Let's talk balls.
Mr Libog treat my self and my wife to lunch over the weekend.
As is the usual practice, talk at our table centered mainly around basketball, specifically recruitment.
"Malapit na Fil Oil ah," he stated, referring to the Fil Oil-Flying V Premiere Cup, the summer basketball tournament organized by the local petroleum company that bears the same name.
I nodded, knowing this tournament would begin after the Holy Week, so it was only about a week or two away.
"Sino mga bago natin?" he inquired, referring to who the new players might be on our varsity roster.
I shrugged. Apart from transfer student Gab Reyes, and two players who failed to make the last season's regular roster for different reasons, I actually had no clue who any of our new talent (if any) there might be.
I told him about Reyes, and the other two guys: Tyler Tio and Gian Mamuyac. He was of course familiar with all three, since we had followed their developments even as far back as their high school days. I said they were doing well in the offseason tournaments like the Fr Martin Cup and the Milcu Got Skills Challenge Cup.
He didn't sound too impressed. "That's it?"
"So what we have is an athletic forward who Lord only knows has been doing what the last couple of years we haven't heard a thing from him, a guy who should have been lined up last season were it not for paperwork that had nothing to do with his game, and another guy who we both agreed should have been lined up ahead of at least three other guys who didn't actually do shit for us last season. Would that be accurate?"
I nodded again. Although I did add that at least we're getting three guys who aren't total greenhorns and who could come in and play right away within the system of the team and the coach, which is always valuable.
"Valuable, yes, but doesn't guarantee us a title does it?" he asked, rhetorically as usual.
My wife was busy putting fried rice, squid heads, beef, broccoli, tofu, and clams on our plates while we were engrossed in our little discussion. It pays to marry the right woman, I tell you. She will make sure you can keep enjoying a good meal without having to skip a beat in your in-depth basketball conversation.
I said that with Reyes, Tio, Mamuyac we would have a better perimeter now, that can provide firepower, defense, experience, and much-needed speed.
"I hardly think Tyler and Gab will provide speed, only Gian is a natural runner in that bunch. You are correct though that Tyler can provide additional firepower, Gab too, because Gab I think is a better shooter than Thirdy Ravena. But then again Gab might be what, in his fourth year in college by now, dapat lang naman sigurong gumagawa na siya, athletic naman siya, may pukol, sa edad niya dapat lang naman kaya na niya gumawa. So once again we have to thank Lasalle for another guy they couldn't use, because now he gets to play in a blue uniform," he expounded.
"Alam mo totoong tanong diyan: ano ba ginagawa nung mga tao na dapat naghahanap ng talent para sa team? Bakit pa sila pinapasweldo? Troy Mallilin hindi nakuha. Justin Baltazar hindi nakuha. Ricci Rivero hindi nakuha. Aljun Melecio hindi nakuha. Lahat ng mga players na gusto ko, 'yun ang mga hindi nila nakuha. Wala na ngang clearance na kailangan, wala na ngang residency, hindi pa din natin sila nakuha."
"So sino-sino ba mga nakuha natin? Mga good students? Kung good students kailangan natin huwag na natin padala sa US ang team tuwing summer, magtayo na lang sila ng separate scholarship fund specifically for good students who make the basketball team. OK lang naman kung ganun ang gusto nila eh, pero pupusta ko lahat ng yaman ko, never mananalo ng UAAP championship ang team na good students ang lahat ng players. No way," he declared.
So was he saying we would have a losing season?
"Far from it, I think we will return to the Finals at the very least, where once again our problem will be how to match up against (Benoit) Mbala. Sino pantatapat natin sa kanya, sina (Chibuezee) Ikeh at George (Go) na naman? Hindi porke nakapalag tayo kahit papano last year ganun-ganun lang magagawa natin ulit 'yon this year."
"We can be thankful na wala na si Jeron (Teng), and he really is a big loss for them, kasi hindi ganun kadali replace ang scoring at veteran leadership niya. Kaya lang papano kung mag-step up naman sina Baltazar, Ricci (Rivero), Melecio, makabalik din ng maganda 'yung Gboy Gob, or maka-contribute right away 'yung Troy (Mallilin), talented players lahat ang mga 'yon ha."
"Pero sabihin na lang natin na lahat nung mga locals nila hindi gumawa as expected, andiyan pa din si Mbala eh, at 'yon walang katapat sa buong liga. So papano na tayo niyan?"
