Friday, 26 April 2013 13 Comments
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
-William Ernest Henley, Invictus
Every day we fight desperately for what our hearts truly desire. Every day we try our best to defeat Father Time, and to outwit fate along with life’s accidents. We are relentless in our quest to make our own destinies.
But fate doesn’t allow that. The reality is that there are some things you absolutely have no control over.
What do you do then?
Throughout UAAP Season 75, the Growling Tigers have carved a wickedly impressive reputation that’s solely based on a string of improbable come-from-behind victories.
Some labeled these instances as ‘escaping from the jaws of defeat’. Others reduced them to ‘tsamba’ or ‘luck’. But many recognized the simmering magnificence in these rallies, hailing the Tigers as the ‘Comeback Cats’ or the ‘Comeback Kings’.
Anybody who saw those heart-stopping, nail-biting games could easily bear witness to how forward Aljon Mariano was involved, if not the orchestrator, of those supposedly impossible rallies.
So scintillating was Aljon’s play last season that it’s easy to forget that he actually suffered through an injury before all of it.
“At first, nung bumalik ako sa practice, sobrang down ako and nangangapa talaga. Kasi back to zero talaga lahat. As in wala talaga,” Aljon shares, frowning at the memory of how he was bitten by reality a little over a year ago. “Sobrang payat na nung paa ko dati, tapos kahit balance wala ako.”
Just as Aljon was beginning to show the early signs of a budding King Tiger two seasons ago, fate stepped in. He fractured his ankle during a preseason game and missed the entire UAAP Season 74 because of it.
Watching his teammates play that season without him, he admits, was a hard pill to swallow.
“Nung pinapanood ko sila, parang gusto ko makatulong ako. Sana andoon ako para makatulong sa team,” he says.
It took Aljon six months before he could play again. He was injured around March, and was able to play again around September 2011. The real work, however, began sometime between December 2011 and January 2012—when he took his first step to mounting a comeback he hoped would put him back on track, and on Philippine basketball radar.
Instead of wallowing in his misfortune, Aljon opted to pick himself up and claw his way out of that rut. He started by ensuring that his missing Season 74 wouldn’t go in vain.
“Nung pinapanood ko sila parang pinag-aaralan ko na lang. Pinag-aaralan ko ‘yung team namin tsaka ‘yung mga kalaban. Para pagbalik ko alam ko na ‘yung gagawin ko,” he says. “Mas na-motivate ako. Kasi kung na-down ako siguro pangit laro ko last season.”
He puts on a somber expression as he reflects on how much it took for him to stay positive. “Pinaghirapan ko talaga. Ang mindset ko na lang, dapat may impact ‘yung pagbalik ko.”
Aljon did more than come back with an impact. He came back fiercely—growling louder than ever.
And he was definitely heard by everybody.
The Return and Rise
It may be due to the law of averages, but the hard work that Aljon put in reaped great rewards for him in his comeback year during Season 75. He became one of the go-to guys for Coach Pido Jarencio, who often designed crucial game-winning plays around the returning forward. In turn, coaches began to manufacture defensive strategies to stop him.
But, of course, this is Aljon Mariano we’re talking about—the perennial mismatch nightmare for his opponents’ coaches.
There was, however, one coach who predicted what was coming. We all know him. The man behind Ateneo’s 5-peat title run in the UAAP—Coach Norman Black.
“Si Coach Norman daw sabi parang watch out, ganon. Kasi maganda daw nilaro ko nung summer,” Aljon recalls of the fearless prediction that nobody really took seriously. That is, until a hungry UST team led by Aljon’s heroics scraped out an upset win against Coach Norman’s team in the first round of eliminations.
He didn’t learn of Coach Norman’s comments until a day before that game. He took it in stride, feeling a combination of flattery and motivation to prove the multi-titled coach right.
That win over Ateneo was sweet vindication for Aljon. It cemented his return emphatically, with whispers of his name reverberating beyond the rounded walls of The Big Dome.
“Parang na-feel ko ito na ulit ‘yung start ng nakabalik na ako,” he says using a tone that sounded a lot like conviction peppered with triumph. “Tapos tinuloy-tuloy ko na lang. Start na ng bagong chapter ulit sa akin.”
Throughout the conversation, Aljon would always say how lucky he was with his game last season. “Sinuwerte ako” or “sumakto” he would say. The truth is, luck or ‘tsamba’ had the furthest thing to do with what Aljon did for his Tigers last season, which even spilled over to the Philippine Collegiate Champions League (PCCL).
Often fondly referred to by his teammates as LeJon (a play of Aljon’s and LeBron James’ names), Aljon’s greatest lesson from all of the supposed “luck”, is building trust in his teammates—a quality that manifested itself in UST’s close games.
“Kasi ‘yung ibang teams hindi sila maka-finish. Siguro mas nabuo kami lalo na pag ‘yung mga last minutes (sa game). Mas alam na namin ‘yung gagawin,” he says.
He understands, though, that consistency is a big concern for UST this year, saying that “’yung start lang ‘yung kulang namin.”
With regard to the subplot of the point guard vacancy underscoring the Tigers this season, Aljon says that adjustments by every person on the team will pull them through. Asked how feasible those adjustments are, Aljon answers with confidence, “Oo, kasi matagal na rin kami nagsasama kaya alam na namin ‘yung isa’t isa tsaka yung system ni Coach Pido.”
Aljon is a tough cookie—that much is certain. Not even sappy movies like “The Notebook” can make him shed a tear—or so he says.
Give him this, though—he is never shy to give credit where it is due, and be in awe of those around him; including Nico Salva of Ateneo, whom Aljon says was his toughest match-up last season.
Currently playing in the PBA D-League Foundation Cup for Jumbo Plastic, Aljon hopes to gain a different kind of experience to take with him to the ongoing FilOil preseason tourney, and the upcoming UAAP season. More than that, however, it’s the semi-professional atmosphere that he wants to soak up as preparation for his dream career in the PBA.
“’Yun talaga ‘yung pinakaunang plano ko. After UAAP, ‘yun talaga yung nilu-look forward ko, na makapaglaro ako sa PBA,” he says.
Aljon further admits that his dream team is a toss-up between crowd favorite Ginebra, and powerhouse Talk ‘N Text. He smiles as he speaks of how a very supportive crowd and consistent winning ways are what he hopes to also have in the future.
With big dreams set for Aljon’s horizon, he chooses to focus on the present first. “(Gusto ko) makuha ko ‘yung peak ng laro ko sa college para maging ready para makalaro sa PBA. Tsaka sana may makuha rin akong award bago ko gumraduate,” he shares.
His goals are not an impossible feat considering his current pace and his no-to-lakwatsa attitude. “Wala na (lakwatsa). Good boy eh,” he chuckles.
They say it’s not the fall that matters; it is how you get back up that makes the difference. Aljon must have taken that to heart.
He battled back from every setback and ultimately achieved his comeback. He acknowledged that for every shortcoming, there is a homecoming waiting; and that for every break, there’s a breakthrough just around the corner.
So to answer the question earlier: What do you do when things don’t go your way and you can’t control them?
You fight back. You push back. Bend if you must, but never break.
This life wasn’t made for the weak, and, clearly, Aljon is not one of them.
You shouldn’t be too.