This appears in the Tuesday, November 8, 2016 edition of the Business Mirror.
The vagabond basketball life of Kojack Melegrito
by rick olivares
John Carl “Kojack” Melegrito exhaled into the evening sky.
Kojack’s team lost in the finals in some league in Project 2&3 in Quezon City. The former Letran Knight who won a NCAA championship in 2005 alongside RJ Jazul, Boyet Bautista, Aaron Aban, and Mark Andaya, played three games that day. All with different teams in different leagues in different places. Rest and recovery? He only had two hours, maybe three in between. He won two of them with the finals the last of them at 7:30pm. Melegrito felt exhausted. The tiredness however, was more due to the loss than having suited up for three competitive games on a Sunday no less.
Even at the age of 30, the losses still sting. “Siyempre, nakakahiya. Tinalo ka ng mga walang pangalan.”
That’s the supreme irony, Kojack catches himself as soon as he ends his sentence.
After a very good career with Letran, he applied for the 2010 PBA Draft. Once the proceedings were done on the night of August 29, 2010 at Market Market in Taguig, site of the annual rookie draft at that time, Melegrito’s name went uncalled. Melegrito felt pain in his stomach and his head feel numb with every name that was called. Only 19 players were selected through two rounds. And that was it.
Kojack went home to Project 4, Quezon City, with his ego massively deflated and his spirit crushed.
It took a while for him to pick up a basketball. He refused to even go to the neighborhood basketball court. And until the recently concluded Governors’ Cup Finals where Meralco (that featured two former Letran teammates in Bryan Faundo and Rey Guevarra) succumbed to Barangay Ginebra, he had not watched a single PBA game. “Ganun kasakit yun,” he revealed.
His college coach, Louie Alas, feels his pain. “Kojack was a very good basketball player. Tough, smart, and a competitor. He was never given a chance, never given a break in the pros. But he is pro basketball material. Sayang. If I were in the PBA at that time, I could have helped him get that break.”
Kojack, who was bequeathed that nickname by his mother who loved that 1970s television cop show “Kojak (minus the ‘c”) starring the late American actor Telly Savalas, had become a local legend in the Escopa area of Project 4. He was the “hometown” hero. The kid who made good. He walked in to a practice of then-Letran head coach Louie Alas. Came away with a slot on the team. Won a NCAA title. Played in the old Philippine Basketball League for an assortment of teams. Represented the country in an international club competition in Malaysia. The dream of playing in the PBA wasn’t only Kojack’s. It also belonged to the people of Escopa that was once considered a slum area. If he could make it, so could they.
The PBA dream is crushed. But life… well, life goes on.
And like his celluloid namesake, Kojack is made of stern stuff. He stopped moping, picked himself up, and began playing once more. He began playing for pay in leagues in and around Manila and as far away as Mindoro and Palawan.
The pay varies – sometimes it’s PhP 1,500 per game, sometimes, it’s four thousand a pop. For the out of town tourneys that last up to two weeks, he receives anywhere from PhP 24,00-40,000 depending on the number of matches played. And that’s not counting bonuses should his team win a championship. And since he began playing these amateur pay-for-play leagues, he’s won about eight championships including two in the last several months. He’s played alongside former college stars like Derrick Hubalde (who is a relative) and former Adamson Falcon Gian Lloyd Abrigo who also ply this basketball route.
“Suwerte lang,” he says. “Na hindi pa ako na-injure. Sana hindi.”
The money that he earns he uses to pay for the electricity consumption in his parents’ home where h stays to this day. His father, Marcelo, recently suffered a stroke and has since been incapacitated. Kojack helps pay for his parents’ upkeep too.
To pay for the expenses, Melegrito most recently worked at IBM as an encoder. Several months into his desk job, Kojack resigned. “Hinahanap hanap ng katawan ko yung laro,” he admits. After all, he isn’t ready to give up on basketball. He looks to former Knights teammate Bryan Faundo for inspiration.
Faundo was also bypassed in the PBA Draft. And like Melegrito, he refused to play basketball for a time before he found his way back. And after what seemed like a journeyman status, Faundo seems to have found a home with Meralco.
Kojack knows he’s getting in on the years (he’s hit 30). He’s stayed in marvelous shape and generally watches what he eats. And although he’s lost some of his speed, he’s compensated by trying to vary his game.
Melegrito also knows that he needs a steady job. One that pays every 15 days. He had it in IBM but he’s looking for something more basketball-oriented. “Kahit practice player lang,” he hopes. “Basta nasa basketball.”
He is giving himself a few more years before he knows that his skills will diminish and he will have to earn money in different manner.
Furthermore, life as a basketball mercenary is tough. Melegrito might be a legend in the Project 4-Marikina area, but don’t think that other ballers line up to pay him homage. Everyone wants to take him down. Everyone wants to show him up. In a recent tournament in Olandes, Marikina, Melegrito lost his cool after taking a shot. He punched back. He regrets it. Having lost his cool.
He knows he cannot on dwell on it. Just like the loss Sunday night.
Tomorrow’s another day. And Kojack has to find himself another league to play in.