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, May 21, 2007

Jobe’s Ladder

Mean Streets
He lives in Cervini Hall, the men’s dorm inside Ateneo, right now. But every now and then he goes home to Sampaloc, Manila which will always be home to him. In the moments between catching up with relatives, friends, and neighbors, Jobe Sherwin Nkemakolam, all 6’3” of him looks up at the sky and dreams.

The Galicia area of Sampaloc is clean now; the local Kagawads having cleaned up the drug and gang-infested neighborhood. But when he was a kid, Jobe ran with the neighborhood kids and pretty much got involved with all the rowdiness. There were two things that stuck with him during those formative years and shaped him as a person: one was the color of his skin, and the other, the love of family.

Born of a Nigerian father and a Filipina mother, Jobe literally stood out from the rest. His height and his dark-skin color made him impossible to miss. For a while there, he thought he’d become a boxer because that’s all he did – fight. “I did well enough in my elementary years,” recalls Jobe. “But I fell short of honors because I was always getting into fights.” As he got older, Jobe’s friends would leave him out of their gang fights because he was easy to recognize and it made getting even easier for rival gangs.

That was fine with his grandmother, Soledad Eleria, and his uncles Ben Carino and Joey Eleria, who helped raise him and constantly reminded that the only way out of their poverty was staying away from trouble and getting an education. Although he stayed away from the crazy stuff that his friends were smoking and getting into trouble for, Jobe finally woke up from the stupor of teenage angst when a friend was literally shot and killed right before his eyes.

And then he remembered his dream of wanting to go to America where people would also accept him for the color of his skin.

The Breaks of the Game
Basketball. Given his height, it was a sport he naturally gravitated towards easily. He performed reasonably well with the RP Youth Team and soon had for an audience coaches, scouts, and managers of the country’s top colleges.
After one game he found himself in front of one of Ateneo’s scouts and Fr. Carmelo Caluag who was then working out of the university’s alumni office. The story is nothing new. All the other schools dangled monthly salaries and other perks, but Ateneo’s offer intrigued him.

“They were interested in me as a person,” recalls Jobe of that moment that would change his life. “Basketball is what got me to the Ateneo. But Ateneo is going to help me meet the challenges of the outside world.”

When he decided that he was going to Ateneo, some coaches, including one who played for the school’s arch-rival yet mentored another university, made one last pitch to land the services of this emerging force in the paint. “Kilala ka namin,” said the coach. “Hindi ba bobo ka? Paano mo kakayanin yung Ateneo, eh, mahirap doon?”

The words stung and still burn to this very day.

At an early age, Jobe Nkemakolam was exposed to so much adversity. He had to bear with the taunts of “sino ang tatay mo” and “negro.” They were always hard up but his mother, Beverly, who works in the Forensic Department of the National Bureau of Investigation, his grandmother and uncles and some family friends like the Madrigals, Yapyucos, and Medialdeas, found ways to make ends meet.

His Uncle Joey worked as an extra hand on a ship for a measly P5,000 a month. But his attitude towards his meager work status and pay was this is only temporary, it’s just a stepping stone. And his uncle did move up the ranks and eventually earned and saved enough to move out of Galicia and put up his own house.

That made a huge impression on young Jobe and he looked forward to helping Ateneo win another basketball championship as a stepping stone to providing for his family and proving all his detractors wrong.

Jobe cracked the Blue Eagles’ 2004 line-up. Although the year is more remembered as Larry Fonacier’s aborted last flight and the subsequent crash in the Final Four, Jobe remembers it only for the eight minutes he played all season long. Eight minutes.

Epiphany in the Outfield
He understands it now, the benching, but back then, he felt disillusioned and betrayed. He gained weight and fell out of shape and tendonitis wore down his knees and told on his game. As a result, he was cut from the line-up the succeeding year. For a while Jobe considered transferring to another school, but instead opted to concentrate on his studies.

In that time away from the team, he was served grim reminders of the realities facing him. His mother is older and suffers from diabetes. He sought the advice of the coach that he hoped to play for at the time of his recruitment, Joel Banal.

“I told Jobe to reflect on what happened and why he was unhappy,” says Banal who helped steer Ateneo to its third UAAP basketball crown in 2002. “Things happen for a reason and when bad things happen, it’s all about how we respond to it and the choices we make.”

The elevation of Zion Laterre from Ateneo Team B inspired him to once more take up basketball. Armed with a newfound optimism, Nkemakolam slimmed down and got into playing shape. And when he took to the floor as a starter for Ateneo’s first game in the on-going Fil-Oil Pre-Season Tournament against De La Salle, he felt happy and excited all over again. In five games thus far, Jobe has been averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.

His mother has to fight back the tears when she watches her son play. She feels proud and clips the papers when her son’s name appears in the game accounts.

And Jobe, the eldest of five children is happy now. He’s back in the Blue Eagles line-up and he has his confidence back. Plus, his younger brother Romiko, will be suiting up for the National University Juniors team in the coming season. “This is going to be an eventful year,” smiles Jobe. “I can feel it in my bones. But after college, hopefully I can play in the PBL and if I’m really lucky, in the PBA so I can earn money to pay for my sibling’s education and for my mom’s health bills.”

Now he has another opportunity to make his dreams come true.

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