The drums continued to beat while the crowd excitedly jumped for joy. Everyone was in jubilant celebration, but Dave Ildefonso could only stop and stare by the baseline. The result of a three-year redemption process was finally complete. The Ateneo Blue Eaglets captured the UAAP championship on March 2, 2018 at the Filoil Flying V Arena after beating the NU Bullpups. While his teammates continued to hug one another to celebrate the achievement, Dave, who had finally tasted his first championship, just stood there with a faint smile.
The circus started as early as June 2017. The Ateneo Senior High School had just started their classes for school year 2017-2018. This was extra special for Dave because of two things; this was his last year playing for the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, which also meant he was graduating High School that same year, granted he passed all of his classes. He wasn’t the only one graduating, however. 800+ other students were vying to march up the stage like him.
Senior year for High School students goes by quickly. Dave’s batch was no exception. Despite all of the chaos with plenty of stories snuck in between the final days of these students, two questions constantly lingered in their minds.
Am I going to graduate?
And most importantly..
Where am I going to study in college?
For Dave and the other athletes, there was that third, extra difficult question which made things even more complicated for them.
What team am I going to play for in college?
The easy answer for most Atenean athletes was to stay home at all costs. For Dave’s teammates SJ Belangel, Jason Credo, and even RV Berjay, this seemed like a no-brainer. It was an easy choice; the safe choice, even. But for Dave, it was a little more complicated than that.
Just a few months ago, his brother Shaun declared that he would be leaving the Ateneo Blue Eagles to play for the NU Bulldogs. It was an understandable decision for Shaun to make. Ateneo was loaded with forwards, so playing time would have been very limited for him. Go to NU and you join a team that badly needed a player of Shaun’s caliber in the forward spot. It definitely helped that his dad was going to be an assistant coach in the program. At the very least, Shaun had the guy who’s mentored him all of his life at his back come the UAAP. Family matters. A lot.
This then created even more questions for Dave. If you were Dave, where would you go? To the school which had become your home for so long now, a program that you’ve grown so familiar with, and a staff that knows you inside out? Or do you go to two of your loved ones for the chance to play for a championship with your dad and brother? These were the questions he knew he would have to answer eventually the moment he stepped onto the Ateneo Senior High School campus as a senior. His classmates, maybe even batchmates, knew these as well.
“Kasi, when the news was going around that he might go to NU, there was a lot of ribbing,” said one of his former Senior High School teachers Ms. Carol Laforteza. “(U)sually he would just laugh at it.”
He had no other choice but to laugh at it, because allowing it to affect him would be counter intuitive for his goals that year. He needed to lock in because there were two very important tasks ahead of him.
“He struck me as someone who was focused on what was important at that time – to win and to graduate,” said Laforteza.
“Malalim na tao ‘yan si Dave, mukha lang makulit, pero matalino at nag iisip talaga,” said a source who requested anonymity.
“My first impression of Dave does not really reflect him,” said Dave’s former class moderator Coach Jok Cobar. “Akala ko dati typical recruited athlete siya. Pero comparing him to others athletes, matalino siya. He (was) one of my (good) students in my Sports Science class. Very critical in sciences lalo na kapag sa sports na nakakarelate siya.”
“Very driven and determined siya, at least in my class,” added Cobar.
Danny I told Cobar during Dave’s senior year that his only wish was for his son to march come graduation. To Dave’s credit, he put in the work during his senior year. He was locked in to his academics, to the point where he himself wouldn’t allow his classmates to distract him from studying. For a regular High School student to do this was one thing, but for an athlete of Dave’s stature to achieve this was another thing altogether. It was the final quarter of Dave’s high school journey and he was as locked in as ever.
As the school year continued to chug along, it meant two things; the pressure on Dave to perform on the court and in class rose with each passing day, and talks among Senior High School students about where they wanted to enter college started to grow since they started taking their college entrance exams.
