The moment SJ Belangel emerged in the Metro Manila basketball circuit, people already knew he was destined for greatness. He was best known as the player who scored 99 points in one game. Others even went as far as to brand him as the next Phenom, the heir apparent to the throne Kiefer Ravena left in the Blue Eaglets during Season 74. He was a player worthy to be chased; a blue chip recruit that any team could consider as the golden get of its program.
During Season 77, Ateneo was that program who acquired the services of Belangel. The star point guard had been chased for quite some time now but at the end of the day it was the Blue Eaglets who ended up catching the Bacolod native. The floor was SJ’s to leave his mark in the big leagues.
Yet despite his glowing reputation as a blue chip recruit, people needed to understand: probinsyanos are naturally shy and quiet the moment they come into Metro Manila. It’s a very Filipino quality that’s normal for even the most talented of individuals. But SJ wasn’t normal: he was special. While respectful and considerate to his new teammates, shy and quiet weren’t adjectives fitting to describe the rookie when he came into Ateneo in 2014.
“He’s really a fighter,” said Mike Nieto regarding Belangel. “Nung practice pa lang, tinatao tao niya si Matt pati si Jolo.” This was a big deal. This was a new kid on the block defending two of the best guards in High School basketball; Philippine team members who had already made it to the World Cup. He wasn’t just being assigned to the two. He WANTED the challenge of defending Mendoza and Nieto. From that moment on, SJ earned the respect of the twins. They understood what the hype was about. They were ready to have this fighter on their team, for their quest to a crown in the UAAP Juniors Division.
That was until, disaster struck. Before the start of Season 77, the UAAP Board had declared SJ Belangel ineligible to play that season. That meant Matt was losing the back-up he was looking forward to play with during the offseason. Mike didn’t have another little brother he could pass on his wisdom to. But maybe this was a blessing in disguise for Belangel. Instead of playing with other stars, he could establish his own legend starting next season. Maybe then, he could reach greater heights even the Nieto twins couldn’t reach.
It worked out well for both sides. The Nieto twins got their elusive ring after beating the NU Bullpups, while Belangel had an impressive showing in the Milo Pasarelle tournament. Belangel used that as a springboard for his UAAP career, where he wrapped it up come Season 80 with two Mythical Five awards and a championship.
Belangel was in familiar territory once more. Schools were chasing him for his services with greatness at his grasp. Not only was he a born scorer, but he established himself as a proven facilitator and leader; easily the premier point guard of his High School class. He could have gone to UST or NU, two dwindling programs who needed a playmaker of his caliber to lead them to greater heights. Or maybe, go back to La Salle, the school he played for as a kid to be the heir apparent to Kib Montalbo, a fellow Bacolod native.
Ateneo was an option, but it honestly made little sense. The point guard position was stacked with Matt Nieto and Tyler Tio onboard. Minutes would be hard to find and touches were few and far between given Coach Tab Baldwin’s system.
The moment SJ opted to stay home in Katipunan, Matt Nieto couldn’t help but ask SJ, “Bakit ka ba nag Ateneo?” It was an honest question from a person SJ had idolized ever since High School. SJ was a born scorer and there were other places for him to showcase his talents.
But it was honestly an easy decision for SJ. Aside from quality education and the development program of Coach Tab Baldwin, playing in Ateneo also meant one other thing. “Gusto ko kayo makalaro ni Kuya Mike,” replied SJ to Matt in that moment. It was an opportunity SJ and the twins were robbed of because of a ridiculous eligibility ruling in Season 77. Now they had this chance given SJ’s decision to stay put in Ateneo. But it also meant SJ needed to sacrifice what he was used to all for the sake of this Band of Brothers he was about to join into.
True enough, during his rookie year, SJ barely got playing time. He had few moments of greatness here and there but he was never able to string this in long periods of time. More than the spurts of good plays were bone-headed moments which frustrated die-hard Ateneans. What sticks out in particular is the first game of Season 81, when the Adamson Soaring Falcons backcourt punished SJ with their patented Pumaren press. It was a humbling moment for SJ, the type we aren’t used to seeing from High School stars as talented as he is. But that was the reality he was in. This wasn’t High School anymore, this was the Seniors Division. Players are bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. SJ needed to adjust.
But outside the bright lights of the Smart Araneta Coliseum and the Mall of Asia Arena was work being done by SJ to further improve his game. It all starts with his relationship with the Nietos, his kuyas who he’s looked up to ever since he came into the Ateneo campus. With Mike, he gets someone who shares him wisdom on how to lead a basketball team as team captain. With Matt, he gets not only a mentor on leadership, but also the perfect teacher on how it is to play the point guard position in the collegiate ranks. For Matt, it doesn’t start with working on one’s handle or improving one’s shot. It starts with one word: noise.
“If you see us practice, ako yung may pinakamaingay na boses sa practice,” said Matt about the training sessions the Blue Eagles go through on a daily basis. He’d have the ear of all of his teammates, but most especially SJ, the little brother he’d gained over the years. “Kailangan mo maging maingay!” Matt would tell SJ then. “Kailangan controlin mo yung team, kahit bata ka, kahit second or third stringer ka na point guard eh. Yan role mo eh, point guard ka.”
