies all those curious enough to pose the most redundant inquiry in all of pre-professional basketball. And that answer is, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Damn. Back at it again with the sit and wait.

I was never at the level that these kids are on now. I played varsity basketball in high school too, sure. But never like them, never in my dreams. I wasn’t a gifted athlete, or a knockdown shooter. I was a point guard who – if I ever had to play the point guards on this year’s Rising Stars game – would be unable to guard anyone and would be pointed to as the reason my team lost.

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I was however, and maybe this is the only thing about my then-self (possibly even my current self) that’s at an elite level, unbelievably appreciative of the experience. I went to Marist School in Marikina. We’re an all-boys Catholic School, pride of Eastern Metro Manila (I made that up) and basketball kings of our young city (yup, also made up). Against other schools in town, we were Rocky Balboa of Philadelphia.

Against the bigger schools many of these Rising Stars are from, we were the 76ers.

But we tried, man. And we had a good set of guys on our team. Fun guys, team guys, brothers for life guys.

(I’m writing this now on a tiny notebook I carry around for emergencies like this. Gate E04. Still waiting.)

My junior year, Sonny Manucat was our head coach. We looked up to him like the big brother we all wish we had: played with the stars, drove a nice car, could hit 10 threes in a row. He taught us the plays they ran in the big leagues, told us that if we weren’t able to take a charge in the lane, we had no place on the court. He convinced me I was a point guard, and reminded me everyday that my desire to set my teammates up wasn’t as common as 14-year-old me thought it was.

Senior year, Freddie Hubalde was in charge. Yup. Him. 25 Greatest Players Freddie Hubalde. OG Fear The Beard Freddie Hubalde. Bank Shot Bandit Freddie Hubalde. He was my hero, man. Did push-ups with us, taught us to use the weight room, insisted on using the glass on mid-range jumpers. He would tell us stories of Jawo and Atoy and Cezar and Fernandez. He would let us all pile into his van and drive us to the game because the bus broke down. He got us team duffel bags when we were the only team in the league without them. He convinced me that winning and losing mattered, and trying your best sometimes doesn’t count for anything. Life has winners and losers; it doesn’t care if you gave it your all. He believed we were winners, more than anyone else did.

My teammates, oh man what teammates I had. First guy on the list, all the time, was jersey #4. You couldn’t get numbers lower than that back then. The unspoken rule was, #4 was for your captain. On our team, #4 always belonged to Ralph Reyes. He was our leader, had been on the varsity team since he was seven probably, and was without question the most loved guy on the team. He also piled up a bunch of DNP’s his last year. But he didn’t care. He was the loudest, most supportive backbone a team could ask for.

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Our stars were Mychal Nubla and Mico Del Rosario, a couple of six-foot shooters, lanky and with range. Kevin Ferrer before Kevin Ferrer (except you know, Kevin’s way better. Sorry fellas). Every play we ran was to get them an open three. We were Golden State-gaming before we even knew what that was. Maybe because these two dudes, our shooting guards, were our tallest guys. We literally had no other choice. They were taking as many shots as we could get them, and everytime we critiqued them, it was because they kept passing it back.

Irish Pedrano and Mon Borja were unique. They brought just the right amount of street onto the San Beda courts where we usually played. Marikina’s inter-barangay all-stars played the street-to-spotlight characters well. Irish was rough, Mon was flashy. And everytime Pedrano got a board, no matter how many times the coaches said not to, he’d fire a full-court outlet to Borja who would already be leaking to the other side.

Ton Balbas, now that kid pissed me off. He was a year younger, about five-inches shorter and probably weighed 130-pounds, soaking wet. We wound up on the same team my senior year and this dude straight up took the starting spot as a junior. He was quick, intelligent and blessed with as much skill as smarts. He’s on his way to become a doctor now I think. He’s still the better point guard. Bad trip.

There are other guys, Brent Abella was our most complete all-around guy, he almost played for Adamson if he hadn’t gotten hurt. Paul Padolina was a spitfire, trigger-happy three-point stop-and-popper that would be MVP if he played varsity in this age of Steph Curry basketball. Raymond Cajucom was a quiet, workhorse of an athlete. Leo Fornesa and I wore matching sneakers junior year and BL Lintao was there laughing at me when I got dunked on at the Nike Elite Camp right before graduation.

(I’ve boarded the plane now by the way, and have gone to the laptop to really get the word-per-second stats up. Still no take-off by the way. Runway traffic. More waiting.)

