By Sansan Borja
Every year, as a teacher, I would mentally prepare myself for the end of the schoolyear. Slowly detaching myself from the students, because soon it would be time to say good bye, and they would move on to their next adventure. To the jaded and tired, this is just another routine in the never-ending cycle of school life, but there’s always something bittersweet about the end of another year.
I imagine it is the same with Thirdy now, as he mentally prepares for his last games in the UAAP. The last time he wears the blue and white, the last time he jokes around with the trainers and the managers, the last time he picks what to wear for after the game in his most awaited #OOThirdy (or maybe not). And maybe the flashes of his journey as a Blue Eagle will come to mind in these last few days (or hours?), as his tour of duty comes to an end. As a witness to all those years, I have my own countdown.
Flashback to the first time I met him. I first saw him as a Green Archer, playing in the SBP league. Kiefer had moved on to the big league, he was the only freshman rookie on the UAAP Juniors team, so they never actually faced up against each other, and Thirdy transferred to the Ateneo not soon after. I remember looking for him only to use him as messenger to give something to his older brother. Then two years later, he was also in my classroom, and to be very honest, I cannot recall a time when he played basketball. I don’t even have pics of their intramural games, but I do have one of him playing luksong baka. That was also around the time they moved to my village, a fact he took advantage of by hitching rides with me going home.
At that time, Kiefer had the spotlight, and Thirdy was still figuring out what to do. There was nothing else to do but follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps, but secretly I wished he would find something else to do, because the pressure was incredibly heavy on him. He finally got the hang of it, even winning the MVP plum in the Juniors in his final year, a feat he enjoyed with his fellow homegrown teammates, all the way from the Ateneo Grade School, the twins, Aaron, Jolo, among others. It was the last of a grassroots program that worked well, before the recruitment of the big men from all over started. It was a joy to see them succeed all the way to college, and thrive in the sport.
Fast forward to the only year he played with Kiefer in the UAAP. How I enjoyed that year so much. I remember Kiefer telling me, “Abangan mo yung Ravena this season Ma’am.” And I innocently asked, “Which one?” and he looks at me with a raised eyebrow, “Tinatanong pa ba yun?” And he called it, that was his first MVP season, and one of Thirdy’s worst. From Juniors MVP he was virtually nothing on a team that relied on its first-stringers heavily, and the few times he was on the court, he buckled under the impossible expectations.
And then to the biggest mistake of his life, taking for granted the opportunities given to him and so they were taken from him the following year. My dinner table is witness to how we would craft his appeal letter so that the Ateneo would accept him back AS A STUDENT, as being a player was already out of the question. Much has already been written about his year away from basketball, he may have spent six years in college, but that year would define him for what was to follow. I told him to remember what he was feeling as he was frantically searching for ways to convince the school to grant his appeal, so that he would never have to feel that way again in the future.
He worked double time that year, getting his grades back on track, working out by himself, keeping himself in condition because he was no longer allowed to train with the team. The worst part of it was that it was Kiefer’s last year in the UAAP, and he missed playing alongside his brother for one last time.
And then the comeback, Tab Baldwin’s first year, and they surprised even themselves as they found themselves in the finals in what was supposed to be a rebuilding team. But Thirdy, in his excitement of being back, reenergized as Agent Zero (yes we all know why he has that jersey number), still had much to learn in the new system. He was still struggling with the old mentality that one player could do it all, and that he had to be that player. And he learned the hard way that this was not the way to get things done.
Break from all the basketball stuff, a few things about Thirdy. He learns his lessons well, not fast but well. He devotes himself to what task there is to be done, and has never hesitated to ask for help when needed. Both brothers would ask for my help from time to time with school work, and while Kief would mostly just do it online, Thirds would personally go to my house and sit at my table, patiently asking and explaining to me what he needed help with. I’ve always appreciated his personal touch, because outside of his grades, this guy never needed me for any other type of problem. Hehe.
Then the championship run in season 80. It was like he had grown over the break.
He had matured so much and this was seen even in his stat line. Ever-consistent with his offense and defense. There were times I would watch live and I’d glance at the scoreboard from time to time to check out his points and I’d always be surprised that would rack up some points without much fanfare. But it wasn’t the points that mattered, it was the intangible things like the extra pass, the take-charge attitude that ensured that extra reward as Finals MVP. He lost a dear friend that year, and when he tearfully called me about what happened, I thought he would be so devastated that it would affect his game. But he instead made Javi his inspiration to do so much better. After they won, we saw him in UPTC, and I invited him over to our family lunch. My dad, who was already showing signs of dementia at that time, scolded him for his errors, to my horror. He just smiled through the whole time and even apologized. These kids, I tell you, are extremely well-bred.
They lost their first game in Season 81, but there was no need to push the panic button at all. Even if they lost two more times that season, there was this calm trust in the process, in the system that was being instilled in them, a system so ingrained that this was the year #BEBOB was born. They found themselves against a team on a Cinderella run with a massive following, He personally delivered my finals tickets to the classroom where I was teaching at that time, to the delight of the students, and I whispered to him, “Tapusin niyo na agad, ito, masyadong maingay ang kalaban.” And him being the obedient boy he is, followed suit. And in the process, wrapped up his second Finals MVP.
I got quite sick in April and the whole family visited me just as I got out of the hospital, except for Thirdy. I will always love and treasure this family for the help and support during that time, special shoutout to Kief. But while I was in my last stages of recovery, that’s when Thirdy dropped by, very apologetic for his very busy training sked. (It’s really no wonder how they did this season, there was no let-up in their training.) That’s just the kind of thoughtfulness he has always shown me through the years
Season 82. His last one. I tried so hard to watch all of their games in this incredible season of grace, but it wasn’t always to be so. Despite the lack of placing in the individual awards, this is the proudest I’ve been of him, he has finally learned how to be the best player he can be, by making sure all of his teammates also look good on the court. But this has always been Thirdy, driven, strong and hardworking but also selfless, unassuming, and just simply mabait. What a way to go. I would have never seen this in my wildest dreams, and yet, even Bong and Kief would agree, he has super earned this accolade of King Eagle this year. Bong has always said, while Kief had the exceptional basketball IQ, Thirds had the athleticism and would probably be so much better if he realized what he had. Well, he did. And we can only proudly pat him on the back for a job well done.
Game over. One big fight won. His time is over for the school he chose. And he has emerged a better athlete, a better student and a better man. We cannot ask for anything more.