Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Blindsided: Angelo Kouame and Life with his Filipino family

Blindsided: Angelo Kouame and Life with his Filipino family
by rick olivares

(Intro adapted from Michael Lewis’ opening monologue from The Blind Side)
There’s a moment of silence when a basketball play begins.
Players are in position and anything is possible.
Matt Nieto takes a pass from Chibueze Ikeh during the 14-second shot clock re-set.
Anton Asistio uses the Ikeh pick to get the ball above the three-point arc with La Salle’s Kib Montalbo on him.
Asistio uses another Ikeh pick to curl to the right then attack the baseline. La Salle center Ben Mbala helps out Montalbo on the hard show hoping to harry Asistio into a turnover.
Asistio doesn’t pick up his dribble along the baseline and manages to get away from Mbala and Montalbo. With a clear path to the basket, Ricci Rivero helps out. Ikeh rolls towards the basket and receives the pass.
A thunderous dunk ensues.
It’s 82-73 time down to 1:44 in Game 3 of the Season 80 UAAP Men’s Basketball Finals.
Ateneo goes on to win its ninth UAAP title (and 23rd overall counting the 14 it bagged in the NCAA).

In today’s basketball, more often than not, the best player is a team’s high-flying forward or hot-shooting swingman. But more often than not, any road to a championship has to come through its center; one who can not only score inside and out but also serve as a rim protector.

When Ateneo celebrated its ninth UAAP championship in December of 2017, Ikeh shared a joyful embrace with Angelo Kouame who was all set to take his place the next season. For much of Ikeh’s collegiate career with Ateneo, he was a quiet player who struggled under the enormous weight of expectations. However, in his final year in blue and white, he had matured enough, steeled himself enough to face the Ben Mbalas of this world and lead Ateneo to a championship.

Now, Kouame picked up the baton. And any road to a title – more so with former Perpetual Help Altas star center Bright Akhuetie in UP, Prince Orizu in Far Eastern University, and Papi Sarr manning the slot for the Adamson Falcons – it was up to the Kid to not only patrol the lane but to provide huge scoring sock inside for Ateneo.

He did and how.

Heading into the UAAP, Ateneo chalked up titles in the City Hoops Summer Classic, Filoil Flying V Preseason Cup, and the Breakdown Basketball Invitationals where Kouame picked up Most Valuable Player trophies in the latter two tourneys. Ateneo closed out its preseason with a sterling stint in the William Jones Cup. Then with all the pressure in the world, came back and annexed the UAAP title. And for his efforts, Kouame was feted the Rookie of the Year Award (some stupid quirk in the rules disallowed him to be named to the Mythical Five selection).

As the confetti rained down on the Ateneo Blue Eagles as they celebrated their 10th UAAP title, Kouame who reprised Ikeh’s heroics the previous title run, ran over to the stands where he hugged Raffy and Elline Veloso and their kids. To the casual onlooker, it might have seemed odd. But the Velosos aren’t just anyone. They are Kouame’s surrogate family in the Philippines.

In the book and film, The Blind Side, a friend of the story’s protagonist, Leigh Anne Tuohy, remarked that something was odd as in the traditional Tuohy family Christmas picture s there was this large black man sitting next to their white as snow family. “He’s my son,” proudly pronounced Leigh Anne of Michael Oher, who they adopted into their family.

“I feel we are almost in the same situation,” noted Elline of The Blind Side and her family’s “adopted son” in Angelo who will celebrate his second Christmas in the Philippines and with his foster family.

The Velosos are actually accidental foster parents.

When Angelo first arrived in the Philippines which is 13,760 kilometers away from his native Ivory Coast, he stayed at the Ateneo dorm (while going to Multiple Intelligence School also along Katipunan). Being new to the country, he was confronted by a strange new environment and culture. “I couldn’t speak a word and I was shy,” recalled Kouame of those early days with a toothy grin.

