With 12.7 seconds left on the clock, the NU Bulldogs had the chance to escape with an upset over the highly-touted UST Growling Tigers. Escape is the operative word; the Bulldogs could have very well gone home already with a convincing win, but crucial turnovers from point guard Enzo Joson allowed UST to climb back to tie the game at 68. 

One of Enzo’s turnovers, a five-second violation to be exact, was deja vu to when he made the very same error versus the De La Salle Green Archers during the first round of last season. That turnover ultimately cost them the game and these most recent errors of Enzo weren’t helping in strengthening his reputation.

But the Bulldogs still had a chance to get their first win. Just to win the game would have meant the world already to the struggling NU Bulldogs. 

Shaun Ildefonso had options to give the ball to just to complete the inbounds. The easy choice would have been to give it to NU’s best player, Dave Ildefonso. But with the five NU had on the floor in that moment, Joson was the designated point guard. Where would Shaun go? Would he give Enzo one more chance, despite a history that tells him to believe otherwise?

The Glory Days

Many have proudly labeled the Ateneo Blue Eagles as a homegrown program thanks to its long list of players who came from their High School program. The Blue Eagles’ history of success is perfectly captured by the Nieto twins as they had one a championship in High School, while also winning titles in the collegiate level. You couldn’t doubt this path the Blue Eagles were taking; they’d won two straight championships already and they seem ripe to win a third straight crown. Their early commitment to success in the High School ranks was spilling over to their Seniors program.

Photo Credit: Mhel Garrido

But the golden days of Ateneo’s homegrown program didn’t just start in the UAAP. It all started during the late 2000s when the Ateneo Grade School Small Basketeers of the Philippines program started to blow up by winning championships. The program had completed a four-peat by 2010, with a bunch of familiar names having led the school to championships each year. In 2010, Jolo Mendoza was regarded as Grade School Basketball’s golden boy. The year before, the Nieto twins ripped apart Kobe Paras and La Salle Greenhills in the Finals. In 2008, Thirdy Ravena and Aaron Black were raw kids slowly realizing their potential. Finally, in 2007, Anton Asistio was starting to build his legend.

But missing in these list of names, especially with the 2009 team which won the three-peat, was a point guard. In that team, Mike Nieto was the dominant big man while Matt Nieto was the team’s two guard. Important in Grade School Basketball is a point guard; someone who can capably organize the team despite the loads of energy everyone was bringing on the court. That SBP Blue Eaglets team had that with Enzo Joson.

“Pagdating ng fourth quarter, siya ginagawa kong point guard,” said former Ateneo SBP coach PJ Navarro. “He was really a very steady point guard.” During those days, Matt was primarily an elite defender who provided steady scoring as well. Jolo was obviously the dead-shot scorer. But Enzo was the pass-first point guard who willingly set the table for his uber-talented teammates. 

Being a point guard as a kid takes plenty of responsibility and sacrifice and Enzo openly embraced this role in the team. “Coach PJ would always tell me to create for my teammates, involve my teammates, make them better,” remembered Enzo. 

But that didn’t mean him taking a backseat by play making lost him attention or credit. He was widely considered in his batch in Ateneo as one of its best players along with the Nietos. “Oo, ka-level, in the sense of type of play,” said Coach Navarro. In fact, the battles Matt and Enzo had in Intrams were always instant classics. If it wasn’t the twins who made it to the Finals, it would be the two SBP back court mates battling it out. They may have been teammates, but they were also two very competitive players. “That’s why in the Grade School, there was a rivalry between Matt and Enzo talaga. Kasi sila talaga pinakamagaling,” remembered former Ateneo Blue Eaglets coach Joe Silva. 

It was only a matter of time the Nietos and Enzo made the jump to High School along with their kuyas Thirdy, Aaron, and Anton. They were the top three recruits of Coach Joe, all widely considered as the cream of the crop of Grade School Basketball. It was time to level it up with the UAAP looking like a real possibility.

But basketball wasn’t the only thing which would change for the point guard.

The Hurdle

Ano na plano mo?” asked Gian Mamuyac to Enzo. The mood was somber. Both Blue Eaglets knew something beautiful was ending.

It was the summer of 2015 when Enzo and the rest of the Ateneo Blue Eaglets were celebrating their first championship since the three-peat in Season 73. Ateneo looked primed to achieve a back to back the next season. The Blue Eaglets had 10 veterans including Finals MVP Jolo Mendoza. The Eaglets Fab Four in SJ Belangel, Dave Ildefonso, RV Berjay, and Jason Credo were all coming in. It should have been a momentous time for Gian and Enzo. 

Should have been.

