Kelly Nabong and the Meralco Bolts: Moving forward
by rick olivares picture by kc cruz
A couple of weeks ago, Kelly Nabong sat on the sidelines of the Meralco Gym watching the Bolts practice. He wasn’t cleared to play after being out with some minor injury.
“Man, I can’t wait to get out there and play,” he said.
In his brief PBA career so far, Nabong is mostly known for two things — getting traded by Meralco on draft night to GlobalPort (he has since rejoined the Bolts) and later getting into a huge fight with San Mig’s Marc Pingris that saw both played fined P60,000 (aside from being suspended).
On opening night of the 2015-16 Commissioner’s Cup, it is a testament to Nabong's basketball capabilities that he’s in the line-up against Star.
It’s a power-charged match-up. For one, both teams, Meralco and Star, are corporate rivals. Second, aside from Nabong and Pingris both present for the match, the two teams figured out in the recently-concluded Philippine Cup opener that the Bolts won. It would be their only win for the entire conference.
“The goal isn’t the playoffs,” noted team manager Paolo Trillo. “Well, we want to make it there. Who doesn’t? It’s just coming from such a disappointing conference, we want to keep it simple and measurable — get better with every game. Take it one game at a time and from there’s we will assess our chances.”
You can say that it’s the same thing for Nabong who is thrilled to be in the game.
It’s sort of a slap on the face for Nabong when in the previous season, San Miguel import Arizona Reid was incredulous that the Meralco power forward scored 15 points against the Beermen that resulted in a 106-99 Bolts win during the Commissioner’s Cup.
“I’m just going to go out and do my best,” promised Nabong before running onto the hardcourt of the Smart Araneta Coliseum for their warm-up drills. “I hope am given a chance.”
Game time, the Bolts were initially unable to get anything going from the post. Cliff Hodge tried to post up Allein Maliksi from the left side to no avail. Import Arinze Onuaku also tried with similar luck as he was double teamed and had the ball swiped from him on two occasions.
Meralco seemed plodding trying to get a half-court offense going (more so to accommodate Onuaku who arrived less than 24 hours before). Collectively, the team threw up two airballs to the derision of the predominantly pro-Star crowd on this Wednesday evening.
In the meantime, Star pushed up the ball quickly at every opportunity. Three of their first four baskets came from inside the lane; one of which was a powerful slam by Star’s comebacking import Denzel Bowles. Halfway through the quarter, the score is 15-4 in favor of Star.
Meralco head coach Norman Black burned a time out, adjustments were made and the Bolts methodically pounded their way back with better spacing. Onuako began scoring inside and he chipped in eight points. That opened up the outside to Baser Amer who earlier threw up an airball. With a little over a minute to play, he nailed a trey. And Nabong added a free throw to end the first 12 minutes of play, 26-18, in favor of Star.
“I think we’ve settled down,” noted Meralco assistant coach Ronnie Magsanoc.
Amer opened the second period with two more triples. When Amer went to the bench, Anjo Caram came in and hit a long jumper. The flurry of outside shots stretched Star’s defense as they were now forced to watch the perimeter. Nabong slipped in for a tip-in. Chris Newsome drilled a triple of his own. Onuaku was mostly having his way inside.
The Bolts had come alive. With the lead in sight on several occasions, Meralco botches them with bungled plays and missed shots. Newsome had the best chance to knot the count at 43-all but he missed a free throw right at the end of the first half of play to send Star to the break holding on to a precarious one-point lead. The battle had been joined. Meralco was not broken by the early onslaught.
The second half was different. Meralco came out more energized and this time, they finally seized the lead. After holding the lead for some five minutes, Star came right back behind Bowles, Maliksi, and Mark Barroca for a 61-58 lead. The lead changed two more times until the mid-fourth period when Newsome’s defense and huge buckets propelled the Bolts to the lead for good. Nabong in the meantime is a warrior alternately guarding Bowles, Pingris, and Ian Sangalang inside.
Unfortunately for him and his Meralco side, Nabong fouled out with a minute and change. The 6’7” native from Sacramento finished with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals against 3 turnovers. But what cannot be quantified was his energy, hustle, and physicality inside.
“A win means a lot to our team. And of course, for myself. I just want to contribute. Am glad that Coach Norman placed his trust in me,” Kelly later said.
Star still threatened but a Cliff Hodge free throw and a huge hook inside the lane by Onuaku allowed Meralco to hold off their foe for the second consecutive conference opener, 90-86.
It was a team effort with different players contributing at different intervals.
Onuaku was a trooper. He arrived the night before close to midnight. By daybreak the following day, he went to the PBA office to get measured followed by a trip to the office of the Games and Amusements Board for all his work requirements . By the time he got back to his condo unit, it was 3pm. He only had a few hours to rest before the team departed for the Big Dome.
During the game, he was clearly jetlagged. He hardly went for offensive boards to pace himself. But when he found his rhythm, he was a force inside. Onuaku finished with 25 huge points that he scattered across four quarters to keep Star honest on defense. He also hauled down 22 rebounds and also had three assists versus two turnovers.
Newsome was massive as he sparked the team to its last salvo. Newsome’s stat line is 16 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 blocked shot versus 2 turnovers. Cliff Hodge and Baser Amer also contributed double-digit scoring with 12 and 10 points respectively.
In the joyous Meralco locker room following the match, there were happy faces. They were happy to get that win. It was sorely needed after all. But that’s just one. They need to add a few more, hopefully more Trillo later remarked, before the conference is over.
Nabong, with his knees wrapped in ice bags, was happy. “Am just happy to contribute man. You’re just grateful for the opportunity. That’s all you ever ask for."