By Eriko Dela Cruz and Toby Pavon

Jerie Pingoy has one more year of eligibility left in the UAAP. Had he wanted, he could have been the veteran presence along with Jerrick Ahanmisi to lead a young Adamson team and potentially get over the Final Four hump that has been haunting them for the better part of a decade. Instead, he chose to forego his final year. He has been a victim of circumstance even before he got to strut his stuff in the seniors division. For once in his UAAP career, he is in control of his destiny.

Koko, as he was better known by his peers, started out his career as a member of the University of Cebu junior Webmasters. To the uninitiated, this is the school that produced the best PBA player in the modern era, Junemar Fajardo. Pingoy is a can’t miss prospect. He was a high octane guard who can drop buckets on you if he wanted to. He also had the court vision and instinct that made him an able passer. He was making waves in the CESAFI tournament and stood out among his peers, enough to be scouted and eventually transfer to the FEU-FERN program.

He did not have to go through a lot of growing pains. As a member of the FEU Baby Tamaraws, he proved that he was head and shoulders above the competition, despite his diminutive frame. The kid from Cebu could more than hang with the Manila style of play, even becoming Juniors MVP and winning a title against Hubert Cani and the NU Bullpups. He was going out on top of the world, with practically every team in the country reserving a roster spot for him.

Eventually, he chose to play for the Ateneo Blue Eagles who just won their fifth consecutive title. It was a logical move, considering starting point guard Juami Tiongson only had a year of eligibility. Backup point guard Nico Elorde was more of a defensive guard. It was also a move that fulfilled his dream of donning the Blue and White. Should he play for the Ateneo Blue Eagles, he would get considerable playing time. This is when things went beyond his control.

Before Koko got to wear his jersey, the UAAP board imposed a rule that players from the Juniors program who planned to transfer to another UAAP school would have to serve two years of residency. It was even dubbed after him in popular culture as the Jerie Pingoy Rule. This was proposed by the school that brought him to the league in the first place. Like any other person, he felt betrayed. He has given his passion to FEU-FERN, but it’s as if it was not enough. But he was undeterred. Despite an extended residency, he took a gamble and chose to stick to his decision.

He saw the extended residency as a positive thing. It gave him the chance to adjust to Ateneo’s rigorous academic demands, and further hone his skills under Yuri Escueta and the team B program. The Pingoy rule that barred his entry to the Seniors division was scrapped after a multitude of senate hearings, and he was set to debut in UAAP Season 78. Good news finally came, but sadly, it wasn’t meant to last.

Two years of residency took a toll on Pingoy. He was out of shape coming into the season, forcing then-coach Bo Perasol to rely on a much less heralded player in Matt Nieto. Because of his now-stockier frame, he was prone to injury. He was a shell of the former Juniors MVP fans saw as the next great point guard. It ate at him. Whatever was left of his confidence before his rookie season was slowly fading away. He felt that the trust that was given to him when he was recruited simply was not there anymore. Eventually, Bo Perasol left Ateneo and Tab Baldwin took over.

Training with Coach Tab during the offseason was a breath of fresh air for Koko. Due to the rigorous demands of the Tab Baldwin system, Koko shed 15 kilograms off his frame. Coach Tab would get mad at him for being passive, because the coach knows full well that his ward can score. It was a renaissance of Koko’s confidence, and things were finally looking up.

 It was about to take a turn for the worse.

Koko was part of the infamous seven players who left Ateneo due to academic issues prior to Season 79. His grades did not meet Ateneo’s requirement by mere decimals. It was not for a lack of trying, mind you. It’s hard enough for a regular student to make the required grades yearly, what more for an athlete? All of this however was moot. The fact is, he was about to leave the school that he bet on all those years ago. Coach Tab, who went on board just that January, could not do anything but apologize because he cannot do anything about their situation.

He quickly found a home in Adamson where incoming coach Franz Pumaren recruited him. Once again, he was starting from scratch, sitting out yet another season for residency. The UAAP would once again have to wait to see the full capability of Jerie Pingoy.

While waiting for his time to get on to the court, Jerie didn’t idle. He did not want a repeat of his debut with Ateneo and was busy keeping himself in shape, keeping his tools sharp, staying ready. During his residency, he was often seen training with different Adamson teams, sometimes he would be seen getting in some conditioning training together with the Adamson Pep Squad. Before coach Jam Lorenzo would start their nightly runs of the choreography, Jerie was busy jogging, sprinting, doing crunches and push-ups along side the squad. Needless to say, he left the tossing and stretching exercises to them.