(Continued from the previous)
"May mga cases kasi talaga na ang galing-galing nung high school player pero it turns out he's just older than the kids he plays against, at nabibisto din naman siya pagdating pa lang niya ng Seniors," Mr Libog exclaimed.
I then recalled that a coach from a well-known high school basketball program actually admitted to me something that has long been making the rounds in local high school basketball: Yes, he admitted, when a recruit comes to their program, and that recruit is either just the right age or a little younger for his curriculum year, they make him repeat a curriculum year and max out his age eligibility for junior division play.
He went on to explain that this wasn't done willy-nilly, that there were practical reasons for doing so: First, their program wanted to maximize the recruit's available playing years, especially if he is a transfer who has to sit out a year to establish residency anyway. Let's say a recruit already finished Grade 8 in his previous school, and he was only say 13 years old, or a little young for a Grade 8 student. When he goes to their program, they talk the recruit into repeating Grade 8, and make that repeat year his residency year. That way they will still have the recruit for four playing years, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. By the time he is in his last year of junior ball he will already be 18, in this given case. There were even times they made recruits repeat two years if they were really young.
Second, they recognized early on that a player who is older than average in junior ball can more easily take on younger players, even if those younger players are objectively more athletic and more talented than he is. Forget about the difference between a 17-year old and an 18-year old; imagine instead the difference between a 15-year old and a 17-year old. Only in the rarest of cases can a younger player whip an older player at the high school level.
Third, there is of course that adjustment period needed for a player to get used to more organized, more regimented basketball, especially if he came from an unstructured or barely structured background, like say if he came from the countryside and there really wasn't a regular varsity tournament where he comes from. It'll take at least a year even for the most talented and smartest high school player to get used to a more rigorous system than the one he was used to.
The bottom line, the coach therefore emphasized, is that it makes sense to use older players in high school basketball, just so long as you do not break the rules. If the rules of your tournament allow you to play high school ball up to age 19, then the perfect team, as far as this coach goes, is one where all of the players are 19, or at least half of them are 19 and the other half are 17 to 18. Pit them even against a team of sky walking, slam dunking, running and gunning younger players, and he will put even money on his older team every time.
"Diyan na lumalabas nga 'yung big question: Kapag nakakaita ka ng player sa Juniors na obvious naman sa itsura pa lang na mas matanda kesa sa mga kalaban niya, at nilalamon niya mga kalaban niya, hindi ba dapat lang naman ganun ang mangyari? So maybe what we are looking at is not an elite player who will be a sure PBA star in the future. Maybe what we are really looking at is nothing more than an older kid beating the shit out of younger kids, in a manner of speaking of course," expounded Mr Libog.
"Bigyan kita ng example. You remember when we went to watch Rey Nambatac mga six or seven years ago sa Buddha Care? Sino 'yung nakaagaw sa pansin natin? Kilala mo 'yon," he inquired.
It took me a few seconds. "Si (Koko) Pingoy?" I asked-answered.
"Correct. Si Nambatac ang pinuntahan natin, pero nakaagaw ng pansin natin si Pingoy. Guess who's older sa kanilang dalawa?" he asked.
"Si Pingoy?" I asked-answered again.
"Si Nambatac, by about a year. Pareho silang born 1994, pero Nambatac was January, Pingoy was December, pero parehong 1994," he said.
"So magkaedad lang pala sila technically speaking, mas matanda pa nga si Rey," I said.
"Correct. Coincidence kaya na silang dalawa 'yung pinakamagaling sa respective teams nila at that time? At that time they were both around 18, or sa case ni Pingoy pushing 18 na din siya," he said.
"So nung nag-champion ang Letran under Ayo, legit 21 na si Rey. Nung time naman na nag-champion sa Fr Martin ang Team B ng Ateneo, 'yung first championship nila dun sa Trinity, turning 20 na din si Pingoy, and take note may mga imports siya that time," he added.
I pointed out that Joma Adornado was on that title team too, as was Mikey Cabahug and a then under-residency Ponso Gotladera.
"Yes they were. And how old were all of those
There is an old saying, "age doesn't matter", which means that age does not necessarily have to factor in to the philosophical and practical matters of life. We of course do not necessarily mean here things such as age restrictions on marriage and family relations, voting and suffrage, etc.
With that out of the way, we go back to my favorite interlocutor, and source of many a good meal on him, Mr Libog.
In our most recent lunch together with Snorgy at one of our favorite Chinese restaurants, his topic for the day was none other than age and talent, particularly in high school basketball.
