THE departure of Kai Ballungay from Ateneo was something I half expected and yet, when it came, was still like a punch to the gut.
So much changed in the last four years—Covid-19 lockdown that caused players to lose out on their playing eligibility, or skip out because of the option of playing overseas in Japan, Taiwan, Korean or Europe, and if you ask me, the injury to Jerom Lastimosa.
No team was harder hit than Ateneo.
Will Navarro skipped his final playing year. Dwight Ramos was lost for two years. Pat Maagdenberg left. SJ Belangel opted out of his final playing year. Plus, some recruits left.
Navarro, Ramos and Belangel were lured by the overseas leagues.
There’s so much change that I wonder how Ateneo—or even the other schools—will adjust to these changes.
In 2018, the Ateneo Blue Eaglets bagged the juniors title. Not all the key players moved up to the seniors ranks. Dave Ildefonso went to the National University (although he returned to the fold two years later). Joaqui Manuel went to La Salle after he did not want to be on Team B. Kai Sotto pursued overseas basketball in hopes of making it to the National Basketball Association.
This prompted an assistant coach of the team to remark that for the first time, all the juniors players were not keen on moving to the seniors team.
What he failed to mention was that was the first time an Ateneo juniors team had no key players who moved up from the grade school ranks. One had to wonder because they were recruits, loyalty was not something they were high on.
When Ateneo moved from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) in 1978, so many were demoralized because they considered the junior circuit to be inferior to the NCAA. The Blue Eagles had to rely on players from the intramurals and pick-ups to fill their rosters during the early UAAP years.
The Ateneo High School still provided a steady stream of players who were not only good, but could compete. And for the most part, the college teams—even with the few recruits—benefitted from the True Blue call-ups who were bristling with pride and talent.
But the 1990s saw the influx of Fil-Americans that changed the face of the college game.
Even with the influx of foreign student athletes (FSAs), the Blue Eagles still managed to win even without one of their own.
However, you could feel the winds of change. Ateneo eventually played the game—bringing in Fil-Ams, recruiting, and acquiring FSAs. There too was the arrival of the business tycoon who could bankroll a program.
Some are not easily rectifiable. The high school team is so far away from competing that one wonders if Ateneans will ever see a return to secondary ball dominance that it enjoyed for the most part of its history.
Now, there are players not finishing their stay in school. And there’s Jerom Lastimosa.
He was said to be earmarked for a team abroad but he stayed in Adamson Univertsity. Sadly, he suffered an injury that kept him mostly out of regular play.
Whether he was indeed ready to return or not is immaterial now. He got injured again and was clearly not his old self.
Whether he will receive those same offers to play abroad is anyone’s guess. Time will reveal if that opportunity is still there. Of course, we hope it does come.
Kai Ballungay got married after his first season with Ateneo. That meant he was now the breadwinner for his family. I told myself that he will need to find that source of income to provide. In my opinion, Lastimosa’s injury played in his mind. He needed to cash his chips in while he was able.
His departure along with the surprise departure of Jason Credo (from that 2017-18 juniors title team) with a year left leaves the team short of even more veterans.
But then you wonder if Mason Amos will go the way of Ballungay or Dwight Ramos.
They will still be in rebuilding mode and it will take a few more years before they find solid footing.
And you have to wonder how long Tab Baldwin will stay as head coach.
I have said and written about this before—you just cannot get any coach. Teams are now getting ex-Philippine Basketball Association players/coaches. You need a larger than life figure with a name and a pedigree that can bring in players.
Since 1998, Ateneo’s big names have been Joe Lipa, Joel Banal, Norman Black, Bo Perasol and then Baldwin.
So many big shoes to fill. So many concerns that need addressing.
Ateneo eventually figures that out. How long will it take is anyone’s guess because these winds of change are serious and unpredictable. It does make for an interesting following though.