The ribbing from his classmates continued. Dave was still locked in. Yet, the laughs from Dave in response to these jokes started to lessen. “(M)akikita mo sa itsura niya na parang naiinis siya. Pakiramdam niya, pagpaparamdam yun na nang-iiwan na siya,” said Cobar on the ribbing from his classmates.
“Kaya kapag usapang college na noon sa classroom, laging iwas yan si Dave,” added Cobar.
“In his senior year, I already had a feeling he was leaving,” said one of Dave’s former teachers Mrs. Sansan Borja. The writing was on the wall. For others, it was no longer a matter of if Dave was leaving. It was just a matter of when.
While Dave continued to stand by the baseline as his teammates celebrated, his brother Shaun was beside him allowing photo requests with fans. Suddenly, a member of the media jokingly asked Shaun, “O Shaun! San na ba pupunta si Dave?” Shaun quickly looked at Dave then replied with a smile, “Abangan mo na lang!” Dave could only smile back as the media member walked away from the brothers, but you could sense the tension in his body the moment the question was asked. Even in his golden moment, something he had worked hard for so long, the circus of his impending decision continued to linger on.
“Of course when the season ended, that’s when he looked a little sadder, I guess,” remembered Laforteza. The usually jolly Ildefonso was a little quieter as well. Over the course of the school year he had tried to push away distractions from his two main goals; to graduate and to win. Even with both of those boxes checked already, he still had questions to answer:
Where am I going to study in college?
What team am I going to play for in college?
There was a lot to consider for Dave before making this decision. On one hand, going to NU meant he would likely get more playing time under Coach Jamike Jarin. At the end of the day, when it comes to the development of a basketball player, playing time is the easiest thing to give for a player’s growth. You allow a player to experience more in-game situations while also forcing him to adjust with the added responsibility.
On the other hand, leaving Ateneo meant leaving behind a place he had been familiar with for so long already. By all means,the campus a comfort zone for the second generation star. He had built timeless friendships in Loyola Heights, while creating memories that would last a lifetime. At the same time, he would have been coached by Coach Tab Baldwin. Even if he wouldn’t have gotten that much playing time then, he’d still be trained by a proven mentor in the sport.
Then, of course, there was the factor of family. It was never a matter of Danny I making the decision for Dave. Danny I, as himself, already had a big effect in Dave’s development as a basketball player. Danny was more than just a father for Dave. He was his first mentor and coach. Dave’s raw power, basketball IQ, and polish in the post all came from his father, except that he was in the package of a wingman. From his strengths, his weaknesses, and his little quirks, Danny I knew Dave’s game the best.
Part of Dave’s heart screamed One Big Fight. The other part screamed NU Let’s Go. But his mind whispered, You need to be in the situation that will make you the best possible basketball player.
“Sa pagkakakilala ko kay Dave, ang decision niya lagi is based sa kung saan siya mas mag-iimprove at gagaling,” said the source. On March 9, 2018, Dave finally ended the circus and made his decision. “When I asked if it were true if he were leaving, he just smiled at me,” said Laforteza. He was going to become a NU Bulldog.
— Dave Ildefonso (@ildavefonso) March 9, 2018
This was never an easy decision for the young Ildefonso. “Yung paglipat nila ni Shaun sa NU, mahirap yun para sa kanila. Siyempre sanay sila sa ganung environment tapos lilipat sila sa Sampaloc na ang laking pagkakaiba sa Katipunan,” said the source. “Dati sobrang ridiculous para sa kanila yung idea na lilipat sa NU. Pero ayun, yung future nila as basketball players ang tiningnan nila.”
“Alam niya na hindi niya makukuha kumpyansa niya sa Ateneo as compared sa paglipat sa NU,” added the source. More than the allure of playing time, it was the factor of having his dad with him in this journey which tipped the scales towards the Bulldogs, sources say. Fans would continue to have discussions as to whether he had made the right decision to leave Ateneo. But for Dave, that was irrelevant after he had finally made the jump to Sampaloc. What mattered to him now was to get to work so he could become the basketball player he had always envisioned himself to be.