"Hindi ba naglaro ka ng PAYA Juniors nung high school ka? Umabot ka ba ng UAAP?" he asked.
I shook my head and answered in the negative.
"Bakit, hindi ka ba nag-try out?" he asked further.
I explained that I tried twice and failed twice, in my junior and senior years in high school. I said that if in my senior year I still wasn't good enough to make the UAAP team then I'll simply never be good enough, ever. Heck, a few guys from lower batches were just having their way with me during the tryouts, and I was even playing Ginebra-level dirty just to have a chance, and it still didn't work.
"Ayun pala. Pero nag-try out ka ba ever nung freshman and sophomore years mo?"
I said I never bothered back then, simply because I knew there was just no way I was going to beat out the older, tougher players already on the team or trying out. As an example, I said Richie Ticzon and Rico Santiago were both just a year ahead of me, and those two had to wait their turn to make the UAAP team. What bloody chance did I have?
"That's what I'm trying to point out with this whole (Encho) Serrano (of Adamson high school) mess that was recently dug up," he said. "Ang mahirap sa Juniors kapag pineke ang edad ng isang player hindi mo malaman tuloy kung magaling ba talaga siya or magulang lang?"
"Isipin mo na lang, kunwari 16 years old ka, kalaban mo 19, kahit na sabihin mo pang mas matangkad 'yung 16-year old, sa gulang nung 19-year old at the very least mahihirapan sumabay 'yung mas bata. Ilan beses ko na kayang nakita na 6-2 na payat na 16-year old kinakaya ng isang 5-10 na 19-year old sa high school."
Just as a background, ABS CBN came out with an online article last week that stated that some questions had arisen regarding the true age of their star player, 5-9 guard Encho Serrano. Serrano had led his Adamson Baby Falcons to a pristine 7-0 sweep of the first round of eliminations in UAAP Season 79's junior division, and he emerged as the leading MVP contender in the high school ranks.
Serrano may be a totally new entity to most UAAP junior division fans, but Mr Libog and I already saw him in action about a year and a half ago in both the Buddha Care tournament and the Fil Oil summer league. Serrano at that time was still with the Mapua Red Robins of the NCAA, although he never got to see action in the NCAA tournament proper.
Serrano, Rob Junsay, and Mike Enriquez formed a heck of a backcourt for the Red Robins and even beat Jolo Mendoza, Gian mamuyac, and the rest of the mighty Ateneo Blue Eaglets in the Buddha Care semifinals. Mr Libog and I liked him but didn't exactly love him the way we did with the likes of Mark Cruz, Roi Sumang, and Jio Jalalon. The reason? Serrano is like a smaller Bong Alvarez, likes to jump over everything, doesn't really show much in terms of talent or skill, just has a stud body.
Then he dropped off the radar and I didn't even hear his name in the NCAA Juniors.
Then he pops up in Adamson. It never even occurred to me to look him up when the news articles for the UAAP Juniors was all about how strong Adamson had suddenly become behind this newcomer named Serrano. Mr Libog texted me that it was the same Serrano we saw with Mapua.
And now we have this little controversy as to Serrano's eligibility, centering on his true age.
"Alam mo bang tatlong taon tumigil ng school si Serrano bago napunta sa Mapua?" he said. "So that's three missing years, tapos siempre nag-residency pa siya for Adamson, so one more year 'yan. Assume natin he stopped schooling at age 13, plus three years na out of school siya, plus one year residency, so he should be 18 now at least. Ina-assume pa natin na 13 lang siya nung tumigil siya ha. Malay natin baka naman 14 or 15 na siya nung tumigil siya, tapos naka-residency na din siya ng one year sa Mapua. Ako ang estimate ko he's probably legit 19 by now."
If he is 19 then he can still play in the UAAP Juniors, because the rule, as far as I know, is that you can play up to age 19.
"Assume na nga natin na sa edad pwede pa naman siya maglaro, ang actual tanong ko is magaling ba talaga si Serrano or matanda lang for a high school
With half the UAAP basketball season done, Mr Libog and I were having one of our regular dinner sessions and he was, as usual, being his loquacious self.
"Bakit kaya parang ang hina ng UAAP ngayon (Season 79?" he asked.
I wondered what he meant, although I had some inkling.
