COLUMN: A (Filipino) sports dream
It is the dream of every young male to play for the top sports leagues in the world -- the NBA, English Premier League, Serie A, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and so forth. However, because of the limited rosters, many toil in semi-pro or minor leagues. Some choose another career altogether; as they say, “get a real job”.
There has become another option, especially for those with Third World roots. Due to immigration, those with mixed blood sometimes go back to one of their parents’ homeland to try their bit of luck there. Because of their better training and mixed genes, these athletes more often than not find success overseas. But that two has become an increasingly more difficult path.
This is the story of two young men: one whose dream it was to play in the Philippine Basketball Association; while the other hoped to latch on to a United Football League Division One club.
When life gets in the way
Jerome Adolfo Rubi was born 27 years ago in Sampaloc, Manila. By the age of nine, Jerome and his two older siblings joined his parents in San Fernando Valley, California. Rubi did very well there where he averaged a 3.5 GPA.
Rubi only played intramural basketball while at Cal State University-Northridge but it was while playing in the Fil-Am leagues in the West Coast that he began to dream about going back to the Philippines to play professional basketball. The game began to become not only a dream but also an escape.
During his teen years, life became very difficult as his parents struggled with finances (his youngest sister was born in the United States). Life became untenable and eventually Rubi’s parents got divorced.
"When I went to Cal State, I didn’t have support for tuition, recalled Rubi. “I worked as a security guard to earn some money while trying to balance a full college load. It was tough.”
“I played basketball and never stopped. I was like a masochist,” he explained. “I can take pain from the workouts and all the training. But that is easier to deal with than the reality of home which is much harder.”
Daniel Anthony Gonzales, 24, is half-Filipino. His mother is from Honduras, while his father is an American of Filipino heritage. Gonzales graduated from Virginia Polytech Institute and State University (or “Virginia Tech” for short) where he took up Music Technology and Vocal Performance.
Gonzales was always into sports with American football and soccer as his favorites. But soccer took a backseat to singing and the gridiron. And like Rubi, Gonzales participated in intramural tournaments and summer leagues.
But their lives would take a turn by watching some sports events and a message on the internet.
While working at a computer engineering internship at Virginia Tech, Gonzales was passing time surfing the internet to look at soccer in different countries and how it was set up. Recounted Gonzales: “I searched England, Spain and the USA to see each country’s professional tiers (England has like 20 something). I then typed in 'Honduras,' as my mother is from Honduras, but there wasn’t much information on it, especially in English. I then tried 'Football and Philippines,' and stumbled upon a blog called filipinofootball.blogspot.com. From there, I found a link to Rick Olivares’ blog and began to religiously follow anything he wrote.”
By chance, this was around the time when the sportswriter was writing scathing articles about the Philippine Football Federation’s misuse of the funds coming from FIFA.
“I had made some contact with Rick and Mike Limpag, a blogger from Cebu, about the state of a 'professional' league and what that life would be like,” expounded Gonzales. “Rick made it pretty clear, it wasn’t very feasible yet. But the fact that a random football aficionado across the world answered some of my questions about a childhood dream gave me some glimmer of hope.”
Gonzales decided to come over after watching the Azkals in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup. “I was sitting alone in my apartment at 5 a.m. glued to the TV frantically switching through different streams as they went down, but nothing can explain the pride and joy I felt for my heritage than when we upset Vietnam. Growing up, our family was not exposed to either heritage of my parents. My mother moved over early in her life, and my father was born in California. It wasn’t until going to college I joined the Filipino-American Student Association in which I learned tons of my Filipino history. But when we won that game, right there, ‘I’ felt like a part of the ‘we.’”
Coincidentally, Rubi also stumbled upon the sportswriter’s blog and his PBA articles around the same time. “I was searching for ideas and people to help me as I thought about coming to the Philippines,” wrote Rubi. “My mother and I wanted to speak with someone we trusted and he was the one that was humble and was interested in helping while all the others would talk about was how much cash we were going to pay them.”
Rubi arrived in August 2011 and the sportswriter was able to get him inside to the FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup matches that were held in Manila at that time. He also put him in touch with sports agent Charlie Dy.
Now all both Rubi and Gonzales was land a roster spot.
Finding one’s legs
The young PBA hopeful tried out for D-League teams Blackwater, PC Gilmore, Café France and Big Chill, to name a few, but was unable to get a contract. Eventually, Rubi found a spot on Sta. Lucia’s farm clubs where Buddy Encarnado “adopted” the Fil-American.
“I was essentially alone. I had no agent because I could not afford to pay for one. My mother had stopped helping me out financially because she was putting up some new condos so I was alone. Tito Buddy came up huge and I will be forever grateful,” Rubi said.
If Rubi was without family, Gonzales stayed with some relatives in Project 4, Quezon City. “I hadn’t seen or talked to them since I was 11 but they were kind enough to put up with me,” recalled the Virginia native.
Limpag, in the meantime, put him in touch in Vanni Tolentino, the former coach of Sunken Garden FC in the UFL’s Division Two.
“Coach said it would be in my best interest to get in shape for the March transfer window as I was quite out of shape. However, he did see my knowledge of the game, and those intangibles were on display in a couple of friendlies,” Gonzales said.
