The unsung

THE beauty of the SM-National Basketball Training Center (NBTC) Division Two tournament are the Cinderella stories about many of the teams. You know—small school, small student population, not enough funding but still reaching for the stars.

If the United States NCAA has March Madness, where smaller-seeded teams knock out the big programs, in the Philippine version, it’s these never-heard-of provincial schools who capture the hearts—at least those who love and watch high-school ball—of people.

One such school literally has never been heard of—at least until a couple of years ago when the Department of Education was  surprised to learn that there was an Assumption Montessori School (AMS) in Cagayan de Oro (it is in one of the barangays of Balulang).

Their student population numbers a few hundred.

Their basketball court isn’t even the size of the half court of the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena. And that makes their transition to the regulation-sized court all the more remarkable.

Their players? They’re all from public schools. Kids with big dreams.

Their coach—James Clifford Racines? Back in Cagayan de Oro, he was a teammate of Bam Gamalinda. When Racines’s mother learned he was headed for Jose Rizal University and not San Beda, like Gamalinda, she had her son return home on the pretense she was ill. Racines might have not played big-time college ball but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t dream, as well.

“Hard work and, hopefully, we get some breaks along the way,” Racines postulated after his side bagged the 2017 SM-NBTC Division Two National High School Championship before a couple of thousand people inside a roaring Mall of Asia Arena on March 16.

Last year, AMS came here and were blown out by National University in Division One play. They got downgraded to Division Two, which was a better fit and there they thrived.

During the SM-NBTC Finals, AMS spotted tough Saint Jude College of Cavite a small lead, lost it in the face of a withering rally, scored what eventually was the game winner then survived three last gasp and close-range attempts to win.

“The crowd was going nuts with everyone picking sides and cheering on every defensive stop and basket made,” observed David Perez, team manager of Camp David New Zealand, whose team watched from the stands after being eliminated in the group stages. “Then here in the MOA Arena that is quickly becoming the mecca of indoor sports in the Philippines. And for the championship? People dream about this.”

“I’d watch the PBA, Gilas, UAAP at NCAA on television. Many NBA players have also stepped foot on the court,” Milo Janao shared in the vernacular.Janao averaged 21.6 points, 2.2 assists, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament following the win.

“For us, small town, provincial kids—to play here is already a fulfillment of a dream.”

Perhaps even the pinnacle of their basketball lives.

The world gets crowded as you go higher up the basketball pyramid. For many kids, the high-school championship is probably the last competitive match they will play. It’s harder to get into a college squad and even more difficult to be given a chance to play in the pros.

“That is why we have the NBTC,” emphasized program cofounder Eric Altamirano. “To give opportunities for those outside Manila to be recognized and for them to have a platform to perform and be discovered.”

The Cavite team—Saint Jude. When they attended the news conference for the league at the Wild Buffalo Wings at Capital Commons a few days before the NBTC, one wonders why they were there. Being proximity-wise, they were close. As was then-defending Division Two champions, De La Salle-Lipa. Come tourney time, Saint Jude showed their mettle. They pressed and hounded foes into oblivion from the time of the Calabarzon-Cavite City tournament and to the regionals.

Even before they disposed of the Ateneo de Davao Blue Knights in the Division Two semi-finals, everyone knew who they were and that they were a force to be reckoned with. “I knew even before the game we were in trouble because of their trapping and high-intensity game,” Davao Head Coach Miggy Solitaria observed.

The Davao team’s point guard, Kalen Doromal, also attracted some attention for his game that earned him Mythical Five honors.

When Racines was asked if a fiesta celebration awaited his squad’s return to Cagayan de Oro, he quipped, “Maybe not. But at least for our school, we’ll celebrate. And we’ll have this moment in our lives.”