Saturday, June 2, 2007

LA Tenorio joins the PBA

This is something I wrote for the Ateneo website and was the conclusion of the LA Tenorio Story that took me a long time to finish. I accomapnied the Tenorio's that day all the way from those hours before the PBA Draft until the day's end.

Day of Days
Arthur Tenorio couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned and got up several times to relieve himself. He badly wanted to get some sleep and maybe dream. But then again, the reality staring at him and his family was so much better. Except that it was excruciatingly nerve-wracking.

In a few hours time it would be daybreak and they’d make the trip to Market! Market! in Global City for the 2006 PBA Rookie Draft. His son, his pride and joy, Lewis Alfred Tenorio was on the verge of making good on a dream that quite a few years ago seemed a bit far-fetched. His son was going to be a PBA player!

He silently laughed at his situation. In years past, he’d smile and tell his fellow parents (who all became close during the Joe Lipa years all the way to the 2002 title run and up to today) to take it easy come draft day. He recalled Romeo Gonzalez who nervously walked back and forth until his son Wesley’s name was called by Commissioner Noli Eala as the newest member of Fed Ex. He recalled the face of Rudy Alvarez whose face was ashen and betrayed the concern in his mind. What if his son Rich was not drafted? Even when Rich was announced as the over-all number one draft pick by the Shell Turbochargers, Alvarez’ expression remained the same except for the fact that he was no longer troubled – he was in a state of disbelief.

And now it was Arthur Tenorio’s turn.

The trip from the Tenorio’s Burgundy Place condo unit to Market! Market! took 22 minutes on a traffic-less Sunday noon. The stress was so palpable that one could feel it inside the Tenorio’s family car. “Noong na-draft si Rico parang sobrang tagal – parang ang tagal bago tinawag yung pangalan niya,” recounted Lumeng Tenorio, LA’s mother. “Tapos yung kay Larry last year, ganun din. Kahit sabihin mo na gusto si LA ng San Miguel hangga’t hindi natatawag yung pangalan niya ay hindi kami mauubusan ng nerbyos.” Mrs. Tenorio says that LA’s college teammate Rico Villanueva would have been there for his buddy had he not been in his honeymoon. After all, he knows what the draft is all about. But they’d have plenty of support that day. The families of LA’s college teammates would all be there in force to show support in one of the biggest days in LA Tenorio’s life.

Tenorio was already a shoo-in for a top pick. In fact, after the end of his fourth year, the San Miguel Beermen made serious overtures about his joining the team. It was a dream come true for LA who followed the Beermen because of his idol Hector Calma who he watched as a kid. The Beermen also had Olsen Racela, one-time star point guard for Ateneo who was the cornerstone for the franchise’s second dynasty. Management saw in Tenorio a worthy successor to Racela who signified his intention of hanging up his sneakers in the near future. As much as the offer to turn pro was enticing, LA wanted to lead his Blue Eagles back to the promised land of UAAP cage glory. “Hindi mo mapilit si LA na mag-pro noon,” recalled his father. “Sinseryoso niya yung loyalty niya sa Ateneo.”

Ah… the blue and white. It’s ironic when some quarters still lay claim that he is from San Beda when LA spent only two years with the Cubs. In contrast, he spent five years with the Blue Eagles. After he hung up his dress blues from UAAP play, he was still a fixture in the team’s games. More so this Season 69 when the team took a 7-0 unblemished slate heading into Draft Day. “Bakit naman kasi pinagsabay yung draft sa game ng Ateneo,” said the draft hopeful. While he was physically present that afternoon at Market! Market! in Taguig somehow his thoughts never strayed too far from his former teammates who were going for win #8.

In Ateneo’s seventh straight against Adamson, LA stood up and fretted. This team never played so many nail-bitters that he was afraid he’d get an ulcer. “Ganito pala pag nakaupo,” said LA who smiled at the irony of it. When he was on the court, he felt no fear no matter how big the game was. That’s how focused he was. But in the stands as a fan, now this was a decidedly different animal. “Pero mahal ko talaga Ateneo. Second family ko na yan next to mine.”

The family took two separate cars: one for his parents and siblings and one for him and his old friend and long-time backcourt mate, Magnum Membrere. “Parang mali yata yung diskarte namin,” wondered LA. “Pareho kaming nerbyos tapos nagmamaneho. Pero nakakatuwa how it’s all worked out.”

Downhill from Hill
“Parang mas gusto ko nasa basketball court,” mumbled LA as he fidgeted and scratched his nape for the umpteenth time. It was March 2006 and he wore a different shade of blue except it was for a graduation toga.

Although he was close to being a nervous wreck, he was plainly joyous. Grinning from ear to ear, he babbled on to anyone who would listen. His classmates and batchmates went up to him to shake his hand. What made him feel even better about it was that they congratulated him not for his feats on the basketball court, but in the classroom. Graduation Day from Ateneo De Manila was here.