“We started with solo trainings at UP Diliman. The UP oval became an integral part of my workout. A couple of weeks later, I joined a WFL club, Manila FC and played five or six practice games with them.”
In order to work himself into shape, Gonzales would, on occasion, practice in the morning with the Ateneo men’s football team, then train at the Sunken Garden in the afternoon. He’d complete his workout hat trick by heading over to the Turf at the Bonifacio Global City to play with whoever was there.
Gonzales’ hard work eventually paid off as it led to tryouts with Kaya, Loyola, Green Archers United, Union, Team Socceroo and Navy.
Lows and highs
Socceroo and Union made offers but Gonzales chose to try his luck with Navy which was still in the UFL’s Division One at that time.
Rubi, in the meantime, could not latch on to any D-League team. He began to lose weight as he fell from 185 pounds to 168 pounds because of his peso-pinching.
“At first, the tryouts were going smooth but I received no feedback from any coaches. I just kept trying out over and over. After awhile, to earn my keep, I began to play bet-basketball and commercial basketball in the streets and villages and towns around Metro Manila and Luzon. I’ve even played for money to play in a tournament in Baguio City. Wherever and whenever just to earn money,” Rubi recalled.
Gonzales, on the other hand, didn’t collect a single centavo even if he made the roster of a UFL team. “I received a hand-me-down jersey from a player that was cut, and directions to show up to practice every day at 7 a.m.,” he said.
It all came to fruition when Gonzales found himself with a chance to score a goal against top UFL side Global.
Recounted Gonzales: “We were tied 1-1. One of our strikers scored a wondergoal against Jerome Etoundi from 40 yards out. It was around the 65th minute. Global was pressing on a corner with nine men, leaving one defender back.
"I finally got to sub in five minutes earlier as that striker, Steven Burda, injured his calf on the shot.
"I knocked the ball up to one of our two strikers to the middle of the field. He then played it wide to our other striker on the right. I was sprinting up into attack on the left. The striker on the right baited in the center back and then passed it back over to me 40 yards from goal. There was nooo one around me.
"Everything slowed down. This is it. This is what every single step, practice, shot, and goal I had scored was coming to.
"All the laps around UP.
"All the miles from my birthplace.
"It all just hit me in a flash like that. Jerome started to come out, but then started back pedaling around the 15-yard mark. When he started the back pedal, I knew I had him.
"I took the shot and placed it in the left lower corner. As he was backpedaling, he tried to dive, but it got by his hand.
"I never actually saw it go in, but I knew it did. I turned down the sideline to the crowd and the Global bench and put my hand on my ear and sprinted down the sideline to the half field mark
"My teammates all jumped on me as I looked for the few friends I had made along the way that were watching.
"They waved and I saluted back.
"It was awesome.”
Gonzales’ goal level the score at 2-2 but Global went on to score a late goal to win, 3-2.
While Gonzales had a modicum of success on the pitch, Rubi found himself as a practice player for several more D-League teams. Despite playing the guard position, he would be asked to guard the forwards and the center. He never complained but he felt bad because he never really got to show what he could do.
"One coach (who will not be named) asked if I tried out anywhere else. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he told me, he said, maybe the reason why I couldn’t get a slot was the coaches didn’t like my style of play. He asked about my plan and I responded that all I wanted to get exposure and play. He finally said, 'Baka hindi ka nakuha kasi madami kang tattoos.'"
The writing was on the wall for both of them.
The grim reality
“I never got paid a cent from Navy,” said Gonzales. “For me, it was just a jersey, practice and time to show up. But I think when I started making (very little) money coaching kids with Socceroo or for references, I began to appreciate the opportunity I had to play top-flight soccer. But It just was such a letdown knowing that this wasn't going to be sustainable. And since I was on a visa, I wasn't allowed to do any contracted work. So once those two facts were solidified, I knew I had to go home.”
It was the same for Rubi. He waited for feedback from coaches but heard nothing. “Any word would have been fine,” divulged Rubi, who in spite of the constant hardship never lost hope. “At least I know where I stand.”
Last April, after nearly two years in the Philippines, Rubi packed his bags and returned to the United States.
Gonzales left on October 8, 2012, 10 months after he first arrived for his shot at the UFL.
“That (goal) can never be taken away from me. Obviously I would love to have played more. But in that time, I had tangible results to show my friends home. It was on Twitter, on FB, on TV during the highlights, someone took a video of the whole game and got it too," Gonzales said.
"But in my heart, I knew I had finally fulfilled a life goal, I had made potential into something greater. I laughed at all the coaches that cut me, at all the players more talented and gave it away due to drugs or anything else.
"I did it because of heart.
"I got to line up against the Younghusband brothers (in a match). I got to score against Ed Sacapaño in a tournament in Baguio. And I scored in the top league in the Philippines.”
Gonzales is back in Virginia where he has a 9-to-5 job. He still reads about what goes on back in the Philippines.
As for Rubi, he is back in California where he currently plays in an organized league in Glendale. He’s also preparing to try out with an Asean Basketball League team while working part-time at the Mt. Sinai Surgery Center.
“Tito Buddy has this saying, ‘A man is weak if he gives up the struggle.’ And I haven’t given up on my dream,” he said.