It wasn’t long until he got to see action in the UAAP again. Season 80 marked his return as he formed part of a potent point guard rotation that had opponents hurting on both ends. Taking turns running the point with him was Robbie Manalang, a spitfire guard whose signature step-back three pointer propelled the Soaring Falcons into the Final Four the year before. Manalang was part of a group of Fil-Am recruits which included Jerrick Ahanmisi, Sean Manganti and Jonathan Espeleta, brought in by coach Franz Pumaren to turn the then ailing Soaring Falcons basketball program around, and formed the core of their resurgence.

Teams did not know what hit them. At the start of the season it was a matter of offense-defense for Robbie and Jerie. Where Robbie brought firepower through his shooting and shot creation, Pingoy was simply a menace on defense. At the end of the season, he led the team in steals with an average of 2.6 steals per game. He was also their top playmaker dropping dimes at 5.1 a game. The talent, vision, and smarts that made Jerie such a highly coveted recruit was on full display. He was stripping ball handlers from behind, nutmegging defenders and even did “the Rondo” in transition. 

However, despite his spurts of brilliance, Franz Pumaren still put him on a short leash. One turnover, one bad gamble or one foul was all it took for Franz to call him back onto the bench.

As the season went on, Franz learned to trust Jerie’s decision making more, allowing him to not only create for his teammates, but more especially for himself. Defenders who caught Pingoy in an isolation play were left on an island as he used his superior ball handling ability combined with his sky high basketball IQ to breakdown their defense resulting in open shots, or at most, open shots for his teammates because of the help defense he attracted. The tail end of Season 80 was the best Jerie Pingoy was playing in the UAAP seniors, but it was unfortunately a run cut short after Adamson suffered a controversial defeat to DLSU, one that got the officials who worked the game suspended.

Fans were prepared to see more of Pingoy in Season 81. No longer switching point guard duties with Manalang, he was expected to have a bigger role for the team, especially since the other point guard was then rookie Jerom Lastimosa who was known more as a scorer than a ball distributor. But poor management of his injury had him handicapped before the season even began. The surgery on his injured foot did not go well, leaving him in constant pain throughout the season.

The Jerie Pingoy that brought fans to the edge of their seats at the tail end of Season 80 was nowhere to be found. Instead it was a Jerie that struggled to even run, hobbled by the botched surgery. But it didn’t stop him from trying. No longer the steals leader he once was for his team, nor the top playmaker, he continued to play his role, wanting to do anything he could to help the team win.

It was a frustrating sight for him. Unable to help the team with the caliber of play he knew he was capable of, and then simply being unable play as his team bowed out of the Final Four. Despite brandishing a twice-to-beat advantage, the Soaring Falcons were unceremoniously taken down by UP. Jerie watched from the bench as his team struggled against the larger, more individually talented Maroons. When he finally got his turn, he made it count, helping the Falcons rally back into the game. But once again, by picking up his fifth foul of the game, just like how he has been forced into the sidelines his whole life, he could only watch in anguish as his team went on to lose in heartbreaking fashion without him.

Pingoy had borne the pain of all the injustices and injuries that have come his way, but it was the sting of mistrust that he could not bear. To have his own mentor question his loyalty to the team, when all he wanted to do was to win— he felt betrayed.

And so, before the start of Season 82, Jerie Pingoy announced on social media that despite being eligible to play for one more year, he was forgoing his final playing year to move on to new pursuits. It was yet again another break from basketball, yet again another stretch of time that he’s sitting on the sidelines, but at the very least, for the first time in his basketball career, he is doing it not because anyone forced him to. For the first time, he was in charge of his destiny.

Koko never held grudges in spite of the circumstances that surrounded him. He remained thankful to the school that brought him to Manila despite their decision to hinder his debut. He was thankful to his dream school despite letting him go. He was thankful to his new school despite not being the main guy. In the end, he saw everything as a blessing.

Players who were stars in high school but fizzled out in college are a dime a dozen in the UAAP. one might even call them busts. But it is unfair to label Koko as a bust. He was a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Who knows what he could have been had things gone his way.

Now, Koko is in control. He is off to greener pastures. Once again, he has the whole world at his feet. It’s time that he write the continuation of his story. I know I am not alone when I say that I hope he finds that superstar laying dormant within him all these years.