In the audience, Lumeng Tenorio couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks. It would have been obvious had not other mothers been fighting back joyous tears of their own for their own children. It was five years ago when her son first came to the Ateneo as a nervous and overly sensitive child who was both thrilled to be playing for Ateneo yet at the same time fearful that he didn’t belong. She recalled the two things the school offered her son when others offered the moon. The first had been achieved in his sophomore year – a UAAP championship. The second had been much harder but it was all worthwhile. The diploma stated that Lewis Alfred Tenorio had graduated from the Ateneo De Manila and that was worth its weight in gold.

As her son went up to the stage to receive his diploma (the audience erupted in cheers), Lumeng Tenorio whispered a silent prayer of thanks to the Almighty, Fr. Tito Caluag and Arben Santos who helped bring her son to Loyola Heights. Mission accomplished, Fr. Tito, she silently said to herself. Mission accomplished.

LA too choked back the tears. The last five years had been the most eventful in his young life. He uttered a silent prayer to God to thank Him for the blessings that had given him and his family much hope. And for the first time, he was glad that there were no TV cameras to follow him around or else they would have caught him at a very unguarded and vulnerable moment.

Today the diploma is mounted on a frame and hung on the wall in his ever-growing trophy case. Right above all his basketball awards.

Last Flight
After losing the UAAP title to FEU in 2003, the Blue Eagles were still pretty much loaded for a serious title run or two. 2004 will always go down as one of the Blue Eagles’ most memorable runs even if they didn’t win the championship. After losing Larry Fonacier to an ACL injury in the season’s third game, the team instead of collapsing went on a tear and swept the first round.

In the emotional first game after Fonacier went down, LA sank the game-winning basket against Adamson just as the buzzer sounded. He would go on to hit another game winner against FEU but little did anyone know that would be the last great moment of the season.

They began the second round against a rising UE Red Warriors squad. Now mentored by Dindo Pumaren, the Recto-based squad operated an offense predicated on quick cuts to the basket as anchored by the speedy Marcy Arellano (who would go on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year Award). The Warriors likewise operated a high pressure full court press that created more scoring opportunities for the team.

Unknown to many, LA played sick. His lackluster play eventually told on the team and they went on to lose their first game of the season. They would bounce back but the loss opened the cracks in the Blue Eagles’ armor as they began to struggle in their games. It didn’t help that longtime nemesis De La Salle (got their revenge after being shut out by Ateneo in the last two years) eliminated the Blue and White in humiliating fashion.

Tenorio spent the off-season mulling the decision to turn pro. In many ways, his staying or going was the subject of more online fora and YM chatter than who Ateneo’s new recruits for Season 68 would be.

While at the opening of the Futures Basketball League (a league that is beginning to rival the SBP Tournament) at Blue Eagle Gym, the Tenorios showed up to support the younger LA. Said Lumeng Tenorio during the tournament opening, “Kung ako ang masusunod, mag-pro na si LA. Masyado na siyang nabubugbog. Nakakatakot na.”

The younger Lambert who tremendously idolizes his kuya dribbled a basketball between his legs while intently listening to his mother’s feelings about the matter. He hoped that his kuya would play for Ateneo one more time because he thought he’d never get a chance to do it again.

Just then, the older LA walked over dressed in a neatly pressed Nike golf shirt. “Ma, naman,” he cooed. “Maglalaro pa ako.”

Mrs. Tenorio threw up her hands in mock surrender. “Talagang maka-Ateneo yang anak ko. Ano pa magagawa ko?”

But first up was a stint in the PBL with Ateneo Addict Mobile. They had a powerhouse line-up on paper. They not only landed the NCAA’s reigning Rookie of the Year-MVP in Gabby Espinas but they had the rebounding demon from San Sebastian Nurjamjam Alfad, Espinas’ PCU Dolphin mates Jason Castro and Rob Sanz, San Beda hotshot Jenkins Messina, NU center Rey Mendoza, and ex-pro Rob Johnson. Blue Eagle teammates Paolo Bugia, JC Intal, Doug Kramer, and Magnum Membrere rounded out the squad.

But a disappointing opening day loss to La Salle-ICTSI set the tone for a forgettable season. Unable to get its bearings despite the talent in its line-up, Ateneo Addict Mobile was soundly beaten and bowed out of the competition. There were memorable wins for sure such as the win against Letran-Toyota Otis which had gangly but effective center Mark Andaya, but for the most part, Ateneo Addict Mobile’s PBL season was a disaster.

The losses began to gnaw at Tenorio. As much as he wanted to play, the losses somewhat sapped his enthusiasm. When Norman black was announced as the 35th Head Coach in Blue Eagle history it was more than enough reason for LA to play out his final year. LA surmised that there was a lot to be learned from the multi-titled coach who was about to get his feet wet in the collegiate game.