On that same summer, the team found out that they would be losing Enzo Joson the next season as the Ateneo High School had decided to kick him out. How did it get to this point for Enzo, as from SBP and UAAP champion, he suddenly didn’t have a team to play for?

“He struggled in his first few years in the Ateneo High School, so talagang di siya pinapayagang maglaro,” said Coach Joe Silva. Ateneo has always been notorious for being strict with its academics and it wasn’t giving an elite prospect like Enzo a free pass. It got so bad for Enzo that after first year High School, he needed to repeat since he failed some classes. The very fact that he had a second chance in Ateneo was a blessing already. But the fact of the matter was, he had taken a step back by having to repeat a year.

In 2012, while the Nietos and Jolo Mendoza were playing in the UAAP already, Joson was busy hitting the books and trying to get his academics straight. This was certainly noble, but the reality was, pick-up games and Sportsfests could only provide him so much. Not getting to play in competitive leagues stunted his development. 

Eventually, Enzo got his chance to play in the UAAP in Season 76. After playing mostly off the bench in his rookie year, he got the chance to get heavy minutes the season after. “Actually when Matt Nieto was on the bench, it was either him or Brix (Ramos) bringing down the ball,” said Coach Silva. “He was our secondary or tertiary point guard right after Matt.”

More than just providing play making, Enzo’s main role with the Blue Eaglets then was to defend the best player of the other team. He was so versatile in fact that during the Finals he spent time shutting down NU’s Mark Dyke. “He’s one of the players that I look up to and idolize,” said his former teammate Mamuyac. “His defensive basketball IQ is off the charts plus his timing makes him a really great defensive player.” He was supposed to bring that same defensive intensity to the Blue Eaglets in Season 78 and then some.

“He was supposed to be our team captain that year,” said Mamuyac. “He was the most respected player on that team that year and everyone followed him which made it easier for us because everyone was on the same page.”

This was supposed to be Enzo’s best opportunity at putting his name back on the map of top recruits in the country. Despite struggles with his academics to start his High School life, he bounced back and made his mark in the winningest Juniors Program in the UAAP. Now he had the chance to add to his legacy by winning a second ring as team captain.

“I thought we’d go back to back,” said Gian Mamuyac.

Supposed to be. He thought. Or as Gian put it himself in an Instagram post: What could have been and what should have been.

“But then the most important player on our team didn’t make it.” 

The run of Enzo as a Blue Eaglet came to a close when he failed his third year of High School. You can only repeat once in the Ateneo High School system. Fail again after that and you’re automatically kicked out. 

This was heartbreaking for Coach Joe and the Blue Eaglets, but even more so for Enzo himself. He had been an Atenean all his life and he had represented only one school since. Seeing Enzo in a different jersey seemed impossible. 

Enzo Joson loved it in Ateneo. But Enzo himself knew, he loved something much more. 

“I still wanted to play basketball after Ateneo,” said Joson. “I had to make a name for myself in another school.” That was Traill International School for Enzo, as he took his talents to Bangkok after the Blue Eaglets. The ultimate goal for him was to make it back to the UAAP but he needed to get his academics in check. Most importantly, he needed to get himself to a good place spiritually and mentally.

Photo Credit: Enzo Joson’s Instagram (enzo_joson)

With the Blue Eaglets, he was mostly used as a defender. It was a lot different in Traill. “Sa Traill, he was given confidence by his coach to become a real superstar,” said Mamuyac. At this point, Enzo would have taken any opportunity to get his basketball career standing again. Traill provided him that, and he couldn’t have been any more grateful. “I got my confidence back, and I got to play well,” mentioned Enzo. The road to the UAAP was in full swing once more for the former Blue Eaglet.

Welcome to the UAAP

The NU Bulldogs had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to the De La Salle Green Archers in Season 81 of the UAAP. A lot of the blame was being pinned on Enzo Joson after he had committed a crucial five-second violation in the clutch. Many expected what was next; a good ‘ol tongue lashing from fiery head coach Jamike Jarin. 

Except, that wasn’t the case at all.

“Why didn’t I get mad?” Coach Jamike asked Enzo after the game. “Coach, hindi ko alam,” replied Enzo. “That was your decision eh,” Jarin remarked to Enzo then. “As long as you were 100 percent, that’s fine with me. Pero kung sinadya mo yung mali mo, there’s something wrong with you.” 

Coach Jamike Jarin has always had deep connections with his players, but his relationship with Enzo was something entirely different. Enzo lost his dad at an early age and for Coach Joe, Enzo had always tried to look for a father figure. Thankfully for him, Coach Jamike was willing to try and take on that role.

