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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Danny Ildefonso: Lakay comes home

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Danny Ildefonso: Lakay comes home
by rick olivares

The new gym wasn’t built because he won a bunch of championships or put the school on the map of college basketball. His teams didn’t win any trophies but they sure put the fear of God into more fancied opponents.

Suddenly, from the elevated track oval, chants of “lakay” – from the old warhorses who have stayed on as coaches or from those players who came after him – reverberated across the gym on a cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon disrupting the video shoot for a new Gatorade campaign.

The conquering hero was home and even the young guns acknowledged it.

The place he once called home – for four years of his life – isn’t that familiar anymore. On his way to his alma mater, he turned into a street and was flagged down for a traffic violation.

“Sir,” said the cop with a touch or irritation. “One way street po ito.”

When officer took a closer look at the face of the driver who pleaded that he didn’t know because when he went to school in these parts, this wasn’t a one-way street, the traffic enforcer’s face relaxed and he then broadly grinned.

What happened then was Danny Ildefonso got a police escort all the way to the front of National University, his first home away from home.

It isn’t his first time back since he left school to turn pro. But it’s rare he’s in these parts and certainly not  since the Sy family purchased the school. He had to do a double take when he saw the site of the old rickety gym where his team of Bad News Bears, er, Bulldogs, practiced under the late and sainted Sonny Paguia, a man, Ildefonso affectionately called, “tatay.” The gym atop the old college of engineering was torn down to make way for a more modern and plush annex for the school that has grown leaps and bounds when it was infused by SM money.

It was here in NU where Danny was first affectionately called by his senior-ish nickname “lakay” that in the Ilocano dialect means, “old man.” Maybe it was because he came from a farming background in rural Pangasinan. Maybe because in a pure basketball sense, he is last player from the 1998 PBA Draft to still wear his high tops to work (there is only one player older who was drafted ahead of him who is still in the PBA and that is Nic Belasco).

Tuesday at the Gatorade shoot, Ildefonso sat next to current Bulldogs point guard Gelo Alolino where in one of the scenes, they talked about old school NU basketball.

Alolino was a hot-shot point guard recruited out of the University of Perpetual Help in Las Piñas. Ildefonso, like many others before him, was a mere walk-in. A friend from Pangasinan who was studying at that time at NU brought him along for a tryout under Paguia. And the rest… well, is history as we know it.

History. Even at age 37, Ildefonso is still making breaking new ground. “The only two-time number one pick in PBA history,” he quipped referring to his first draft in 1998 and in the expansion draft last June 18 where Blackwater, one of the PBA’s newest ball clubs selected him.

For a while there, being waived by the Meralco Bolts stung Lakay. In fact, his departure from San Miguel still brings tears to his eyes. “Dalawang beses na sa mga huling taon na ‘to, bro,” he said while not bothering to hide his emotions. “But challenge ‘to. So dapat ibahin ko pananaw ko. Meron pa rin mga opportunities di ba? Heto, nasama pa sa bagong campaign ng Gatorade.”

It seems all his life, he’s had to prove people wrong. “Nung nasa NU ako kasama si Lordy Tugade, Jojo Gonzales, Jun Cuevas…”

He paused to laugh. “Maliban kay Lordy, hindi kilala yung iba no? Sa gym pa lang alam mo kulang na kulang kami sa support. Pero yun ang nagpatibay sa amin. Gustong gusto naming makalaban yan mga ibang big schools like Ateneo and La Salle.”

In one memorable game during his UAAP years, Tugade launched a buzzer-beating missile from halfcourt that stole a win from the Blue Eagles leaving the victory cheer of the Ateneans stuck in their throats. Meanwhile the Bulldogs happily repaired to their homey domain in Sampaloc, Manila, where they celebrated with a plate of pancit bihon.

“Simple lang kami, bro. Simple lang.”

During a recent match against his former team (that was at the time called), Petron, in the season-opening Philippine Cup, Ildefonso put up 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and five blocks in a losing effort. That prompted Danny’s youngest son, Dave, to remark, “Magaling pala maglaro si daddy!”

Lakay laughed. Truly the young do not know their history. But his basketball playing sons, Shaun and Dave (who both play for Ateneo), now dutifully listen and pay attention to his basketball advice. “Kailangan talaga i-prove ang sarili… kahit sa anak,” he laughed once more.

When the Ildefonso sons were younger, Lakay never forced them to take up the sport in which he excelled. “Naglagay lang ako ng laruan na bola, yung maliit ba, sa kama nila. Yun – bahala na sila,” he laughed at the memory. Nowadays, the father, at every opportunity he gets, watches his basketball-loving sons play.

Ildefonso suited up for only four years in NU as Coach Sonny advised him to take his game to the next level. “Coach, meron pa akong isang year,” he recalled himself as saying to Paguia. Replied the coach, “Kung ako sa ‘yo, mag-pro na ako keso meron na mga gustong kumuha sa ‘yo. Hayaan mo na yun pwesto mo sa NU sa iba.”

That bit of fatherly advice has served Lakay in good stead – “meron gusto kumuha sa ‘yo.”

“Yung sinabi ko sa ‘yo na mag-iba ng pananaw – ito na yun.”

Lakay knows he is in the twilight of a long and distinguished career. He isn’t just some old warhorse trying to stay when his mind say go but his body stays put. “Kasi, bro, mahal ko yung laro. Meron pa naman tayong ibibigay. Sa Blackwater, pinakita ni God na dito ka. Hindi naman tayo humihingi na maraming minuto. Basta makatulong okay na. Alam ko naman ang lugar ko. At isa pa, trabaho ko rin i-mentor yung mga bata.”

“Gusto ko graceful exit. Ayaw ko yung bigla na lang nawala or tinabi.”

Just as the director calls for a new take on a scene, Jeff Napa, current coach of the NU Bullpups, the Juniors team, says out loud, “Lakaaaaaaaaay!” The director called, “Cut.”

Danny Ildefonso put a finger to his lips to motion silence.

Napa, mischief done, saluted.

The king has come home.

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