Growing up in Kaohsiung: The ABL journey of Raymar Jose and Achie Iñigo

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“Saan niyo dadalhin yung tubig na yan?”

Raymar Jose and Achie Iñigo were making their way outside the Kaohsiung Municipal Senior High School. It was a relatively cold January evening in the Taiwan province and the two walked gingerly towards the exit. Their ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) team, the Kaohsiung Truth, had just suffered its fifth loss in its first six games. It was only the beginning of the season but it already looked like it was going to be a grueling one. And Jose, along with his 6’4″ frame, was carrying a whole pack of water bottles he took from the bench after the game.

“Iuuwi! Mahal tubig dito eh,” Iñigo answered with a huge grin.

For the next three and a half months, the former Far Eastern University standouts would live in Kaohsiung, a special municipality, located south of Taiwan. Kaohsiung is one of the country’s largest provinces with more than two million people living in it. In the Sanmin District where the Truth played their homes games inside the Kaohsiung Municipal Senior High School, the streets are filled with buses, motorcycles, hotels, dimsum stands, and a seemingly endless supply of milk tea stalls.

Jose and Iñigo resided in an apartment near the high school gym during their stay in Taiwan. The two lived alone, away from friends and family. They felt like overseas workers, toiling in a foreign land to make ends meet.

“Kami lang talaga magkasama dito,” Iñigo shared.

Jose and Iñigo signed with the Kaohsiung Truth back in December of 2016. The Truth was an ABL expansion team, joining the Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions as the first two teams who joined the league outside of the ASEAN region. When the two men got picked up by the Truth as Heritage Imports (reinforcements with Asian descent), they were overwhelmed with excitement. They were about to join their first professional league, and an international one to boot.

“Excited ako dito dahil sa competition,” Jose said last December. “Malalaki kasi mga kalaban dito.”

Both men arrived three games into the Truth’s season. Most Filipino fans were excited on the idea that two former Tamaraws would help an ABL team. After all, the two were experienced players, having played in the UAAP and the PBA D-League. They even won a UAAP championship in FEU just two years ago. Any team with a Raymar Jose and an Achie Iñigo would be a force to be reckoned with. Plus, the Truth were amped to get their first ABL season going. They believed they already had the tools necessary to compete in the tough league.

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But reality came down hard on the Truth, as well as to Jose and Iñigo. In their very first ABL game, they were on the wrong end of a record-breaking performance from Alab Pilipinas’ Ray Parks. The Truth lost to the Philippines, 93-87, and Parks erupted for 41 points, the most by a local in league history.

Iñigo had a quiet debut of four points on 2-for-8 shooting although he did have eight assists. As for Jose, even though he put up UAAP-like numbers of 12 points and seven rebounds, he was hampered by foul trouble the moment he stepped on the court. He only played 12 minutes in his first professional game.

“Nagulat ako kasi akala ko nasa UAAP pa rin ako,” Jose admitted after his debut. “Na-foul out kagad ako. Kailangan ko pa mag-improve kung gusto ko mag-stay sa court.”

But things never got easier for Jose and Iñigo, as well as the Truth. The team only won a total of two games by the end of January and never really found a winning momentum. It was one loss after the other. They would only win three more times as they ended the season with the worst record in the league, a 5-15 win-loss card.

The losing visibly took its toll on the former FEU stars. In the UAAP, they were kings of the court. They came from a winning tradition under Coach Nash Racela. They were in a successful system which had an insatiable appetite for winning. In Taiwan, things became much different. Jose and Iñigo were living in a different country, where losing was just one of many foreign things.

If they say winning trumps everything, then the reverse could be said about losing. In defeats, every little thing gets magnified. For the two young men trying to cope in the ABL, all the different factors from being away from home mattered.

“Nung una akala ko madali eh – na makapaglaro dito. Kasi syempre dami expectation,” Iñigo assessed, after the Truth ended their season last March 26, having failed to reach the ABL playoffs.

“Siguro pinaka-una yung pagka homesick,” he said, opening up about his personal struggles season. “Nung una realize ko after 2-3 weeks, malungkot na. Then minsan pag bad games or pangit training syempre may family ka, ‘okay lang yan, babawi ka naman.’ Eh ngayon wala eh. Syempre minsan busy sila, busy ako.”

Iñigo’s parents weren’t able to watch the Truth’s game, save for the very last one of the season. They mostly relied on YouTube and the occasional broadcast of ABS-CBN S+A, whenever the Truth battled Alab Pilipinas.

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Aside from being away for nearly three straight months, there was the rigorous travel schedule of the league.

The ABL had a total of six teams from six different countries for its 2016-2017 season. There was the aforementioned Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Philippines, but there were also teams hailing from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore. Each team had to battle an opponent a total of four times in the regular season, two at home and two on the road.

“Siguro yung surprises yung mga byahe,” said Iñigo. “Kasi akala ko yung mga byahe direct flight lang. Yun pala maraming lay over.”

To get to Kaohsiung from the Philippines for instance, you would have to get on a two-hour flight to the Taoyuan airport in Taiwanm and then follow it up with either a four-hour bus ride or a much more expensive two-hour trip via bullet train just to reach the province. If you don’t want land travel, you can catch a three and a half-hour flight to Malaysia and then take a separate flight to Kaohsiung. Traveling to the Truth’s home games is not easy for opposing teams.