When Marty, the youngest of the Veloso children first came over to Ange during Ateneo Team B practice, it was because no one was talking to him. “I thought I’d say ‘hi,’” shared Marty.

Although there was a language barrier, the two exchanged pleasantries and engaged in small talk during practices. After Marty was finally able to visit Ateneo Team B practice after being sidelined for close to two months due to an injury, he bumped into Kouame who was a bit more talkative this time around, “Hey, what happened to you? Are you all right?”

“I think he picked up some English and Filipino words because he could now talk,” laughed Marty at the memory.

Like the scene in The Blind Side where Oher didn’t have a place to go after picking up scraps following a volleyball, there was a Team B game where everyone was leaving and Kouame didn’t know what to do or where to go. “How about him,” asked Marty to his parents. The Velosos brought Angelo along to eat with them eventually, it led to Angelo spending weekends at their home.

“We didn’t have a bed that could fit him,” said Marty’s father, Raffy, so he slept on a comforter. “The problem was, the next day, no one could open the door because Ange’s feet were blocking the door to the room.”

After that, we had to put him in a bed.

Yet were life as easy as blocking shots and doors, Ange struggled with understanding a strange new culture, coping with school and a heavy work load, and having to learn two different languages (English and Filipino) at the same time. It was because of these challenges that Kouame was painfully shy during those early months of 2016.

“I was also homesick,” admitted Angelo. “But I wanted to come over here so I had to make this work. My family over here (the Velosos) have really helped me in understanding my world now.”

When the Velosos go out for lunch or to the mall, people invariably stare with some venturing forth to ask questions or make statements. “The question we also get is, ‘how tall is he,’” said Gaby. “People don’t say it, but you know they want to ask, ‘why is he with us. What is the relationship?’ We are now used to being with Ange even if when we have to talk to him we have to look up.”

Added Ramy, the eldest child, “We have people saying, ‘Ah, he’s Andray Blatche’ or “Nakita ko na siya naglalaro sa NCAA’ and others. Now, people don’t guess, but they already know who he is – ‘Hey, that’s Ange Kouame! We want a picture.’”

And of course, there was basketball and all its challenges including players who liked to talk smack and get into his head. After one player said something particularly nasty to him, Ange’s comebacker – a funny one – quieted the other player.

Ange would oft seek Raffy’s advice. After all, Raffy is a former Ateneo player himself who won a UAAP Juniors title. His kids – Ramy, Gaby, and Marty have all donned the Ateneo jersey themselves making their advice indispensable. They talk before and after each game breaking it down – what he did right, wrong, and how he can improve on his game.

Following the vitriol of Game One of the Finals, Marty who the family lovingly calls “Coach” (for his constantly working on and providing advice to his African brother) told Ange, “Don’t focus on the crowd and enjoy the moment. Make it yours. Everyone has your back and get that championship. Be aggressive and control yourself, my brother.”

And Kouame did just that finishing with 22 points and 20 rebounds to help clinch Game Two and Ateneo’s 10th UAAP Men’s Basketball championship.

When Kouame ran to the stands to hug Raffy and Elline, it also helped answer a question the man of the house previously asked his wife. “We have always had visitors or guests staying over, but with Ange it was different,” pointed out Raffy. “I asked, ‘why is this happening? Why are we these foster family to this boy from another country?’”

After a joyous hug in the stands, following the final buzzer, Raffy finally had his answer: “I guess, it is to help this boy not only with his future but also to help Ateneo win a championship.”

The championship means a lot to the Veloso kids. For Marty who always dreamed of playing for the Blue Eagles, he told Angelo that he was living his dream for him and he couldn’t be happier. Gaby won championships while playing in high school, but come college, the Lady Eagles were hard-pressed to get a win. “Ange’s championship and happiness, is also my championship and my happiness,” smiled Gaby.

“When my kids got bigger, I asked if we could adopt a kid but they (her children) didn’t want,” revealed Elline. “Strangely, we now have one in Ange who is a sweet kid.”

