I vividly recall vacationing to Tagaytay with Aaron Black and his entire family — Dad, Mom and older sister. Back in those days, Aaron and I were best friends. We were as close as you’d think a couple of grade school kids could be, brought together by a love of hoops that was just manifested in different ways.
I was the talker, he was the actual player.
When we were up in Tagaytay, I ventured into his world. Aaron needed to stay in shape even when on vacation, and to do this, his dad would rent out a court for a couple of hours and conduct one-on-one workouts with his son.
I was the adopted second son for the trip, so I tagged along. Being the unathletic, never-been-varsity 12 year-old basketball fanboy that I was, you can only imagine how ecstatic I felt to be able participate in an exclusive workout with one of the greatest PBA players of all-time, Norman Black.
Until I was flatout murdered in a practice. I crawled my way back to the court between every water break, each time questioning whether I was ready to retire from playing basketball even before I entered my teens.
On the other hand, Aaron was jogging back after all the breaks. He was all good. He was born to do this. And everyone even moderately aware of his father’s on-court abilities would probably attest to that.
But most of those people weren’t around Aaron five to six times a week. And in all honesty, even as I stood there watching Aaron drill 90% of his free throws at age 12, I had legitimate doubts about whether my best friend could ever make it onto the top varsity teams after grade school.
Doubts that, as I later understood, have defined and continue to define the career path of the now former Ateneo Blue Eagle.
As the son of one of the greatest PBA imports of all-time, Aaron Black has always had to deal with lofty expectations. When my batchmates and I first got wind of him when he entered Ateneo in Grade 3, we were underwhelmed. Despite his athleticism, he was not very skilled, wasn’t a remarkable shooter and wasn’t very tall. He was barely an inch taller than me, and I was a constant on the Top 10 shortest in class.
So as he eventually made the varsity teams in grade school, doubled what I proudly referred to as my growth spurt in Grade 7, and even made the UAAP Juniors squad for the first time in our second year in high school, there were still a lot of questions as to what his actual ceiling was as a player. If you asked me in high school, I would’ve probably told you that I thought Aaron would top out as a decent 6th or 7th man on the Ateneo Blue Eaglets.
I had never mentioned these old apprehensions about Aaron’s potential to him directly until a few months back, when we caught up over coffee in my preparation for this exact piece. And he finally shed some light on his past.
“Until I was second year up until early third year [high school], I was lazy. Up until then, Thirdy and I were some of the highest jumpers on the team, I was the fastest on the team,” Aaron said. “When I got to third year, I tore my ACL. That’s when I realized that you can’t take this stuff for granted. I started working on my game all the time.”
No wonder. Because in our senior year of high school, Aaron made the leap.
During a routine lunch period, a bit of news started to go around the senior batch: Aaron had 21 points at halftime. It was Game 1 of the UAAP Juniors Finals against the undefeated NU Bullpups.
Aaron would finish with 30, in what was the defining game of his high school career, and one that really fueled the interest for him from college teams (including Ateneo).
But us schoolmates of his had still yet to see his brilliance in person, so he brought it to us during our batch-wide sportsfest.
On that day, Aaron looked like a man on a mission to prove to our batch just how wide the gap between he and us regulars was. First, he dropped 48 points against Thirdy Ravena’s class. Then, 41 of his team’s 45 points against my class.
I was riding the bench watching him drill jumper after jumper on my classmates. And while our relationship wasn’t as close as it was in the past, as I watched him demolish my team, I realized that had never believed this much in Aaron’s ability to make it to the next level.
This was nowhere near the same kid who first stepped foot in Ateneo a decade earlier, or the raw talent shooting free throws in Tagaytay.
He was ready to take the next step.
When college came around, Aaron and I were what I like to refer to as corridor buddies. These are the relationships that revolve solely around the 5-minute conversations you have when you bump into each other in the halls in school.
Let me summarize my first three corridor encounters with Aaron as freshmen in college.
Corridor Encounter 1: Aaron explains that he’s battling for a spot on Ateneo’s lead UAAP team, is fairly optimistic, and clearly wants nothing more than to make the roster.
CE 2: There’s one final set of cuts left, and Aaron’s still on the team. He really might make it.
CE 3: The final roster is out. Aaron was the last man cut.
It was the first time in his life that he had been cut from a team.
“Just like the ACL, [getting cut] taught me to work my ass off. But this taught me that I wasn’t working hard enough,” Aaron said.
So he turned it up a notch, increasing his individual workouts simultaneously as he trained with Ateneo’s Glory Be squad.
He made the roster the following year, but the biggest challenge was actually securing proper minutes on an aspiring championship team. In the team’s first game against FEU, a fellow contender, Aaron was predictably benched.
But the Blue Eagles put up an uninspiring effort in an opening game loss, so then Ateneo Head Coach Bo Perasol looked to his unproven rookie to provide energy in their next game against Adamson.
“I’m playing you today, be ready,” Coach Bo said to Aaron prior to the team’s second game of Season 78.
