Nothing beats the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) basketball fever in our country. You see the captains of our industries together with the rest of the basketball fans, both alumni and current students, watching the games live, cheering, yelling and taunting each other. Intense school loyalty plus the heightened popularity of star players brought about by televising the games all add to the high energy of watching a game.
Despite the disadvantage of the body frame of the regular Filipino, almost all Pinoy boys go through a phase of loving the game of basketball. They take it up for P.E., summer class, or even on busy streets in crowded barangays. Basketball is still the favorite Filipino sport for both players and spectators.
The Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU) had been basking in its five-peat UAAP basketball championship glory under the tutelage of the legendary coach Norman Black since 2008. Then Season 76 came and the team was faced with challenges – a new coach, key players gone, adjustments, suspensions, which culminated in the game last Wednesday which gave the final verdict: from a five-peat champion ADMU failed to even qualify for the finals! Somehow, the part “Win or lose, it’s the school we choose!” of the alma mater song meant so much to the Ateneo community. After that fateful game I noticed a lot of thank you messages directed to graduating player Ryan Buenafe. I decided to interview him to find out more about this player with a rather colorful basketball career.
We agreed to meet at a coffee shop along Katipunan on a rainy Monday morning when all classes in Metro Manila were suspended. He appeared a bit shy and looked younger than how I remember him from the games I’ve watched. I started with small talk to make him feel comfortable and told him that I wanted to find out about his childhood and how he came to be the great player that he is today. Fortunately, he warmed up easily and generously shared his life story with me.
Ryan Clarence Buenafe was born in Manila on February 1, 1990. They used to live in Pasay and he studied in San Isidro Catholic School from Kinder until Grade 4. When his family moved to Cavite he transferred to a nearby school called St. Francis of Assisi. Since childhood he has always enjoyed playing basketball.
Mahilig na talaga akong mag-basketball kahit noong nasa Pasay pa kami. Naglalaro ako sa kalye. Pero siyempre maliit pa ako noon, so hindi masyadong makasingit doon sa mga mas matatanda.
Nong lumipat na kami sa Cavite, tuwang-tuwa ako kasi hindi na ko sa kalye naglalaro, sa basketball court na – full court na hindi na half-court sa kalye! So doon talaga laro lang ako ng laro. Imagine, from 6 to 10 am naglalaro ako, tapos uuwi ako sandali, pahinga ng konti, kain. Tapos babalik na ulit ako sa court para maglaro. Kung minsan kahit wala akong kalaro, kasi wala namang naglalaro ng tanghaling tapat, ako lang. Ang itim itim ko nga noon e kasi hindi naman covered yong basketball court.
Was it really your ambition to be a basketball player?
So kung hindi basketball player, ano yong ambisyon mo noong bata ka?
Hindi ko pa talaga alam. Gusto ko lang makatulong sa magulang ko. Pero siguro naisip ko ring maging seaman, kasi may isang tito ako na seaman, parang ang dami nyang pera lagi.
Nong high school, Mommy ko na lang ang nagpapa-aral sa amin ng younger sister ko. Gusto ko siyang tulungan, kasi mahirap din magpa-aral ng dalawa sa private school. Naisip ko kailangan akong maglaro sa team para malibre yong tuition ko.
Bumalik ako ng Manila para maghanap ng school. Nag try-out ako sa PCU (Philippine Christian University) sa Taft. Nakuha ako. Naisip ko makakapagtapos na ako sa pag-aaral ng libre. Tapos biglang nawala yong coach na kumuha sa akin. So problema kasi nag drop-out na ako sa St. Francis of Assisi. Buti na lang yong officemate ng Mommy ko sa Pasay City Hall dinala ako sa San Sebastian. So nakuha rin ako at doon na ako nagpatuloy.
In San Sebastian Ryan didn’t only fulfill his dream of finishing high school for free but also gave his school three championships in a row. He also got the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award.
His stellar performance in San Sebastian awakened him to his gift. He only thought of basketball as his way of getting through high school for free. He himself was surprised how well he performed that he started to dream of playing for college basketball and hopefully, professional basketball.
ADMU spotted him early on. He was still in third year high school when the team recruiters started talking to him. He mentioned the names of Coach Norman, Paolo Trillo, Jojo Dela Rama. They offered him free housing at Burgundy Condominium in front of Ateneo. And there’s this story I read on Facebook about a high school basketball student from another school who was invited to attend the mass held at Gesu after ADMU lost a basketball game to its archrival La Salle in 2007. The high school student saw the camaraderie and the warmth of the Ateneo community even after a loss and he said, “Dito ko gusto mag-college.” Excited to hear that, it was announced by Norman Black during the mass that this great player from San Sebastian would be joining the ADMU team the following year.