"Tignan mo up to last year, nandun pa si Kev (Kevin Ferrer of UST), (Ed) Daquioag, Karim (Abdul), andun pa si Phenom (Kiefer Ravena of the Ateneo), sa FEU sina (Mac) Belo, (Mike) Tolomia, (Russell) Escoto, kahit si (Roger) Pogoy, andun din siempre si Jeron (Teng of Lasalle). Bakit parang wala ng mga ganyan ngayon?"
I said we have Ben Mbala this year, an elite talent if ever there was one, and Mr Libog agreed, saying Mbala is "the best import to ever play in college basketball."
I also mentioned Adamson rookie Jerrick Ahanmisi, who at the end of the first round of eliminations was among the league leaders in scoring and three-point shooting.
"Magaling nga si Ahanmisi, kahit rookie pa lang siya. Pero aside from him and Mbala and Teng, sino pa ba mga kasinggaling nung mga players last year?"
Very interesting indeed. Could this group of players now, in Season 79, be the weakest field in recent memory?
Again, I am not quite into the number crunching, so I don't think I'll be able to give a quantitative answer to that question. And of course the question of "magaling" carries with it a lot of subjectivity, i.e. an elite talent for one guy may not necessarily be an elite talent for another guy.
Mr Libog of course is very simplistic in his approach. "Mahirap bang makita kung magaling ang isang player or hindi? I don't think so; it is not rocket science," he said in between bites of a well-fired pomfret and some "noble vegetables" that looked suspiciously like local kangkong.
"May nahanap akong Bonbon Custodio dati, may Roi Sumang, sinabi ko din na big mistake na hindi kunin si Mark Cruz dati pa nung college pa lang siya, tapos ngayon andiyan si Harvey (Pagsanjan) sa Hope Christian. Sinsabi ko sa'yo, hindi naman mahirap makita kung magaling ang player or hindi. Isa, dalawang minuto pa lang ng laro, takbo pa lang, minsan lakad pa lang, alam mo na kung magaling ang player or hindi."
This reminds me of a book I love by Pat Conroy, "The Great Santini", in which one of the characters is a high school boy named Ben Meecham, a varsity star. Ben described good players as having "the walk", that indication just with his stride and gait if he was already a good player or not. Ben had seen "the walk" in the streets of Baltimore and the Capital, when his father, a Marine fighter pilot, had been assigned in Washington DC.
"Kapag nanunuod ako ngayon nakakatamad, kasi meron lang isang saksakan ng lakas na team, ang Lasalle, tapos the rest parang wala lang, parang ganun kahina talaga ang field ngayon," he said.
I told him Mbala was something like 20-plus points ahead of the second-running player in the MVP race. That got him going even more.
"Kita mo na. Ganun kalakas 'yung Lasalle this year. They have the best import ever, tapos mahina pa ang field. Alam mo kahit nung time nung 5-Peat ng Ateneo, never ko naramdaman na ganun kahina ang the rest of the field."
He had a point. In the first of the Ateneo's five straight UAAP championships in 2008, Lasalle still had JV Casio and Rico Maeirhofer, FEU had Marc Barroca, JR Cawaling, Reil Cervantes, Aldrech Ramos, UE had Pari Llagas, Elmer Espiritu, Ken Acibar, Paul Lee wasn't even a star yet back then. UST was only two years removed from their 2006 title, and still had an MVP-level Jervy Cruz, with Dylan Ababou, Badong Canlas, Alein Maliksi. In other words, that most certainly was not a weak field.
All throughout that 5-Peat, when everybody and his brother were just dying to have someone knock the Ateneo off its perch, there were legitimate contenders who had a chance. That might not necessarily be the case now.
"Huwag na tayo maglokohan, the truth is that there is nobody who can challenge Lasalle this year, period," he said, this time already tackling a dessert that looked suspiciously like cold taho.
"Sino ba may enough talent na talunin ang Lasalle? Hindi 'yung chambang talo ha, na parang nung 1997 (1996, I corrected him) nung umulan ng tres para sa Ateneo at tinambakan nila Lasalle team nila Telan, huwag ganun. I mean a real chance, na alam mo kahit papano may ipapalag sila. Wala naman 'di ba?"
We have the national team coach who knows how to beat Iran, said I.
