Any team would love to have Juan Gomez de Liaño.
Along with his older brother Javi, the 17-year-old swingman was a bright spot on the UP Junior Fighting Maroons, a team that hasn’t made the Final Four in a decade. They were both part of the UAAP Season 78 Mythical Five, and the following year, Juan won MVP behind 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. You’d think a young athlete of his achievements might transfer to a university that already dominates the league, or at the very least is a consistent contender.
But Juan is staying with UP.
Loyalty is a big factor here. See, Juan’s the kind of guy who roots for Russell Westbrook and the Brodie’s dance-with-the-one-that-brought-you stubbornness. “Loyalty is when you commit to something,” Juan says. “You follow through.”
When Juan steps onto the court with the Fighting Maroons, he won’t just be reuniting with Javi. He could be part of the resurgence of a struggling team. Juan has unfinished business, and he’s here to see it through.
‘I like underdog teams’
The Fighting Maroons went 5-9 last season to notch their best record since 2005. They even bested the season runners-up ADMU Blue Eagles once in the elimination round, and have secured the services of NCAA star Bright Akhuetie.
“Especially with Bright coming in, the team’s really building up,” says Juan. “He’s a really good guy. After practice we play 2-on-2 and he’s makulit—the first time I came to practice he was like, ‘so you the new guy, huh?’ and pushing me around before going, ‘nah, I’m just playing.’”
“I’d like to go to an underdog team. A team like UP, they’re in the bottom, but they’re on their way up,” Juan continues, adding that in spite of his individual awards, he’s never shaken that feeling of being an underdog himself.
Juan wants a team where he won’t be just another face in the lineup, where he’d have the chance to make a real impact. “For me, I would fit in the system. I’d be able to help a lot even if I’m still a rookie,” he says.
The birth of a competitor
For someone so invested in team loyalty, Juan got his start in individual sports. He had won medals in swimming before his father encouraged him to try basketball. Juan got into Ateneo’s basketball team in the fourth grade and never looked back.
However, you can still see how Juan’s time as a swimmer shaped his sense of competition and desire to always best himself. “Swimming is an individual sport so it’s all about individual awards,” Juan explains. “You’re relying on yourself. You don’t have help, so it’s all up to you.”
It’s that self-motivated spirit that’s gotten him through tough times. He had made the Batang Gilas Under-16 National Team, but when Juan and Javi tried out for the Under-18 team, neither of them made the cut.
“It was tough but I told myself, ‘I just have to work harder,’” he recalls. “It actually motivated me. That’s just how it is. You just need to get better.” A few months later, Juan was one of only two Filipino student athletes to join Steph Curry’s private Under Armour Camp in Taiwan.
“I knew I had classes but I didn’t mind skipping because I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he grins. “Just to see Steph Curry—that was such a motivation. He’d do drills with us and teach us. It really was a good experience for me.”
And the grind continues
With his high school years behind him, Juan has already set his goals for his college game. He isn’t going easy on himself.
“I want to improve everything. I don’t feel satisfied,” says Juan. “They say I’m a shooter, but I don’t feel like a shooter. I’m not yet there. I have to work on everything: dribbling, shooting, percentages, and staying consistent. I guess that’s the main thing, consistency.”
When he comes to the end of his career as a student athlete, Juan would like to be remembered well by both his teammates and rivals: “that I was a good teammate and a great competitor,” he says.
A UAAP championship is still the dream, and if Juan can win it with a team he loves? All the better.