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.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Drive of Ford Arao

The Drive of Ford Arao
by rick olivares

photo by Miggy Mendoza

Get your motor running

Prior to this start of the UAAP Men’s Basketball season, it was easy to overlook Claiford Arao on the Blue Eagles’ line-up. That’s an ironic thing to say when Ford stands 6 feet 5 inches. But it’s easy to get lost in a basketball team where height is might and when other players have outshone him since his arrival as a blue chip recruit out of Ato Badolato’s fabled San Beda Red Cubs.

You can almost say that Ford is used to being one of the guys. Growing up in Alaminos, Pangasinan, he would hang out with his friends engaged in the usual pursuits of a young kid his age. He found himself taller than most of his friends yet basketball was farthest from his mind. When they played, they used a puny tennis ball and shot at a small ring on an even smaller court.

The father of one of his neighborhood friends, Arvi Braganza brought the boys to Manila hoping they’d get a chance to play for any varsity team. The moment Ato Badolato saw Arao and Braganza, his immediate reaction was, “O, sa amin na kayo.” Ford thought that it was both funny and great since they hardly knew how to play. But for the legendary Badolato, it was simple – the skills can be acquired; on the other hand, you can’t teach height. Red-shirted for his junior year to acclimate himself with the school system, Ford watched LA Tenorio power the Red Cubs to the NCAA Juniors title. The following year, with teammates Yuri Escueta and JV Casio, they brought San Beda back to title game but they lost to the Letran Squires of JC Intal and JR Reyes.

The following year, the Red Cubs got their revenge against a Squires team that was led by current La Salle Green Archer PJ Walsham.

Changing lanes: From Mendiola to Loyola

It’s a sight and experience that many Ateneans can identify with. The San Beda Red Lions were no longer the king of the NCAA basketball jungle. The school’s saving grace was its juniors squad. However multi-titled the Red Cubs were, most of its star players opted to play elsewhere. The University of the Philippines and De La Salle were at first the most attractive destinations for the migrating Cubs. As for Ateneo? It was nowhere near close.

The last time the Blue Eagles landed any significant pick-ups from its former NCAA rival were bothers Bobby and Mon Rius. Bobby played alongside current University Athletics Director Ricky Palou, the legendary Francis Arnaiz, Chito Afable, Joy Cleofas, and Marte Samson on that powerful 1969 Blue Eagles squad that walloped everyone – including pro teams in the MICAA – on their way to the seniors crown. But when Magnum Membrere and LA Tenorio donned the blue and white in succession during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, it opened the floodgates for former NCAA rivals to go to Ateneo for college.

There were eight players on that Red Cubs team that thought about transferring to Ateneo. JV Casio, their deadshot gunner was earmarked for La Salle way before they even played their fourth and final year in high school. It was Arao, Escueta, Mike Baldos, Braganza, and Jeff De Guzman who eventually made it to Ateneo.

Ford was thrilled to crack the Blue Eagles line-up in his rookie year. Ateneo was just coming off a spectacular run to the 2002 UAAP Men’s Basketball crown. Although the team lost its powerful center Enrico Villanueva, back-up stud Sonny Tadeo, guards Marco Benitez, Chris Quimpo, Andrew Cruz and swingman Gec Chia, they were still plenty loaded as they still had Wesley Gonzales, two-time MVP Rich Alvarez, Paolo Bugia, Larry Fonacier, Membrere, and Tenorio. Plus they had sophomores Macky Escalona, Doug Kramer, and JC Intal coming off the bench. “Hindi ako nag-expect ng playing time noon,” recalled Arao. “Pero grabe yung season na yun. Exciting.”

It was only on the court where Arao had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. It was one thing to play for the glamorous Blue Eagles and it was another thing trying to survive in a different educational environment while trying to make the QPI. “Sobrang iba from San Beda kaya nahirapan ako mag-adjust,” said Arao of that rollercoaster first year. “Very demanding at mahirap i-balance yung studies at paglalaro. Siguro yun ang pinakamalaking difference, hindi mo pwedeng pabayaan yung studies mo kesyo athlete ka.”