It wasn’t exactly the science behind playing point guard SJ needed work with, but the attitude required out of it. He’s always been respectful, to the point where coaches would even tell SJ to stop calling his teammates with “po” so he can establish himself as an authority figure. There was no problem with being respectful. He simply needed to learn to put his foot down when needed, even when the person he was facing was older than he was.
The other thing SJ needed to work on with Coach Tab: his shooting. While he showcased impeccable motor and defense during his rookie season, SJ’s offense was spotty during most of his first year. Teams often sagged off him and it made it hard for him to penetrate to the rim. That’s why Coach Tab had one special task he made him do even during the course of the PBA D-League season: to shoot free throws with just one hand.
It was a ridiculous exercise, especially for someone as decorated as SJ Belangel. He’s been a blue chip all of his life and all of a sudden he was being asked to shoot free throws with one hand in national television for everyone to see. His ego could have taken over in that moment and he could have argued with what Coach Tab was asking him to do. But to argue unreasonably and to have an ego have never been part of SJ’s personality. The moment he committed to play for Coach Tab Baldwin, he knew he wanted this. Even if it meant playing spot minutes first. Even if it meant having your captains be on your ear all the time. Even if it meant shooting one-handed free throws for everyone to see.
“Trust the process lang talaga!” recalled SJ when asked about that exercise. “Dun niya (Coach Tab) rin tinetest tiwala mo sa kanya.” Because more than the scoring, the leadership, and the talent, what’s made SJ stand out among the rest has been his confidence.
“Para sa kanya, di bumababa yung morale niya,” said Thirdy Ravena about SJ. “You don’t know what it’s like to lose confidence,” whispered Tab to SJ after one postgame interview. In fact, it was SJ himself who tried to show Coach Tab his shooting had already improved after using just one hand for free throws for months. Call it naughty of SJ or even defiant, but moments like that show the joy he has for the game of basketball.
Eventually, the work he put in the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center started to bear fruit. During the start of the season, his three-point shots started to hit. There wasn’t anything sudden to what he was doing, just absolute efficiency with his shot selection and shooting. By the end of the elimination round, he was ranked second in three-point percentage with a 40.48 percent clip. But more than his mere shooting, what was more impressive was his body language and overall control of the team. He wasn’t afraid to bark out at his teammates anymore; even the seniors were in his control. He came into the Seniors Division as an alpha and in his second year, he was finally starting to act like one.
“He’s one of the natural born-leaders (in the team),” said Isaac Go on his teammate. He wasn’t just handed that baton. He had to earn it whether it be in practice, in film sessions, and even the vaunted offseason development program Coach Tab gives the Blue Eagles every year. But the work wasn’t done just yet for Belangel. He needed to show one more thing, arguably one of the best kept secrets among the Season 80 Ateneo Blue Eaglets.
With 7:35 left in the game, the UST Growling Tigers were creeping dangerously close to the Ateneo Blue Eagles. The score read 67-66 in favor of Ateneo, with UST trying their darned hardest to fight for championship survival.
Ateneo had been struggling all game, with Thirdy Ravena unable to establish flow to his offensive game unlike Game 1. Ange Kouame was in foul trouble, same with Matt Nieto. Whether it be by force or by choice, Coach Tab rolled with SJ Belangel handling the rock for the Blue Eagles. They needed a basket; any basket to at least create some form of separation from their counterparts.
He passed it off to Isaac first from the left wing. But the moment Isaac received the ball, he looked back at SJ and nodded, as if to give the sophomore the go-signal to fire. Off a screen from Isaac, SJ pulled up from three.
Splash. 70-66. It’s SJ time. But one three wouldn’t cut it. He needed an encore.
This time with Thirdy Ravena handling the rock, SJ positioned himself along the left corner. Not once did he demand for the ball. But everyone in the arena, maybe even his teammates, knew it made sense to give SJ the ball for another dagger three. The score read 72-68. Another three would have been big.
Fittingly enough, Thirdy dished it off to SJ. With zero hesitation, he elevated and launched another bomb. Cash. A four-point lead had now turned into a three possession game with 5:34 remaining. It wasn’t a dagger just yet. But those two buckets from him were timely and needed as he wanted to send his Seniors off with one last championship.
The buzzer finally sounded. The Blue Eagles had done it. For the first time in UAAP Final Four history, a team had swept the elimination round and the Finals en route to a UAAP championship. We were being witness to greatness. At the same time, it felt like we were watching the end of an era with the graduation of Thirdy, Matt, Mike, Isaac, and Adrian Wong.
But at the same time, standing in the corner was a kid from Bacolod who emerged as a Finals hero with a legendary performance in Game 2. Maybe all is not lost for the Ateneo Blue Eagles. While five heroes are now departing for greater heights, there’s a new captain in town who’s ready to accept the torch as the next King Eagle.
His shooting, concept of leadership, and overall view of the game have had an up and down journey for years. But what never left was his incredible confidence in himself. The result: SJ Belangel is back where he was when he entered the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Greatness destined and a willingness to be next in line in a program that’s produced plenty of greats.