Throwback Thursday: The Romeo Effect

This article originally appeared in SLAM 187

187-TERRENCE

I Used to hate Terrence Romeo’s swag, his inexplicable hairstyle , and his gunslinger game. Romeo’s thrilling evolution as a PBA Star has pushed all of that in the past.

By Jane Bracher

Terrence Romeo used to be someone that pissed me off.

As a student at the University of Santo Tomas, I witnessed the Far Eastern University guard punish the Growling Tigers with his insane, seemingly innate scoring ability every game. His unnecessarily long, unruly, yet incredibly bouncy hair (which was always tucked beneath a headband made of athletic tape during games) was easily the target of our mockery.

“Pwede naman siya magpagupit,” I would say.

“Parang pinapa-bounce niya pa talaga pag tumatakbo siya. Feel na feel niya ang gwapo niya,” one friend would chime in.

“Oo nga e. Buwakaw naman,” another friend would add.

Cue the inevitable discussion over Romeo’s apparent ball-hogging tendencies and his seemingly incurable allergy to passing the ball. We’d collectively agree with the majority of UAAP fans that Romeo was not much of a point guard, but more so a scoring prodigy that was the constant bane of our school teams. The Tamaraws may not have won a title with Romeo, but it still irked me each time my team lost against them.
All the effort of picking apart other aspects of this UAAP Most Valuable Player, finding faults in him, and making his hair quite popular by giving it the time of day were, in hindsight, weak attempts at masking the blunt truth that Terrence Romeo is good. In fact, he is more than good. He’s a spectacular basketball player.

I won’t lie, though. Romeo definitely has a long way to go before I’d be comfortable calling him a point guard. Still, it cannot be denied that the guy is an uncanny shooter and a scorer rolled into a light, speedy 5-foot-10 frame.

His type is rare; so unbelievably creative in finding ways to score, that it sometimes hurts his team. He fears nothing. So much so that he has the audacity to attack a 7-foot import and doesn’t care if he gets emphatically blocked. He does not even fear facing league veterans. He’d break your ankles with a nasty crossover even if you were Mark Caguioa, Jayson Castro or Paul Lee. He just doesn’t care what you think. He’ll just keep playing.

And much of that was not recognized – at least among spectators – during his days in the UAAP. Perhaps in those days, there was little appreciation for the technicalities and aesthetics of his style of basketball. Whatever he did, he was always the villain.

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A change in perspective

During his fourth and final year with FEU, coach Nash Racela wanted the battle-tested Romeo to see another side of the game he rarely, if not never, saw before. Racela wanted to unlock Romeo’s untapped potential. He wanted Romeo to explore uncharted territory, if you will. Racela wanted to see if FEU’s star player could facilitate more than score.

Romeo is such a huge threat, Racela believed, that teams would double-team him and would never sag on him and that was an advantage the Tamaraws could exploit. He explained to Romeo that if the talented guard attracted the defense, that would open up opportunities for reliable teammates to score. That would spread the floor. In turn, Romeo would find better chances to score his points too.

It was the perfect strategy because it made everybody happy. The Tamaraws would gain from Romeo’s capabilities as a passer and playmaker. At the same time they would still have him ready to score when they needed the points.

It should have been a win-win situation. But when the 76th season rolled along, it didn’t go as smoothly as everyone had hoped. The ploy worked several times, yes, but never consistently. Romeo would often be OG Romeo, playing the style of basketball that came naturally. Nobody could blame him for that, though. Not even Racela.

By this time, I was no longer a casual fan and was already covering the games as a reporter. I distinctly recall Racela never failing to praise Romeo each time he had a decent number of assists in a game. “Maganda, daming assists,” Racela would grin as everyone in the vicinity laughed. Sometimes, Romeo would be sitting right beside him. And he’d just smile at the remark.

I give credit to Romeo for trying and opening himself up to the idea. That, I think, brought a change in perspective for the young baller. It unleashed certain parts of his game. Undeniably, that adjustment made Romeo an even more valuable player.

I don’t know whether PBA teams accounted for Romeo’s attempts to distribute the ball by the time the 2013 Rookie Draft rolled around, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt his chances.

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A rookie finding his way

When Romeo opted out of his final year of collegiate basketball, he positioned himself well for a fresh start. The PBA is a new place to explore, a new environment to grow and learn from, but at the same time, it was also an entirely different environment. The fans could be more critical, the game far more cerebral and intricate, and an off-night means being held accountable for your team’s wins or loses. After getting drafted 5th overall by the Globalport Batang Pier, I would always hear conversations about how the hell Romeo would adjust to the PBA. He was 21 years old then, young, inexperienced, and with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

Many believed Romeo would never be allowed to do all the things he was allowed to do in the UAAP. He would have to learn to control himself. He would have to find a way to earn his place in the league by learning how to integrate himself with a system. And this time, there really are legitimate systems – ones that don’t revolve around him.