Stuck on neutral

There was a moment when Ford thought that he was living a dream. He won a championship in his final year in high school and he looked to win another in his rookie season in blue. But after disposing of La Salle in a hard-fought Final Four series, Ateneo came out flat and with almost no gas in the tank against the FEU Tamaraws. They were swept away.

Though the team was still loaded to make continuous runs to the UAAP championship, they bombed out during the Final Four in successive years before making it back to the Big Dance last season before another nightmarish loss to the UST Tigers. A loss that still haunts the team to this day.

In LA Tenorio’s final go-around, Ford was beginning to make serious strides in his game when an ACL injury knocked him out for the year.

“Noong una, okay lang na hindi masyado nakakapaglaro kasi maraming veterans sa team,” said Arao. “Pero naging frustrating kasi sa practice maganda naman ang pinapakita. Pagdating sa laro, hindi ko magawa yung dapat kong gawin.” It didn’t help that coming off the bench for Kramer, Japeth Aguilar, and Rabah Al-Husseini told heavily on his confidence.

“Sabi ko na lang sa sarili ko na kailangan mag-step up and maging mas patient.”

New-found focus
In his four years thus far, he saw the Blue Eagles twice make it to the UAAP Finals but fall short each time. “Siyempre, hindi mawawala yung mga pagkatalo na yun. Tulad ng last year, sayang talaga. Hindi ko alam yung iba pero naiisip ko yung Game Three pa-minsan minsan.”

Now in his final outing with the blue and white, Ford can’t help but wax sentimental. He admits that the past two seasons (the current one included) have been his most enjoyable. The team has bonded well and playing for Norman Black has been fulfilling. Having grown up watching those great San Miguel teams of old with Black as the Beermen’s import and later their coach has been a real thrill.

For Coach Black, helping Arao reach his potential is one of his goals aside from making sure the team is in the thick of the fight. Arao saw the transformation of Doug Kramer from a bit player to a vital cog in Ateneo’s campaigns over his past two seasons. And he’s willing to put in more hard work to help the school to another basketball crown and give him a chance to go to the pros.

If you’ve been following the Blue Eagles this season 70 very closely, you might have noticed that from the moment Ford Arao jogs on to the court for the team’s round robin all the way to the game’s final buzzer, he sports that look of determination. Appointed co-captain along with Chris Tiu and Zion Laterre, Ford doesn’t mind letting the others handle the motivational talks. “Hindi naman ako masilita so gagawin ko ang kaya ko sa laro at sa court,” he underscored.

Suddenly, the once slow-footed and prodding slotman is born again. He is finally showcasing the low post power that was on display when he was heavily recruited out of San Beda. He has become a steady source of points for the team while adding some solid rebounding numbers.

The long and winding road

It could be all over in as little as eight weeks from now. He thinks of how God has blessed him to send him on a journey that has taken him to places that never crossed his mind while daydreaming back in Pangasinan. While convalescing from his ACL injury, he had much time to think during those long and boring days of rehab. He knows he wasn’t always serious about things, appreciative even, but somehow life has a way of making you pause to think of your place in the firmament.

He treasures every single day from going to class and to practice. From game days to even the team-only meetings where players get to say their piece. And an immense part of his joy is in his fifth and final year, a couple of his old running mates from the Red Cubs – guard Yuri Escueta and forward Mike Baldos – are on the team together. “Marami kaming pinagsamahan. Ngayon may pagkakataon ulit na manalo ng championship na magkakasama kami. Hindi ba kung hindi ba naman mabait ang Diyos?”

When he’s on the bench, you’ll find him clapping and cheering along to the cheers. But the one cheer that really gets him going is “Go Ateneo!” “Sobrang nakakataas ng balahibo yun,” he recounted of the adrenaline surge. “Sobrang nakaka-inspire.”

“Alam ko na hindi ako nagkamali sa pinili ko na school (Ateneo),” he points out emphatically. He stops there not sure how else to express his feelings. He nods and says, “Galeng” repeatedly like a mantra.

But that’s fine. He can’t wait to express his feelings on the court because it’s his time.

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