We didn’t have a lot of on-court memories of note. We were never champions of any of the big tournaments. We beat Ateneo once but had the W taken away because Mon wasn’t wearing the right shorts (still a punk move not letting us have that one, guys). We got into a fight against Don Bosco (whose alumni team I wound up playing for, I never studied there obviously, so please don’t snitch). Ato Batolado once rushed the court furious at me because his player Jelo Montecastro flopped and acted injured after I fouled him on a layup (dick move, Jelo).

Point is, our victories were on the bus on the way to games. On the train after when we insisted we’d all pass by the VCD places around Morayta before going home. Or that one time we gave La Salle Greenhills a scare, or when we beat CSA with their schoolmates watching (Yup. Those schoolmates). None of us went on to play big school college ball. And when we were in high school, most of us knew that already.

We knew what we had. We never took it for granted.

We were in it. The moments. We were never waiting to find out if others thought “we’d translate or not.”

The SLAM Rising Stars Classic exists to drive that same point home, for these, the 24 best young ballers in our hoop-crazy country. Many of them will go on and become household names, college stars, campus kings. Some of them will become franchise players as pros. Maybe a few will even play with PILIPINAS on their chest.

That’s for later. Too far away from here, from now, from last Sunday. That night, SLAM Philippines took pride in our collective effort to raise up these outstanding young men, their efforts, their skills, their talents, and help them say “Look at me now.”

Not next year, not for what I can be, not for who I remind you of. Me. Here. Now.

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The Gomez de Liano brothers. Double trouble. Juan, a tall PG seemingly with scope-assisted accuracy from distance; and Javi with exceptional size and an even more exceptional openness about his love for passing.

Ricci Rivero. This year’s human pogo stick. What a turn-your-head, drop-your-jaw kind of an athlete. He’ll get your attention with the dunks, but the length, the defense, the refusal to be denied on his way to the basket, all in one ultra-quick package.

Shaun Ildefonso. More than the son of his father. He had his fingerprints all over the early parts of the Classic. High IQ, sound fundamentals and an insistence on playing with the team and for the team.

Gian Mamuyac. The dark horse. Active, hungry, can guard and play 1 through 4. His energy had observers find out and remember his name. No hype going to the game, no scout unimpressed on the way home. Bless up.

Tyler Tio. Superstar status. Handles, vision, sharing and scoring. Tio showed at the Classic that he maybe, truly does have it all. Tall for his position, shifty, smart and unexpectedly tough as nails. Buckets? Dimes? You need it, he’s got it.

Nelle, Baltazar, Clemente, Concepcion, they all had their moments too. Except for the end. That one belonged to Aljun Melecio. Classic man. MVP. Dagger step-back three. To clinch the win. His poise, his control, and obviously, his clutch pedal, all culminating perfectly with a shot that we celebrated the moment it went in, because you play to celebrate the game being played today, for today. Not the one that mysteriously lurks in some dark corner in the future.

The point of all this – the contrast between an elite high school basketball team, and one that well, I was on, so you get the picture – is to hopefully paint the picture that sometimes, for many of us on the outside looking in, we do these kids the disservice of spending money nobody has on hand yet, or maybe never will.

Repeatedly we look past their current achievements, their daily struggles, their hourly workouts and homework and training and hormones and teenagerism (I know, not a word) and box them into what they could be, or who they should be like, or what they still can’t do at a college-level yet.

When really, we just gotta let them play.

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The way they did Sunday. It’s called a Classic because for those 24 kids, much like and at the same time nothing like my high school team, nights like those, games like those, they remember for what it is and what it is alone.

Years later I’m playing with the same teammates again, it’s an alumni league. We’re okay, maybe we’ll even make the Finals this year. We see each other on weekends, some guys bring the wives and kids and every single time, we talk about Mon’s wrong shorts at Ateneo, or the fight at Don Bosco, or the time I talked too much during a timeout Freddie Hubalde slammed the board and told me “Ikaw nalang kaya magcoach!”

Years later, Team Punks and Team Hype will gather around and talk about trying to get Ricci a dunk, or Mamuyac playing with Game 7 intensity, or Aljun going D’Angelo Ice-In-My-Veins with the dagger.

High school, a lot of the time, is when you’re told to wait. And that’s regardless of whether or not you’re an elite basketball player. If you’re lucky however, the same way I was, the same way the Rising Stars are, you get moments, you live in them, you stay in them, and you realize: nothing else matters.

Just this, just now. For always.

There’s no need to translate that.

Take off. Home soon. Don’t wait up.