He was supposed to be the future of Philippine basketball. A 6-foot-9 center with mad hops and a feathery touch from mid-range. A second-generation basketball player who would become a stalwart for the Philippine national team for at least the next decade.
That was what Japeth Aguilar was supposed to be when he first burst onto the Philippine basketball scene in 2004. Almost 10 years and many letdowns later, we’re still waiting for Japeth to live up to his potential and physical gifts.
College in Katipunan and Kentucky
When he was recruited by Norman Black to play for the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles, it was seen by many as a coup for the team from Katipunan.
After winning the UAAP title in 2002, Ateneo was banking on Aguilar to be the next great Blue Eagle to bring them back to the promised land. He was a phenom who dunked with aggression on the offensive end and blocked shots with ease on defense.
But after two years playing for the Hail Mary squad with no championships to show, Aguilar suddenly decided he wanted to try to ply his wares in the US.
After trying out for several Division I NCAA schools, Aguilar landed on the bench of Western Kentucky University. The Hilltoppers are not quite on the level of the North Carolinas, Dukes, Michigan States, and UConns of college basketball. Yet Japeth couldn’t even crack the regular rotation, only earning playing time during blowouts.
Playing more at shooting guard and small forward, he began to develop a more consistent outside shot though it meant taking away from the development of his post-up game.
No. 1 draft pick
When his time at Western Kentucky ended, Aguilar returned to the Philippines to play for Coach Yeng Guiao and the Powerade-Team Pilipinas that participated in the 2009 FIBA-Asia Championships.
Hardly used at the tournament held in Tianjin, China, Aguilar still merited attention as the PBA annual draft drew near. This would provide, however, another instance to show his indecisiveness and stubbornness.
The Burger King Whoppers (also coached by Guiao) had the first pick overall and were dead set on choosing Aguilar. Yet the mercurial forward spurned the advances of the Whoppers and declared he would not pay for them even if the team drafted him.
Stating he would join the Smart-Gilas Pilpinas team instead of allowing the Whoppers to draft him, Aguilar was threatened with severe sanctions by the PBA, including possibly being banned from the league. It took the intervention of Talk ‘N Text head honcho Manny V. Pangilinan to resolve the issue, with Japeth playing one game for Burger King, getting traded to the Tropang Texters, then being released to Smart-Gilas.
After his two-year stint with Smart-Gilas and Coach Rajko Toroman, Aguilar finally played his first season with the powerhouse Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters. A loaded roster filled with veterans like Jimmy Alapag, Kelly Williams, Ranidel de Ocampo, Jayson Castro, Larry Fonacier, Jared Dillinger, Ryan Reyes and Ali Peek meant Aguilar would have to earn his minutes in Coach Chot Reyes’ rotation.
Averaging approximately 20 minutes per contest, Aguilar was often counted on to provide scoring punch off the bench, particularly through his nasty dunks. The Texters went on to win the 2010-2011 Philippine Cup but were shut out of the next two PBA conference Finals series.
Once again, Japeth took his talents to the US, boldly stating his intentions of becoming the first Filipino-born player to make it to the NBA. Basically carrying the hopes and dreams of every Filipino on his shoulders, Aguilar’s attempt was met with both admiration and derision locally, as many questioned why someone who wasn’t even the best player on his PBA team would make such an attempt.
Yet the die was cast, and there would seem to be no turning back for him. Attending workouts for the NBA Developmental League’s Bakersfield Jam, he was evaluated by several NBA scouts who noted his natural skills but questions arose regarding his inner drive to be better.
By November 2, 2012, Japeth Aguilar had become the first Filipino ever drafted by the NBA D-League, joining the Santa Cruz Warriors. After surviving two cuts though, he was cut from the roster.
Throughout his attempt at making it to the NBA, Talk ‘N Text management, including outgoing coach Chot Reyes and incoming coach Norman Black, declared support for Aguilar and reiterated that he would still have a spot on the team should he choose to return.
Black, Aguilar’s former coach at the Ateneo, said he knew how best to maximize Aguilar’s tantalizing talents, and that even with a loaded TNT line-up, there was room for him.
It was thus a shocker for TNT and the rest of this basketball-loving country when Aguilar announced that he was willing to return to the PBA, provided he was traded from the Texters. Infuriating now-Gilas-Pilipinas coach Reyes, the mentor used Twitter to tell Aguilar that playing time was earned and not demanded.
With TNT still holding his rights, Japeth was poised to join a team fresh off a dominant 4-0 sweep of the 2012-2013 PBA Philippine Cup Finals, as well as a reunion with Black. Instead, he has seemingly burned bridges with a team that took a risk by trading for him in the first place, and whose rotation he couldn’t crack on a consistent basis.
For all of Aguilar’s god-given talents and height, so has he consistently tried to wiggle his way out of any situation that he feels he has no control over.
Declaring a desire to be the first Pinoy in the NBA, most of us threw our support behind him, even though it was painfully clear that he lacked the mental toughness and strength of character to match his physical stature.
All the whining, bellyaching and halfhearted attempts, whether in the Philippines or the US, have shown an immature boy, not the “savior of Philippine basketball” despite all our wishes. Such a shame.