ABL players are like NBA players in a sense that they have to take into account travel and weird sleeping patterns. Trips to other countries would often include red-hour flights, and tons of downtime, including eating in odd hours.

Then there was the basketball part of Achie and Raymar’s journey.

It is a well-known fact that the Chinese Taipei men’s national basketball team is no pushover in FIBA competition. Ranked 48 in the world, they are one of the best teams in Asia. In particular, Gilas Pilipinas is no stranger to Taiwan basketball having faced them multiple times throughout the years.  But in Kaohsiung, things are a little bit different.

“Yung unang training namin sobrang gulo talaga,” recalled Iñigo. “Sobrang gulo. Mismong kahit ball screen ‘di nila alam kung san pupunta. Talagang nar-rattle sila, tentative yung mga galaw.”

“Siguro mga basics kailangan pa mag-improve. Late na sila dito,” echoed Jose.

Both Jose and Iñigo were caught off guard with how they had to teach the basics in order for the team to be successful. Unlike the Philippines wherein every kid in a barangay knew how to do a head-and-shoulder drive for example, it was different for the Kaohsiung locals, where basketball wasn’t the number one sport. If a local Truth player would do a fake against an opponent, instead of driving in the other side to avoid the defense, often times he would still persist in going the wrong direction.

On the defensive end, the Truth were no better. For nearly all of its games, the Truth employed only one defensive strategy: the 2-3 zone. Through thick and thin, they stuck with it. Because they lacked the speed and athletic ability to defend one-on-one, the coaching staff believed in the zone for the entire 40 minutes of play. The strategy worked for certain stretches, but soon enough, the other teams caught up with their scheme. Opposing teams would counter with sound ball movement and dribble drives to find better options on offense. The Truth ended up being the league’s worst defensive team, allowing opponents to score almost 90 points a night, including nearly 50 percent from the field.

As for Jose and Iñigo, who were part of great defensive teams in FEU, they couldn’t fathom the idea of playing zone for an entire game. They knew they could shut down opponents single-handedly if they wanted to.

“Zone na naman!” Iñigo playfully shouted during warmups of a game in Singapore in late February as Jose could only shake his head.

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At any point during the long and tiring season, either Jose or Iñigo could have easily called it quits. They could have called up Coach Nash, the one who initially invited them to the ABL, and say that things were harder than expected. Worse, they could have called out the entire Truth organization and blame them for their losing record. They could have acted out and played villains.

But the two men, young as they were, placed in an unusual environment away from their peers, thought better. Instead of wallowing in defeat, they looked at their situation as a chance to help Kaohsiung basketball.

Throughout the season, Iñigo did his part by leading the stretching and plyometric workouts of the team.  He taught the guards about using screens set by their big men while also instructing when to help on the defensive end.  Same thing with Jose as he constantly gave advice to his teammates during warmups and shootarounds. The two have a rich knowledge in the game with their background in FEU and they shared it generously to their teammates.

“Yung mga natutunan ko kay coach Nash, coach Eric [Gonzales], sa lahat ng coaching staff sa FEU, in-apply ko lang dito,” beamed Iñigo.

When their ABL season ended last March, the two men reflected with earnest on their crash course in professional basketball with the Kaohsiung Truth. They came into the league, thinking they would just breeze right through it in their hopes of eventually making it into the PBA. But more than anything else, their short journey became a humbling learning experience.

“Masasabi ko dito malaking bagay sakin yung experience kasi mga nakakalaban iba’t ibang nation, mga import. Sana makatulong to sa pag punta ko sa draft,” said Jose.

“Siguro nagtiwala lang ako sa sarili ko, sa teammates ko na kaya ko naman pala. Kasi ASEAN Basketball League eh, talaga magagaling sa Asia mga kalaban mo,” Iñigo reflected. “Buti nag perform naman ako ng maganda. Di naman pangit yung makita ko. Di rin naman pangit yung attitude na pinakita ko sa team. Thankful ako and grateful ako na naging part ako ng Kaohsiung.”

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Now that their ABL season is over, the two look ahead into the future. They will begin their way back into Philippine basketball, whether it’s signing back with a PBA D-League team or in Jose’s case, applying for the PBA draft later this year.

In late March, Jose and Iñigo took the long journey from Kaohsiung all the way back to Manila. After nearly four months of traveling, eating dimsum and noodles, trying to understand Mandarin, and playing basketball, they’re finally back home.

“Pinaka nakatulong sakin, dito ako namulat na parang… dito ka matuto na sarili mo talaga,” Jose humbly said. “Di palaging pala na [pag] college ka, may mag-guide sa yo. Dito pala, mga bagay na ganito – ito yung magmumulat sa yo na papunta sa future ng buhay mo.”

Raymar Jose and Achie Iñigo’s four-month ABL journey essentially served liked an internship or a summer camp to adulthood. More than them improving their game, it also seemed that they also learned a lot about themselves.

Photos courtesy of the ASEAN Basketball League