Despite Ateneo’s pro-style offense, the blue and whites struggled early on. But in the middle of the first round, things began to click as Ateneo uncorked a blistering win skein that was only halted by UST late in the second round. The loss was critical as it meant that Ateneo had to win its remaining games if it wanted the crucial twice-to-beat advantage that was accorded to the top two seeds. Although they did beat an Arwind Santos-led Tamaraws team, they fell to La Salle once more thus giving the Green Archers the twice-to-beat advantage in the play-offs. With time running out on their final’s aspirations, the Blue Eagles’ last ditch rally badly fizzled out when LA was permanently sent to the bench on account of cramps.

Over a quiet dinner with a few supporters, school officials, and family at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center after a Mass at the Church of the Gesu, University President Benvienido Nebres S.J. put his hand on the forlorn King Eagle’s shoulders and said, “We know you gave us your best, and that’s all we ever asked. And everybody knows that. All your hard work will bear fruit. God has a plan.” LA nodded and embraced Fr. Nebres.

Several months later, LA Tenorio led Harbour Centre Port Masters to the PBL Unity Cup title. It was a run reminiscent of the Houston Rockets’ NBA championship drive in 1995 as Harbour Centre which teetered on the brink in the first round of the eliminations with a 2-4 record suddenly found its groove and finished with an even 6-6 slate. From the quarterfinals, the Port Masters of Coach Jorge Gallent waylaid teams with better records and seedings – Granny Goose, MontaƱa Pawnshop, and Toyota-Otis in the finals in the most amazing run by any low seeded team in PBL history. Tenorio was voted Finals Most Valuable Player boosting his stock for the coming PBA Draft. It was a brilliant ending to a sterling amateur career, and LA was pumped up for the new challenges that awaited him.

Forty-seven draft hopefuls were quartered in an air-conditioned waiting room. Yet somehow, it seemed hot for all inside as they wiped the sweat from their brows. LA sat next to Membrere where they replied to well-wishers’ text messages that came in non-stop. After a bit, LA decided to stop replying because his palms got real sweaty and he couldn’t type in the right words to say.

At 3:14 in the afternoon, Philippine Basketball Association Commissioner Noli Eala’s voice boomed and called out Fil-Am Kelley Williams as the first pick of the draft by the Sta. Lucia Realtors. Thus ended another vexing question as to who the former self-proclaimed and proudly homegrown team’s pick (the year before, they picked Fil-Am Alex Cabagnot) would be. A pair of former UAAP foes and National Teammates Arwind Santos (Air21 Express) and Joseph Yeo (Coca Cola Tigers) were called out as the #2 & #3 picks when Commissioner Eala announced… “With the fourth pick in the draft… San Miguel picks LA Tenorio…”

LA was numbed to the congratulatory slaps on his back by his fellow draft mates. But he managed to get to the podium where his mother tearfully greeted him. When his mom finally loosened her suffocating grip, LA said to himself, ‘wag kang matisod as he was greeted by new SMB Coach (and fellow Atenean) Chot Reyes, Assistant Coach Avelino “Samboy” Lim, and new teammates Brandon Cablay and Danny Ildefonso.

As he slipped on the red Beermen jacket, he finally allowed himself a smile as the journey was now complete. Along with Coach Chot Reyes and Olsen Racela, they have turned the winning SMB franchise into Ateneo point guard central.

In the post-draft picture taking, former DLSU rival Mark Cardona, now plying his unorthodox game with the Talk N Text Phone Pals made his way towards Tenorio to congratulate him. Said a smiling Captain Hook, “Maraming paiiyakin ‘to sa PBA gamit ng cross-over at step-back shot niya.”

Over at Nasugbu, Batangas, the Tenorio’s kin and townsfolk watched the delayed telecast of the PBA Rookie Draft proceedings. They had already found out earlier that LA had been taken by San Miguel Beer (as expected) with the fourth pick. The wonders of texting and cellular technology you know. But they still wanted to see it for themselves about how a local boy had made good and made their seaside town proud.

By the sandlot where the young LA Tenorio once played and snapped many a pair of spartan slippers time and again much to his mother’s dismay, young kids played way past their supper time. They launched step back three-point shots and twisting reverse lay-ups. They played make believe and dreamt of someday donning the blue and white. After all, they’ve just been shown the way.

Author’s Note:
I first met LA Tenorio the summer before his first season as a Blue Eagle at a party for my nephew who would go on to be the team mascot in 2001. I struck up a conversation with LA and we spent the afternoon chatting. We have since become friends and remained in touch even during my long stay out of the country. However it was during a talk with backcourt mate Magnum Membrere that the idea of writing LA’s story first came about.

Thank you so much to the Tenorio family for letting me into their lives and opening their hearts and minds in getting this done. Thanks too to Fr. Tito Caluag, Arben Santos, the coaching staff of the Blue Eagles, its players and former foes for their thoughts and kind words.

Animo Ateneo!

1 comment:

  1. alright!!! nice blog rick!! will link you up with mine and rss your site. :)