Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Air Up There

In 1994, a basketball themed movie starring Kevin Bacon came out in cinemas all over the world. In it, he plays an assistant coach, who travels all the way to Africa to try and recruit a tribesman whom he inadvertently sees playing basketball in a home movie. In this young man, he sees a future basketball star and his ticket to becoming head coach. While the impact of this movie may not have been a big influence on the sport globally, it cast light on the athleticism of Africans in general and subtly revealed the increasing influence of "imports". 
Isn't it ironic that, right now, college-level teams in the good old Republic of the Philippines, find themselves recruiting Africans to bolster their teams ceiling and improve on overall athletic ability.

The term "the air up there" is also much used by us vertically challenged mortals (When I talk to Greg Slaughter I often find myself conversing with his chest) when talking to people of way over average height. In my younger years I have often asked much taller individuals how the weather was "up there".

The  discourse above sheds light on the fact that in basketball, height in general equates to might and as most Filipinos are challenged in this department, imports in our case usually equates to someone of stratospheric height.

When a player like Greg Slaughter or Japeth Aguilar shows up on court he immediately gets noticed. In the last few years, Filipino cagers have been able to match height and wits with their foreign counterparts.

Of late, a high school senior has somehow managed to evade attention. At 17 years of age, Isaac Go, of Xavier School in Greenhills, stands all of 6 feet 7 inches in his bare feet. A hefty player with a soft touch and a good understanding of the game, Isaac has the potential to emerge as a dominant center who can easily switch over to a power forward role.

There was a time when Xavier was not considered basketball "competitive". This was before the era of Chris Tiu, Joseph Yeo, TY Tang and brothers Jeric and Jeron Teng; all "small" guys who could do amazing things with the ball. Isaac comes from another, bigger mold.

Having gone to the same school in San Juan (albeit a few decades removed), I have been following his development for some time.  Watching him in the finals of the 2013 edition of the Metro Manila Tiong Lian league against Hope Christian I couldn't help but see the huge upside to the development of his game.

I was fortunate to have been able to grab a couple of hours from his busy schedule to talk about his vocation to basketball and his prospects for the near future. Sure, he has aspirations for the PBA but for now his sights are trained on getting ready for college ball. We were joined by Gian, his older brother and mentor who is also a player and disciple of the game.

Prior to our meeting, I managed to catch Isaac in action as Xavier School represented San Juan in the recent NCR Palaro games. Having only 8 players on the bench, Isaac was forced to play extra minutes for Xavier but he hardly showed signs of fatigue which he attributes to his increased focus on strength and conditioning.

After the game we find our way to Balkan Express, where on some days you can find various college players or basketball aficionados dining. Of course, my first order of inquiry would be along the lines of his university choice. As of this writing he and his family are still deciding on what will best suit him in terms of basketball and academics, and he is focused on just graduating from High School. As a teaser, they have narrowed their choice to 5 possibilities (both from the UAAP and NCAA). His advantage is that coming from Xavier there will be no residency rule requirements. (Update March 10, 2014: Indications show that he may be headed towards the blue side of Katipunan)

Between bites of the delicious Chicken Batak, Isaac recounts that as a young boy of 10, he was forced into the sport by his brother who needed someone to play against. Since he was the most convenient one to harass he found himself shooting hoops regularly and in three years he decided to take the sport up in earnest. As far as he can remember he has always been the tallest in his batch until his high school years when he literally was "Biggest Man On Campus".

Aside from basketball, Isaac also took to three other sports. Swimming which helped him with his cardio, and Volleyball and Badminton which helped with increasing his vertical leap and improve on timing. He realizes the need to put in the time  and effort getting in shape, and Xavier has excellent facilities for this endeavor.

Classes would usually end at 3:30 pm and three times a week for an hour and a half he's in the gym for weights and conditioning. He also tries to sneak in a 15 to 20 minute run prior to practice to help increase his stamina. Basketball drills and scrimmages end around 6 and he heads home for supper and homework. A lot of people don't realize that these kids have academic commitments aside from the demands of practice and games. Isaac and his brother Gian usually hit the sack at 12 midnight only to repeat the process again, day after day, week after week. Weekends are for catching up on sleep whenever possible.

Everybody has role models and for Isaac its the Spur's Tim Duncan that he tries to pattern his game after. As a player he, feels that just like Duncan, he may not be as athletic as others but he knows that by using his smarts he would have an edge over more versatile or seasoned cagers. He would like to think that he isn't a flashy player but can be very effective on court just like his PBA idol Danny Ildefonso. He also looks to his brother for advise and pointers. Gian plays on Ateneo's Team Glory Be and writes articles related to all things basketball.

He continues to try to improve on a  60 to 70% free throw shooting average by shooting from the 15 foot line daily, stopping only after he gets five straight shots in the hoop. We all know how important this can be during a game where smaller players would resort to fouling a bigger man. He averages about 1.5 blocked shots a game and once managed a personal best 12 blocks in a game. He also averages a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds. His favorite go to shot is the right hand hook and once perfected, given his length, it may be difficult to stop him from scoring.

At 6'7", it is a given that his presence will certainly be felt during a game. He will always be able to alter an opposing players shot or make him think twice about attempting one. There will always be match up problems as the double team is a highly probable defensive ploy. As a player he knows his role on court: alter shots, rebound, and to make sure to  communicate with his team mates regarding defensive assignments. One unknown fact about him is that he is a good passer and often looks to involve his team mates in the offensive set.

Like a lot of players, Isaac has a simple pre-game routine...early on game day he mentally prepares himself and thinks about the game plan of the team before breakfast. He also likes listening to music as a way of meditation. A quick prayer, for him to be allowed to do his best and for his team to avoid injuries, is a must before tip-off. There is an air of maturity about this young man, in his manner and in his thought processes.

Earlier on, I mentioned his hopes of joining the PBA some day, but his thoughts go far further into the future. This early he realizes that basketball will only get him so far and a diploma from a good school is imperative for this. For a college course, it will be along the lines of Business, Engineering or Math and Science. Soon after graduation, whether or not he makes it to the PBA, he wants to go down the entrepreneurship route and start a business as early as possible.

When applying for a job, a resume or a pedigree carries a lot of weight. Isaac has not only logged heavy time with local competition, his international exposure cannot be taken lightly. Among tournaments abroad, he has bragging rights on stints in the FIBA U-16, SEABA U-18 and the 3x3 Asian Youth Games where he has very fond memories. He has played alongside promising players like Jerie Pingoy, Prince Rivero, Hubert Cani, Arvin Tolentino and Thirdy Ravena. Yet despite all these achievements tucked under his belt, he remains steadfastly humble and respectful. I credit this to his upbringing and his Jesuit education. When asked to describe himself he has this to say: "I am a kind, friendly, and joyful person who loves math and science." Nice and simple.

Going back to the increased presence of African imports whose hulking presence will make life more difficult for locals in the shaded lane, Isaac has this to say: "I will compete with all my heart. I know they are more physically gifted and that is why i have to compete twice as hard.

For Isaac and his size 16 shoes, the future will most certainly be an interesting one. Hard work, determination and focus should be on his side...not to mention height.


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