Months of work with his new school finally culminated on September 8, 2018, when Dave made his debut with the NU Bulldogs against the UST Growling Tigers. Expectations surrounding Ildefonso were aplenty. But to everyone’s surprise, he faced the pressure head on and actually exceeded what was expected from him.
In a showdown with fellow rookie CJ Cansino, Dave put up 19 points and seven assists in the win versus UST. It was the same Dave fans had gotten used to seeing with the Eaglets; a big two guard who paired incredible God-given strength with impeccable skill around the basketball court. What made his performance much more impressive was how composed he looked playing as the first option of his team, the first time that had happened for him in his UAAP career. With the Blue Eaglets, he was second or third fiddle behind SJ and Kai Sotto. Now with NU, he was the undisputed best player. He willingly embraced the responsibility, including the painful parts.
The debut performance from Dave wasn’t a fluke. He continued to play excellently during Season 81, even contending for the Rookie of the Year award against Cansino and Ateneo big man Ange Kouame. The discussion surrounding Dave shifted. It was no longer about whether he made the right decision to leave Ateneo. The question now was; just how good can Dave Ildefonso be down the line?
Apparently the answer to that: really damn good. He continued his rapid growth as he had an impressive showing with Batang Gilas during the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece last July 2019. He was the team’s top scorer and playmaker, with averages of 16.6 points and 3.7 assists per game during the tournament. Not only was he producing numbers, but he was straight up competing against some of the best wingmen in his age bracket.
It reached its tipping point when Dave outplayed Asian rival Guo Haowen to the tune of 21 points, six rebounds, and seven assists in Gilas’ win versus China, 86-72. He was no longer just a potential UAAP star. He had transformed into a potential cornerstone of Philippine Basketball and someone who looked built to play in leagues abroad when all of this was said and done.
Sadly, that’s what it was: a tipping point.
Instead of making the dramatic leap many expected him to have during UAAP Season 82, he didn’t look that much different compared to who he was during his rookie year. While his production increased (17.1 ppg and 5.8 rebounds per game), his overall value hit a snag.
Dave as a first option wasn’t working out in the larger context of the team. The Bulldogs finished UAAP Season 82 as the worst team in the league, only winning two games in a year when they were expected to contend for a Final Four slot. While Dave did produce a lot, he committed a lot of costly errors which were detrimental to the growth of the team. He had a tendency to isolate a lot which led to a stagnant offense. At the same time, offensive flow was very poor whenever he wouldn’t have the ball. As a result, he had trouble finding good positioning to score, the very thing he was so good at doing with Batang Gilas.
While he was still widely regarded as one of the best players in the UAAP, it felt like his growth was being held back. After Season 82, it was starting to feel like NU was no longer the right program for his development. He had proven he’s a talented player with the playing time Coach Jamike had given to him. The problem was, he had developed some bad habits as a result of the added responsibility and pressure.
His dad, basketball great Danny I, could have been the one to have helped him with his development during the offseason. There was a big problem. After the NU Bulldogs had decided to hire Goldwyn Monteverde as their new head coach, they also decided not to bring back any of the members of last year’s coaching staff. That included Dave’s dad, Danny I; the very reason Dave even went to NU in the first place. His biggest critic and the best mentor he’s had all his life was suddenly out of the picture for NU.
“Ano pang sense kung wala na si (Danny I) dun?” said a source close to the situation of Dave’s transfer. At that point, Dave could no longer continue his journey with the NU Bulldogs.
The moment the news of Dave’s planned departure from NU started to circulate around basketball circles, teams quickly sent out offers to the talented prospect. But Dave didn’t need money or assurance of playing time anymore. He simply needed the best possible program for him to grow even more as a basketball player. His mind knew what it wanted.