It was his first ever UAAP Seniors game, and he knew for sure he was coming in sometime during the game, so he was extremely fidgety before checking in.
“You have no idea; I was shaking [before coming into the game]. I got the ball, and I thought I got fouled, and I just threw it up and said, ‘If it goes in, it goes in.’
“And it went in.”
This started one of the best debuts from a bench player that I’ve ever seen. Aaron scored 11 points on 4/6 shooting with 3 three-pointers , and was the main driver in kick starting Ateneo’s 84-60 demolition of Adamson.
Just one game was enough for Aaron to earn his rotation minutes as Kiefer Ravena’s back up for the rest of Season 78. And with Kiefer and Von Pessumal’s departures looming, Aaron’s emergence solidified his spot as a key cog in the future of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Or so we thought.
Seasons 79 and 80 were two special years for Ateneo. For better or for worse.
The 79 preseason was a controversial one, with several players leaving the team due to academic issues which compounded onto the departure of their graduating stars. There was a legitimate chance that Ateneo was going to miss the Final Four for the second time in four years.
“We worked so hard [that preseason] but it really was in the back of our mind if we could actually compete that year,” Aaron said about Season 79.
After a 4-4 start, Aaron and Co. won 6 in a row en route to one of the most unprecedented Finals runs in school history. While they would lose to the Teng-Mbala duo of La Salle in 79, Ateneo dominated the entire UAAP throughout most of Season 80 to secure their first title since the Five Peat era.
But while this two-year stretch for Ateneo trended almost solely upwards, the remainder of Aaron’s collegiate career marched to the beat of a different drum.
He finished Season 79 in the Top 15 of the MVP rankings, but injuries derailed him from making a significant jump into super stardom. While he was poised to do so the following year, he struggled with his shot for most of the season, and didn’t start a single game.
He was, however, a significant contributor when it mattered, averaging 8.7 points in the three game Finals series against La Salle.
“Season 80 was up and down. I thought there were some games that I could’ve played better, so I thought it wasn’t really anybody’s fault but mine that I wasn’t being played more.
But at the same time, in Season 80, we won. And I played really well in the Finals. So for me, it was okay. We won!”
But that roller coaster two years only foreshadowed what was to come for the remainder of Aaron’s collegiate career. In Season 81, Aaron’s fourth and final season with Ateneo, the Blue Eagles practically walked to a championship.
But in the midst of another season of highs for Ateneo, Aaron had the lowest of all his lows.
In the Elimination Round, he averaged just 2.2 points per game while playing just 7.6 minutes in only 11 of a possible 14 contests.
“It was the hardest thing I had to go through. There’s nothing worse than having to taste something already. You’ve tasted already how it feels to be one of the best players in the league… and then you go to riding the bench. Now that’s hard for a four-year veteran,” admitted Aaron.
As I sat there listening to Aaron, I could tell by the fragility in his voice that this experience really broke him. The cycle of doubt that I had thought Aaron had finally broken out of when he made it in the collegiate level reared its ugly head once again, in the worst of ways. He had been doubted by so many external parties time and time again in the past, but this was the time he actually began to question his own ability.
However, just as in grade school, high school and in the beginning of college, Aaron has always used this doubt as fuel to work harder than ever before.
“I kept working hard in practice. I was basically the last guy in the gym almost every day, and I took pride in that. I may not be played, but I’m still going to be the hardest worker on the team.”
But in order to get back on his feet, Aaron just needs to find the opportunity. That, he believes, he can find at the next level, and past the school that’s embraced him for nearly 15 years.
Since he finished his studies in April, Aaron’s been grabbing every opportunity to build on his game. He trained in the IMPACT basketball camp in California for three weeks, playing alongside NCAA Division 1 players and NBA draft picks like Nassir Little and Troy Brown Jr. He’s since been making waves as the head of the snake for the QC Capitals in the MPBL, and has been a triple-double machine for AMA Online Education in the PBA D-League.
One of the biggest changes to Aaron’s game has been his shift to the point guard position, which he believes is the best avenue for him to be successful at the next level. With his size and rebounding ability, he has the skill to run off rebounds and into immediate offense for him or his teammates.
This explains exactly why he’s racked up eye-popping statistics in the MPBL and PBA D-League.
So once again, Aaron has popped back up onto his feet. He’s playing at an extremely high level in several leagues with varying levels of competition and experience. He’s turning heads and making a strong case for himself in the PBA Draft, regardless of which year he decides to go.
Ultimately, the PBA is the end goal for him. It’s the Filipino basketball player’s Mecca, and for him, the final proving ground.
“I want to be one of the best players in the PBA. I want to do what I did in the UAAP, but after the second year, instead of what happened then, I want to continue to go up.”
Call me biased, but I believe in Aaron. He’s been doubted, questioned, unfairly compared to his father, and kicked around at every single level, yet he has always found a way to fuel him to success at each and every one of those levels of basketball.
I myself have matured and grown since the time I first met Aaron over 10 years ago. The time I first questioned whether he’d make it.
So Aaron, when you do make it, I’ll proudly write your story again and again and again.
Good luck, brodie.