“They are my parents here,” said Ange of Raffy and Elline. “I call them dad and mom.”

“It is flattering (of the affection Kouame shows his Filipino family),” sheepishly admitted Raffy. “When it comes to these events for the parents of the players, we are reluctant to be a part of it. We’d shy away as we felt we didn’t belong even among some the parents of the players (Jet Nieto, the father of the Nieto twins, and Jiggs Mendoza, the father of Jolo) who are my contemporaries). But Ange asked us to accompany him and it is important to him.”

Things are looking up for Kouame. With his impressive play and terrific attitude, there is talk of naturalizing him to play for the national team (it’s all talk so far but we are told this might happen soon). “I never thought that I’d experience all of this outside Ivory Coast,” said Kouame. “Before I came over, all I heard were negative things. But it is not true. I think this is a beautiful country. I feel blessed to have come over and experience all these things. I am thankful for all of this.”

Right now, after the rigors of a highly-pressurized basketball season, it’s time to confront a different set of challenges – school. And this Christmas, Ange will pack his bags for the Veloso’s home and perhaps join them for a trip out of town.

Jolas looks to the big MPBL clash between Bataan and San Juan

Jolas looks to the big MPBL clash between Bataan and San Juan
by rick olivares

By Monday’s end, the San Juan Knights and the Bataan Risers will part ways. Two of the best teams in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League clash in a huge match on Monday evening, December 10, at the Bataan People’s Center.

The Knights, riding the crest of a four-game win streak, post a 14-3 record while the home team, Bataan, sports a 14-1 record.

San Juan has a loaded line-up with Aaron Jeruta, the sweet-shooting guard out of Centro Escolar University, former Letran stud Jam Cortes, former Mapua Cardinal CJ Isit, former JRU Heavy Bomber Jordan Rios, former pros JM Wilson, Larry Rodriguez, and Mark Cardona.

“They have a good team but so do we,” pointed out Risers coach Jojo Lastimosa.  spoke about the game and its implications on the eve of the match. “My boys are up to the task and we play not because of our reputations but because we are a team.”

Bataan will be led by former pros (and Gilas Pilipinas player) Gary David, Robbie Celiz, Byron Villarias, and Pamboy Raymundo. There are current Gilas Cadets Vince Tolentino and Jayjay Alejandro, college standouts like former UST center Jeepy Faundo and Perpetual Help Alta Gab Daganon and their tough corps of forward-centers in Alfred Batino (a former teammate of Jeruta with the CEU Scorpions), Al Carlos, and Bernie Bregondo who has picked up his game.

“It is a big game. No doubt about it,” succinctly put the Philippine basketball great. “While we know San Juan is a top team, we prepare for them no differently from Bacoor or Gen San. I try to instill in my team that this team is a team we get up for and this team we can beat easily. No. We play everyone hard. We just need to beat and play everyone. I don’t want to place too much pressure on the boys. It is not a life and death situation as the Datu’s Cup is still a long way from done. It would be nice to get a win. But whatever happens after tonight, we move on and continue our march to get better and try to win a championship.”

The Risers are the hottest team in the MPBL with a record 14-match win streak in the young MPBL league. Is the pressure mounting for Bataan considering there is a streak to keep alive and they are playing at home?

“I always tell them the boys that we have no past, no accomplishments, and no trophies yet,” explained Lastimosa. “A win streak means nothing if you do not win a championship. It sounds good but we don’t want to be the answer to a trivia question about streaks. So the message I reiterate is, ‘focus on the now.’”

The match is one of the last two matches that Jeepy Faundo and Jayjay Alejandro will most likely play for the Risers as they are going to the upcoming PBA Draft. While Bataan will have Richard Escoto in uniform for his second game with the squad, they are hoping that Barkley Eboña will be cleared soon so he can play.”