He almost choked on his taho (quite a feat in itself) with that one. "Tinalo na nga kayo ni Bo Perasol eh! Wasn't that the same Bo Perasol na sinabi niyo bano, walang alam, hindi makapanalo with a talent like Phenom? O ayan, tinalo kayo. Anong national team, national
Can you imagine that? In Black's six trips to the UAAP Finals, only Pido Jarencio, at that time a rookie coach to boot, beat him for the championship. Yet I'm sure even the most diehard Jarencio fans would never say that Jarencio > Black as a coach. In his 5-Peat title reign, only Lawrence Chongson of UE, hardly mentioned as among the paradigms of great coaches, beat Black (by a big margin at that) in a game in the UAAP Finals. Again, I'm sure no one would ever say Chongson > Black as a coach.
The point I am trying to make is not to sing praises about the greatness of Black, or Tommy Manotoc, or Franz Pumaren, or Louie Alas, or the late Ron Jacobs. Many people, much greater than I, have already done that.
Instead, what I submit is that, perhaps there really is no such thing as great coaches, so much as there are great talents put together on great rosters.
Think about it. With the possible exception of Brown and Detroit versus the Lakers in 2004, and Ayo this season in the NCAA versus San Beda, the more talented rosters with the more talented players in aggregate, have won championship battles. And even in these two instances, the talent Brown and Ayo had respectively was nothing to sneeze at.
Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the Wallace boys were all star-level players, who had always been dependable, consistent producers on whatever team they were on. Ben Wallace was not much of a scorer, but his defense and board work were all star caliber, almost Dennis Rodman-like.
Mark Cruz outplayed the more fancied Baser Amer in the NCAA Finals, using speed and a quicker pull-up. Running with Rey Nambatac and Kevin Racal, and even McJour Luib and Jomar Sollano, Ayo's boys proved to be the match-up from hell for the Red Lions who relied almost exclusively on their size and power advantage with 6-8 import Ola Adeogun and 6-4 forward Arthur Dela Cruz.
Yes, a good coach would know how to maximize the talent he inherits from a predecessor, and then build his own roster over time. But again, it is not necessarily about just grabbing every all star available (see Jail Blazers of previous entries). It takes maybe two or three superstars, and a bunch of interchangeable, hardworking role players. Black did that first with Rabeh Al-Hussaini, Nonoy Baclao, and Chris Tiu. Later on he had Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Kiefer Ravena. Pumaren had Don Allado, Renren Ritualo, and Mike Cortez. Koy Banal and later on Bert Flores leaned on Arwind Santos and Mark Isip, with Denok Miranda and later on Jonas Villanueva.
It does not necessarily come down to brilliance in the X and O, so much as brilliance in recognizing what will work best, and then building your roster to achieve that. Coaching becomes easier when you have the elite talent making your favored system working. "Maghanap ka ng magagaling na players, para dumali ang trabaho mo. Isipin mo naman, papano kung ang sentro mo 6-1, na may katabaan, mahina tumalon, mabagal. Kesehodang may good fundamentals 'yan, lalamunin 'yan ng 6-5 na atleta na malakas, kahit hindi magsing-ganda fundamentals nila. Matuturo mo pa skills eh, pano punwesto sa box out, pano mag-ball denial, pano mag-hook shot. Anong turo gagawin mo para maging five seconds or less ang baseline to baseline? Anong turo gagawin mo para maging 36 inches ang vertical ng isang player na 12 inches lang ang kaya?" expounded one longtime UAAP assistant coach and scout.
I recall how Koy Banal, then the FEU head coach, discovered Arwind Santos. FEU went to Pampanga to take part in goodwill games. They played a Pampanga street ball team that featured the wiry Santos. He promptly made mincemeat of Leo Avenido, at that time the FEU star and one of the best players in the UAAP. Santos, a pedicab driver, without any formal, structured training and coaching, made mincemeat of Avenido, a well-trained UAAP star. Did Banal become less of a coach because he could find no solution for a natural talent like Santos? Santos is now a bona fide PBA superstar and an MVP. Does anyone even know what has become of Avenido?
Eric Altamirano was a champion coach last year. This year he lost two of his starters, and his chief backup at center, and he went 7-7, barely making the Final 4. He was hailed as a genius last season. Has he suddenly become a fool this season?
Juno Sauler was a champion coach two seasons ago. Again, he lost a lot of key personnel, and he went 6-8 this season, not even making the Final 4. Was he a genius two seasons ago and suddenly a fool now?
Black's Meralco squad is the worst team in the onging PBA conference. Are we to hold this conference as the ultimate judgement of Black's entire coaching career?
Baldwin, Pumaren, Ayo are in the UAAP. Will they automatically be three of the Final 4? I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.