Dave’s heart, on the other hand, has always been a very complicated discussion. He definitely loved playing for the NU Bulldogs. Not one moment, even during the losing seasons and the blowout losses, did he ever regret playing for the Blue and Gold. But at the same time, while being a Nationalian, he was also an Atenean. Ateneo was home. No jersey could take that away from him.
Dave always found the time to visit his old stomping grounds in the Ateneo Senior High School campus. “In all the times he visited, maybe twice, he was personable,” said Ms. Laforteza. I think his time away from Ateneo helped him grow up. He’s pretty grounded, really nicer and respectful. He wasn’t mayabang at all.”
Despite the ribbing he got from friends during his senior year, he always kept in touch with his classmates from Senior High School. He also visited his former moderator for his birthday once, while also visiting the school during Christmas in 2018. You can take a boy out of the Ateneo but you can never take Ateneo out of a boy. His visits to the school were never about basketball. It was about being reunited with a place he could always call home.
But this all went back to the most important factor in his decision: his growth as a basketball player. While playing time is always a controversial topic, Dave knew he needed more than just burn on the court to develop further as a basketball player. When it comes to development, there isn’t anyone better at this point in college basketball than Tab Baldwin.
“Malaking factor talaga si Tab Baldwin,” said the source on Dave’s interest in Ateneo. “Alam ni Dave na mamaximize talaga ang potential niya (with Tab), especially na gusto nya talaga maglaro internationally.”
Tab’s program was perfect for what Dave wanted. Dave had bad habits he needed to correct; Tab’s system is perfect for unlearning those habits. Isolating all the time? You can’t do that with Tab, you need to swing the ball. Just standing in the corner and cheating on defense? You’re going to the bench if you do that with Tab, he puts a premium on the details of the defensive end. Dave clearly has the talent. What he needed to learn were the little things which would catapult him to even greater heights. Those little things he’d learn through rigorous training and film sessions with a coaching staff which was dedicated to producing very good basketball players, is just what he needed.
On December 10, 2019, a couple of weeks after NU had announced the hiring of Coach Goldwyn Monteverde, Dave sent this message to Mrs. Borja.
This was last December 10. Nothing was final yet but he was already thinking of coming back. So happy to hear it’s official. Honestly @ildavefonso, it’s like you never left. 💙 pic.twitter.com/l2gbZeReeQ
— Sansan Borja (@san2borja) January 13, 2020
Mukhang ganun nga Ma’am. Haha babalik ako e. Technically in that moment, Dave hadn’t officially decided yet. But it was safe to say that even while he thought about other possibilities during the Christmas break, he already knew the place where he wanted to go.
— Dave Ildefonso (@ildavefonso) January 13, 2020
We aren’t always blessed with the opportunity of our heart and our mind aligning together in our decisions. That’s what happened to Dave during 2018. A part of his heart wanted him to stay in Ateneo but his mind knew it was not the best move from a basketball perspective. Fast forward to 2020 and the heart and mind had finally aligned. This was an easy decision to make, one where he could be at peace, because he was finally home.
The next two years are going to be difficult for Dave. Not only will he have to adjust with how basketball is played with Coach Tab, but he’ll also need to get used to the rigors of the Ateneo education once again. But these are sacrifices Dave knew he had to make if he wanted to move forward with his basketball journey. He’s mature and humble enough to admit his limits as a person; so humble, in fact, that he even messaged a former High School teacher, asking if she could help him with his school work if he went back to Ateneo. It takes a unique kind of courage to sacrifice worldly pleasures such as playing time in the world of basketball. It will be difficult, but Dave truly believes this will all be worth it.
There were no drums beating, no crowd jumping for joy. Dave Ildefonso couldn’t help but smile and feel at peace. It was January 15, 2020, when he walked around the halls of the Ateneo Senior High School two days after he announced his decision to return to Ateneo. Nothing weighing over his head anymore. The heart and the mind had finally aligned. Dave was finally back in the place where he belonged.