“As of now, we are waiting for the UAAP Board to meet so we can secure the clearance for Eboña to play,” bared the Bataan coach. “We so not want to jeopardize his last year of eligibility for FEU in the UAAP so we do things by the book.”

“We are also hoping to add a third player after Escoto and Eboña. Although we expect the other Risers to step up in the place of Jayjay, it would be nice to get a bit more reinforcement,” summed up the coach. “We will finalize things soon.”

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Evolution of Jojo Lastimosa

The Evolution of Jojo Lastimosa
by rick olivares

I was in high school when a classmate of mine invited me to watch the Ateneo Blue Eagles play. At that time, I rarely saw the seniors squad and only watched the juniors squad especially my batchmates who played on the PAYA, PRADA, and UAAP Juniors teams of Ateneo.

That the UAAP games were played at the Loyola Center (now called Blue Eagle Gym) made it easier to watch. At that time, Jojo Lastimosa was playing for the Blue Eagles with a team that included Chot Reyes among others.

I didn’t know Jolas then but I quickly remembered him for his rim rattling dunks.

Yet watching him with Purefoods later on, I couldn’t help how he evolved from a flashy dunker to a more cerebral scorer; one who relied on crafty moves and a steady jump shot. Not his hops or athleticism although it was there. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall seeing him dunk in the pros.

Then when he hung up his sneakers, he was an assistant coach with the Alaska Aces and there was a time when I was covering that squad very closely and given a lot of access by then head coach Tim Cone.

The discussions of the coaching staff were fascinating. Jolas was vocal with his observations and ideas. He never struck me as the passive type. I told myself that this man is going to be a head coach somewhere. Then I saw him in the Jr. NBA program where I was impressed with his willingness to work with young kids.

Watching him join the coaching staff of FEU stings a bit when I feel he should be in Loyola Heights. But it is what it is. You go where the opportunities are.

Now with the Bataan Risers, I am immensely enjoying watching him grow as a coach. Here is a man with a lot of ideas and not just Xs and Os. Because of the long days without games for the Risers, Lastimosa is forced to improvise. I like how he has included some simple activities such as bowling and yoga into Bataan’s routine.

Said sharpshooter Byron Villarias, “Coach gives us players a lot of room to grow. Na-appreciate ko 'yan as a player. Yung atmosphere namin sa Risers are relaxed. Grabe yung support and gusto mo isukli yung binibigay sa ‘yo.”

Added Pamboy Raymundo, “Players’ coach yan si Coach Jolas. Gusto mo ibigay lahat sa kanya dahil sa tiwala niya sa ‘yo.”

Homegrown Bataan player Gio Espuelas is grateful for the opportunity. “Lahat ng player ginagamit niya. Malaking bagay sa amin yan.”

Right now, the Bataan Risers are at a league-best 14-1 and are riding the crest of a very impressive 14-game win streak (during that span, he also guided the NLEX Road Warriors to a win in the absence of Yeng Guiao who was on national team duty). When I asked Jolas about his current success, he admitted it wasn’t much. “A streak and a win doesn’t guarantee anything. The process is long and the goal is to get better and to compete for a championship. I have been around basketball too long to put my faith in these things. You have to work for everything.”

When he told me that, I thought back to the time back in 1988 when Lastimosa’s Purefoods team lost to Anejo in the conference finals (a teammate missed free throws that could have altered the finish). I bumped into Jolas at Unimart in Greenhills where he was buying groceries with his wife. This was the day after the loss and Lastimosa’s eyes were puffy from tears.

I walked up to him and consoled him and I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. “It hurts but the hurt and the tears are only good if you learn from them.”

It took Lastimosa two more seasons before he tasted success with Purefoods. And even then, he talked about the values of patience and hard work.

Now with Bataan, I see him channel his coaches – Baby Dalupan, Tim Cone, Joel Banal, and others. His ideas are a fusion of what he has learned and from his personal take on the game. Where he finishes this season with the Bataan Risers will be interesting to watch.