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, June 25, 2007

The Deepest Cut

There was a sickening knot developing in his stomach. Jeff De Guzman had a feeling he was going to get cut from the final line-up of the varsity team. Not that he was playing bad. Unlike pro basketball where line-ups are more or less determined by skill, contracts, or even trades, in college basketball… there are many deciding factors to consider.

In the summer of 2003, Jeff De Guzman followed his teammates from San Beda high school to try and gain a slot with the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles who just won the coveted Men’s Basketball championship the year before. His Red Cubs team was no slouch themselves having won the NCAA juniors title against Letran. And now his teammates juniors MVP Claiford Arao, guards Yuri Escueta and Arvin Braganza, and forwards Mike Baldos and Jay Agbayani presented themselves to then-Ateneo coach Joel Banal. It was the last large defection of players from the Benedictine school’s famed juniors hoops program to another school. In the succeeding years, they would be able to keep players like Ogie Menor and Jay-R Taganas in red and white.

The only player promised a slot on the team was Arao. Agbayani moved on to UP while the rest of the team went to Ateneo and its Team B basketball team. Jeff on the other hand was not recruited. He passed the Ateneo entrance exam, tried out for the team, and landed a slot on coach Gabby Severino’s Team B.

A bright and sensitive kid, Jeff De Guzman was a late bloomer in basketball having taken up the sport only in his second year in high school. Oblivious to the world of big time basketball, he was surprised to find out that San Beda had a rich basketball tradition. He took to the sport like a fish in water yet was always cut from the NCAA jayvee team. He would play well on the Passerelle level but never gained a favorable nod from the school’s famed high school coach Ato Badolato.

By his fourth year, after a clamor over his being passed over in the previous years, Jeff finally made the NCAA team. But instead of getting an opportunity to show his wares, he burned a hole in his pants from sitting on the bench all season long never getting off even for one minute.

Watching his teammates celebrate the juniors title, Jeff felt somewhat out of it. After all, he never contributed to his team’s cause except to clap and cheer them on. But when Ford Arao and the others moved westward to the Ateneo campus, Jeff De Guzman followed (his older brother also went to Loyola Heights) hoping he’d get a chance to try out for the team. But the Blue Eagles were stacked deep in the guard position what with LA Tenorio, Magnum Membrere, Larry Fonacier, and rookie Chris Tiu eating up the minutes. So it was off to Team B.

Team B. Home of the varsity team’s discards and recruits serving out their residency. To get to games, they take the LRT lugging their gym bags crammed with shoes, socks, towels, and textbooks. They play in gyms that make the antiquated Blue Eagle Gym look like a state-of-the-art arena. Too often before games, the players change into their uniforms in locker rooms that double as maintenance rooms where the comfort rooms reek of piss and uncleaned tiles. They’re given no Gatorade energy drinks and instead they have to bring their own Colemans that are regular fixtures underneath their bench. They play in a soupcon of leagues that barely make the news wires and its where the head coach is the one who lugs a net full of basketballs to the game.

After toiling year in and out hoping to earn a slot to Team A and their shot at UAAP glory, Jeff began to despair of making the team. With a year of eligibility left, he dedicated himself to getting into the best possible shape and training daily so that when the tryouts for the seniors team was called, he’d be ready. And Jeff played well even unto the just-concluded pre-season where he was eventually short-listed for the last slot on the Blue Eagles’ 15-man roster.

Just this past summer, when he wasn’t named to the team that was going to train at the Joe Abunassar Impact Basketball Camp in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Jeff had that sickening feeling that he’d be cut once more. The assistant coaches steeled him for the eventuality that he didn’t make it once more and to keep his chin up and continue training. You’ll never know, they said. A few days prior to the official announcement of the line-up, Jeff found out that the coaching staff would instead give the slot to his former high school teammate Mike Baldos.

The weights room for the Ateneo athletes is just across the luxurious Maplewood court of the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center at the far end of the sprawling campus. On this Thursday night, the Blue Eagles were engaged in a physical practice game with the visiting University of Guam. Jeff De Guzman is inside doing weights facing the opposite direction. He can’t bring himself to watch the match going on not even 20 feet away. He’s grateful for the sweat pouring down his face for it helps mask the tears in his eyes.

He goes up to the strength and conditioning coach to inform him he’s done for the day. They don’t keep him any longer than need be for they know the pain he’s going through.

He doesn’t notice he’s driving around the campus lost in thought. There have been many nights like this twisting and turning wondering about the what ifs and what nots. But he’ll go on. He’ll finish his studies and try out for a PBL team. And if he’s worried about getting cut once more… the worst of it has happened already. All Jeff De Guzman wanted was just to play for the Blue Eagles.

Author’s dedication: This is for my Team B boys who I helped manage for one memorable season: Eman Nazareno, Zion Laterre, Mike Baldos, Mark Badua, Gino Villame, Arvi Malixi, Jurgen Estanislao, Zach Estoesta, Migs Escueta, Harry Hipolito, Chester Chavez, Miggy Solitaria, Leon Hizon, Gio Pasion, Jay Gonzalez, Nico Frez, and Jeff De Guzman.

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