That was Ryan Buenafe and he couldn’t believe how warmly he was immediately welcomed by the Ateneo community. Other universities also tried to recruit him but he already gave his word to Ateneo after that momentous mass at Gesu so ADMU it was for this player.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS AND THE ATENEO WAY:
His joining ADMU was not without pressure because of the high expectations on this young man from the Recoletos order. But he said he just tried his best not to be overwhelmed by the great expectations. In an amusing manner, he admitted to being intimidated at first with the Ateneo culture, “Siempre English speaking!”
When I asked if Coach Norman always spoke to them in English he said, “Nakakaintindi rin sya ng Tagalog pero konti lang yong alam nyang sabihin sa Tagalog, so lahat ng instructions nya English. Naiintindihan naman namin sya. Hindi na lang namin siya masyadong kakausapin, Yes or No na lang ang sagot! Hahaha! O sinusunod na lang namin yong sinasabi nya!”
Sa street game ako lumaki kaya pagdating ko sa Ateneo loko nga nila sa akin, yong laro ko daw larong kalye! Pati ugali ko daw minsan pang kalye! Medyo bastos, hahaha!
Another part of his culture shock was the academics in Ateneo. He said that back in high school, all that was expected of the players was to play well and win the games. In Ateneo he had to study hard to at least maintain the required QPI (Quantitative Point Average) which means it’s not enough to just pass all your subjects. It was attending classes in the morning then training in the afternoon until night – 4 to 9pm (inclusive of 1.5 hours weights plus 3.5 hours of practice). During the season, they also had morning practices. It was very hard for him to wake up in the morning after a tiring practice.
When I asked him about his favorite teachers, he said he has a lot – among them are Dr. Martin (English 12), Ma’am Lucille (Theology 121), Lagliva (Philosophy).
He remembers how he devoted his every game to Coach Norman during his first year, “Parang naging father figure ko talaga si Coach Norman.” All his efforts paid off as he was awarded Rookie of the Year in 2008, the start of the five-peat era.
A lot of his friends told him he’s very lucky because after three championships in his high school he continued his championship streak in college. Two years after his Rookie of the Year award, he got the coveted Finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) award in 2010. It was all wins for Ryan.
But fate also played a trick on him as the following year he was not allowed to play. When I asked him what really happened in 2011, he requested me not to write about it anymore.
But suffice it to say that he learned his lessons well during that one year sit-out. He had to get back in shape, including losing around 30 pounds. It meant stricter diet, exercise and more focus on studies. Fortunately for the team, it went on to win another championship that year.
In 2012 Ryan came back strong and played just as well, bagging their fifth championship.
WHAT MAKES RYAN TICK?
The UAAP followers admire No. 13 in the way he surprises us with his crucial three point shots. Even with a low 7% success rate from the three-point territory, he would make those gutsy attempts during crunch time and delivers! I asked him what makes him do take those risks?
Kahit ako nagugulat din ako, kasi pag first to third quarter nagtataka ako bakit hindi ako makapasok. Pero pagdating ng fourth quarter lalo na pag last 2 minutes gusto ko talagang manalo. Somehow nararamdaman ko ma s-shoot ko. Tapos nangyayari nga.
Paano ka nagkakalakas ng loob?
Pag dikitan na yong game, ayaw ko kasi talagang matalo. Nasanay din kasi akong palaging panalo. Pag dikitan, hindi naman dahil wala akong tiwala sa team pero gusto ko ako na magdala. Minsan nagkakataon din lang, nalilibre ako. Buo yong loob ko kasi gusto ko i-prove sa mga tao kaya kong ipanalo ito. Masama yong loob ko pag malungkot yong crowd. Talagang I also dedicate the game to them. So pag pasok at nanalo, ang sarap! Kung minsan nga nakakadala yong crowd. Pag nag wild sila, pati ako nagiging wild, lalo na kung nakapasok yong crucial shots.
Any difficult experiences with alumni who are avid fans?
Minsan. Manalo o matalo they say Dapat ganito ginawa mo. Parang mas magaling pa sa coach. Hahaha! Pero okay lang yon sa akin, Nakiki-ride lang ako. Yong ibang players kasi dinidibdib. Iniisip ko na lang na gusto lang nila i-express yong feelings nila.
Pikon ka ba?