Those discussions were usually accompanied by smirks and scoffs, as most were certain he would be chained to the bench for being so free spirited. And if given playing time, he wasn’t expected to get the license to shoot the shots he wanted or was used to taking.

Then, Romeo’s first PBA game rolled along. Followed by his second. Then, his third game happened. And soon, everybody was either stunned, uncomfortable or just plain amazed that Romeo was actually given the green light to take the lead and do what he does best – score in whatever way possible.

Then Globalport interim coach Ritchie Ticzon did not hide the fact that he wanted to build the young squad around Romeo. Sol Mercado, who was still with Globalport then, acted as mentor to Romeo. Romeo was being groomed to be the franchise player, and Romeo, being true to himself, accepted that role.

For Romeo’s rookie year, he was taught how to spark and handle organized chaos. Ticzon gave him freedom, but also direction. It was like the delicate art of unleashing and reining in a Calvin Abueva. Romeo stumbled through his rookie year, notching career-highs, helping Globalport to the playoffs, but he likewise made a ton of mistakes. Some were more costly than others. And of course, the haters and critics still thrived – and they were arguably much harsher than they were in the UAAP.

Through the many ups and downs of Romeo’s rookie year, my personal favorite moment was when he finally got a decent haircut. Who knows? Maybe this was the turning point of my growing respect for Romeo.

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Finally, some appreciation

When the 40th season and Romeo’s second year came, he looked different. Literally.

He lost weight, grew leaner, and put on some muscle. Specifically he shed 25 pounds. Asked how he did it, Romeo said consuming less rice paved the way. Asked why he made the transformation, Romeo said it was because he wanted to have stronger knees that can tirelessly carry him throughout a full game. He wanted to move better with a lighter build, and improve his stamina.

But it wasn’t just his weight that changed. Each time Romeo took the court, he seemed like he had a better grasp of his role as a cornerstone player. In the 2015 Commissioner’s Cup, Romeo is playing on a different level, performing superbly as one of the top 5 players in scoring so far.

I know something changed. How do I know? Watching him play was no longer as annoying. Not just because he was no longer assaulting my college team. I believe people are starting to look at him differently. Maybe without anyone ever really noticing, he has earned the respect of his fellow PBA players, even the respect of his critics, and the fans.

In his sophomore year, Romeo finally earned some appreciation. By scoring 30 points against the best players in the league, he won the 2015 PBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player award. I wasn’t there in Palawan, but I saw from the live broadcast how well loved Romeo was. He made a splash during the Three-point Shootout and he was slicing and dicing all over the place in the Rookies vs Sophomores game eventually finishing with 50 points. By the time his name was called in the All-Star Game, I could see and hear the crowd’s eagerness. Fans wondered: what will this crazy scorer do today?

The moment Romeo’s hands touched the ball towards the end of the opening quarter, the crowd started screaming as he drove for a nifty lay-up – complete with a behind-the-back dribble. It didn’t go in, but he still grabbed everyone’s attention. That’s practically a 180-degree turnaround since his days in college. Everyone is suddenly cheering him on.Of course his All-Star Game MVP award was a huge debate because of Abueva’s far superior numbers. Still, Romeo’s stock improved in Palawan. I’m not sure if it’s because of his growing ability to play within a system, or his developing knack for finding open teammates. Or maybe, just maybe, nowadays, he’s just too damn good not to like.

Which strangely makes him infuriating to some. Like one fan might say, “Siya yung tipo ng player na naiinis ka na sa kanya, but you can’t help na magalingan sa kanya kasi kahit yung imposibleng shot napapasok niya pa rin.”

That’s probably the best way to describe him. He will annoy you with his angas. He will tick you off with his yabang. He will beat your favorite team. He will embarrass your favorite player. You can probably hate everything about him, but you can never dispute the fact that Terrence Romeo the PBA star has mad game.

In less than two years in the PBA, Romeo surprised me and many others. Sure, we all still cringe when his position is declared as point guard. He could forever be the subject of “buwaya” and “buwakaw” memes. But this iteration of Terrence Romeo is impossible to ignore. Believe it. This is just the beginning. Romeo is learning. Time and experience will teach him everything else.One day, that All-Star Game MVP trophy will turn into a Best Player of the Conference trophy or perhaps even a season MVP trophy. I honestly believe that. Why? Because Terrence Romeo used to piss me off. Not anymore.

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