“Coach Jamike was close with Enzo’s family talaga,” said Silva. “Coach Jamike took it upon himself and promised the family he would watch over Enzo to make sure he was okay.” 

“Coach Jamike was my mentor when I was a kid,” said Enzo.

Once Enzo graduated college, he knew he still wanted to go back to Ateneo. Deep inside, he bled blue. But his mind thought differently. He was scared he would go through the cycle again of failing and having his development stunted. So instead of going to Ateneo, he decided to join Coach Jamike and the NU Bulldogs for the UAAP.

Enzo’s rookie year was promising, as Coach Jamike gave him opportunities to play as NU’s primary playmaker. He averaged 6.8 points per game (PPG), 2.7 assists per game (APG), and 0.9 steals per game (SPG) on 19.3 minutes of play. Enzo looked like the perfect point guard in Coach Jamike’s system, as he had the toughness, size, and peskiness which Jarin liked out of his playmakers. It looked like Enzo had finally found some stability in his basketball journey.

Except Enzo had to face the (seemingly) inevitable sophomore slump. Despite the point guard position of NU not having any form of depth, Enzo could not get going during Season 81. His minutes fell to just 15.5 and his production (4.5 PPG, 1.9 APG, 0.4 SPG) also followed suit. But his stats falling is nothing compared to everything he’d experienced the last decade. From champion, to kickout, and now Bulldog, Enzo Joson’s basketball dream continues to live.

“I think the most impressive trait of Enzo is that no matter how hard the obstacles are for him, he always finds a way to solve it or to get through it,” said Mamuyac on one of his closest friends. “The amazing part of that is you wouldn’t even know he’s going through something or he’s facing a huge obstacle.

“He’s always the same guy every time, he doesn’t change.”

“That’s what he brought from Grade School to now. His confidence,” said Coach Joe Silva.

The Present

Shaun passed Enzo the ball. With 12.7 seconds left on the clock and the game on the line, Shaun gave the ball to Enzo.

The same guy who committed two turnovers a few plays prior. The same guy who was supposed to be with Shaun in their back to back quest in Season 78. But also, the same guy people have come to love as one of the toughest people they’ve ever met.

“I asked sa akin yung bola sa huli,” said Enzo regarding that play. “I told Shaun na ibigay niya sa akin.” 

“Pag may ganun na direction, wala kaming choice. At that time, gusto talaga namin ibigay sa kanya. May tiwala ako kay Enzo,” said Bulldogs team captain Shaun Ildefonso.

“Yung desire na gusto niya bumawi, nakikita namin.”

Once Enzo got the ball, he immediately attacked Mark Nonoy’s defense. He knew he was taking this shot. He didn’t care Rhenz Abando was helping from the weak side. He was going to find a way to get out of that double team, like how he’s found ways to revive his basketball career despite so many hurdles in life.

He kept on attacking Nonoy’s defense and once Abando got close to doubling, he immediately spun to split the defense. The shot was open and he wasn’t allowing this one to slip. He leapt to to the rim, made the ball kiss the glass, and watched it swish. Art amidst the madness. NU had grabbed the lead. This was supposed to be Enzo Joson’s moment.

Supposed to be.

Right after that play, UST ran back to their side of the court and took advantage of the Bulldogs who celebrated too early after the shot. Mark Nonoy dished it off to Soulemane Chabi Yo in the paint who scored to send the game to overtime. NU would never recover, as UST outscored them 17-4 to give NU its third straight loss.

Third straight heartbreaker. The Bulldogs were understandably inconsolable. But once Enzo Joson came out of the locker room, he didn’t look like he even shed a tear from the loss.

It was painful, yes. But Enzo knows there are more important things to think about than the past. “Yung mindset ko, it’s done,” said Joson. “You learn from it, then you move on. Ganun lang. Basic lang. Kasi if I try to keep thinking of the past, di ko naman maiiba yun eh.” 

He can’t change that he failed in Ateneo. He can’t change that he got kicked out. He also can’t change his five second violations nor his turnovers. Like what Coach Jamike always says, charge it to experience. 

“He’s man enough, he’s mature enough to say, ‘Let’s just move on.’,” said Coach Joe Silva. He needs to be man enough. He needs to be mature enough. Because Enzo knows, nothing can be given to him on a silver platter. Every game for him is do or die, for the dream he’s chased ever since he was a kid. 

“This year, make or break year ko eh. If I play well, good for me. If hindi, wala na eh. Pabaon na ako sa ilalim,” said Enzo. “Every game, ready lang ako. Give it all out.” 

As Enzo goes out of the Mall of Asia Arena, he stands strong. His basketball dream is alive, that’s all that matters right now. The game is done. More battles are to be fought. He has no other choice but to keep going.