Ya. Hahaha! Kahit practice pag natatalo ako ang sama ng loob ko, hindi ako makabawi agad. Kahit sa practice na 5 on 5 lang ayoko talagang natatalo. Sumasama talaga ang loob ko. Nong High School rookie ako umiiyak talaga ako pag talo sa game. Hindi kami nag-uusap parang galit-galit kami.
Tapos paglipat ko dito after a loss to UP masama loob ko talaga, even after a day. Pero yong teammates ko nagtatawanan. Tinanong ko si Coach Ano ba to? Parang hindi natalo. Sabi ni Coach ganon daw sila maglabas ng sama ng loob. Ako para na akong baliw nag p-push-up mag-isa. Ngayon nabawasan na rin yong sama ng loob ko pag natatalo. Basta next game kailangang bumawi.
Pati yong mga dati kong teammates sa High School (Bringas brothers of FEU, Andrada and Vosotros of La Salle, Jumao-as of UE), kaibigan ko outside the court pero enemies in court.
CHANGE OF COACHES AND FUTURE PLANS:
What’s the difference in coaching style between Norman and Bo?
Medyo mahirap mag-compare kasi ang tagal ko na kay Coach Norman tapos six months lang kay Coach Bo. They’re both professional. Pero ang main difference si Coach Norman mahilig magsulat, organized. Si Coach Bo mahilig sa words, inspirational words.
Ryan was already expecting that Coach Norman was going to resign and he also thought of having his last playing season with him. But he was requested to stay one more year to help the team who was not only losing its coach but also a lot of key players. He shared, “Naisip ko na mag-exit na rin as a champion team at magpa-draft sa PBA pero pinakiusapan ako nina MVP. Naramdaman ko parang dapat nga huwag iwanan just because sa tingin ng iba humina na yong team. Sa salitang lalaki, parang wala akong ba _ _ g kung tinakbuhan ko yong responsibilidad!”
And play he did for this season. He has no regrets despite the unsuccessful turnout. The warmth and gratitude expressed by the Ateneo community to him during the mass at Gesu last Sunday made him very happy and at the same time sad that he would be missing this kind of support.
What do you think of the team that you’re leaving?
I don’t know yet, hindi ko pa nakikita yong mga papalit sa amin. Pero mag- a-adjust yan, mag-i-improve pa.
What are your plans?
Nong na-interview ako right after the game na-quote ako about PBA plans, sinabihan ako huwag daw muna akong mag-i-issue ng statements.
But of course we know that PBA is now your next dream. If you get to play professional and you know that the shelf life of a basketball player is quite short, what do you see yourself doing after?
Mag c-coach din siguro. Gusto ko i-share yong alam ko.
Ryan acknowledges the devotion of his mother, especially when she started fending for their family by herself. It is his intention to help his mother that propelled him to use what he knows and enjoys doing. He used basketball to send himself to school. And now he is the family bread winner. He lives with his mother, Teresita, younger sister Bea and Lola. Although his father doesn’t live with them anymore, he gets to talk to him once in a while when he comes home from Macau.
Does your mom watch you play?
No, kinakabahan siya. Yong buong high school ko, once lang nanood. Yong buong college ko never.
Is she strict?
Oo nong bata ako pinalo rin ako. Hindi ko rin maintindihan kung minsan, kung may pinapakilala akong girlfriend, hindi nya masyadong pinanpansin. Hindi ko alam kung ayaw nya sa girl or ayaw lang nya ako magka-girlfriend. Tapos nong nahiwalayan ko na yong girlfriend ko saka nya naging kaibigan.
Marami ka bang naging girlfriends?
Tatlo, lahat long term relationships. Sa high school three years, sa college two and three years din.
MY MATERNAL INSTINCTS KICKED IN:
When I started hearing his stories about his mom and dad, I couldn’t help but talk to him like a mother, explaining his mom and even his dad’s possible feelings. In fact, he could well be my son already as he’s as old as my first-born. He was surprised to find that out. I also started advising him about saving and investing. Of course, I wanted him to have a high FQ too! When he found out that our house was just a few minutes away from Ateneo (on a no classes day), he said, “Punta tayo.” so I invited him to our home. He met my youngest son and did some shooting with him in the basketball court across our house. He even promised my son that he’d be back to play with him and his friends one day.
It was an interesting rainy afternoon getting to know this “little giant.” Ryan Buenafe is a big man with a big heart but I sense that deep down inside he’s still a little boy who’s still in need of guidance from a mentor who would lead him with a firm hand to achieve greater heights of success. Good luck Ryan. Ad majorem dei gloriam!