The name Soulemane Chabi Yo had already started to pop-up in basketball forums and various chat rooms as early as 2018. He was being branded as a super athlete who was being named in the same breath as the likes of Alex Diakhite of Diliman College, a player any big-time collegiate program would be willing to pluck away from his current team. In the first place, where did he even play?
The Colegio de San Lorenzo Griffins. Mention Chabi Yo to a hardcore basketball fan and he’ll likely have an idea about who he is. Mention San Lorenzo and it’s a completely different story. Even the most wild of fans may give you confused looks about this program. It’s no accident this is the case at all.
“Back in San Lorenzo it’s a one man team talaga. Si Chabi lang,” shared UST Growling Tigers senior Renzo Subido. “In San Lo, I’m doing like everything,” added Chabi Yo.
They weren’t wrong. Chabi Yo was dominant with San Lorenzo, averaging 20 points per game and 15 rebounds per game en route to copping the Best Foreign Player Award of the UCBL. But aside from Chabi Yo, you didn’t know anyone else in San Lorenzo. It wasn’t a case of media being biased with coverage on Chabi, it was simply a case of Chabi being so much better than the rest of his team. Many felt it was only a matter of time before Chabi made the leap to either the UAAP or the NCAA. Good, smart programs, would have at least had an eye on him.
The opening came for Chabi when CDSL disbanded its men’s basketball team. Immediately after that happened, the UST Growling Tigers took the opportunity and brought in Chabi Yo to its growing program as reported by Tiebreaker Times last April 30, 2018. At that same time, the Growling Tigers were undergoing a rebuild with newly-minted head coach Aldin Ayo. It was projected to be a slow burn for UST, as coach Aldin was working with scraps at that point. He had the unenviable task of turning these pieces viewed as raw pieces into gold.
It seemed like the perfect situation for Chabi. He was going into a league where he’d gain prominence and popularity, while joining a team that was in the dumps, the type where making him the hero of the Growling Tigers made plenty of sense. He’s been used to playing the role anyway.
But Coach Aldin is different. The Growling Tigers are different. Most importantly, the UAAP is a different monster compared to the UCBL.
“If I’m like that in the UAAP,” said Chabi Yo on his play in San Lorenzo,”It will be predictable.”
“Here kasi, we have a lot of talented players, I have a lot of talented teammates,” said Subido. “System-wise kay Coach Aldin, talagang sandal kami sa sistema.” The system of Coach Aldin is Mayhem, which contrary to popular belief, isn’t just about sending traps and pressuring defenses. It’s about unpredictability and stretching the limits of your basketball team. The very fact that Chabi already knew his play in San Lorenzo wouldn’t cut it in the UAAP was already a good start to this new partnership between star recruit and team.
There was work which had to be done, however. Chabi, while being a talented player, still needed to incorporate himself within the system of the Tigers. He didn’t have to learn how to run fast or to improve his lateral speed to mesh well with his new teammates. “It was easy to adjust because I was already athletic, I can run fast, so it fits well to the system of coach,” said Chabi. What he needed to work on came from up top; the mind.
“You have to trust your teammates and go back to the basics,” said Chabi on one of the important lessons he learned when he started with UST. “I learned how to play within the team and trust everybody, even the role player.”
It’s exactly what Coach Aldin and Chabi wanted to avoid, to be predictable. But to apply that in the team setting means trusting your teammates, their abilities, and how they’d react to whatever situation is thrown against their way.
Granted, it was a learning process for Chabi Yo and the Growling Tigers. During the start of their offseason run, UST was rolling. They picked up some huge wins, even toppling defending UAAP champion Ateneo Blue Eagles during the PBA D-League. But teams started to figure them out midway and it led to them missing the playoffs completely. Their struggles spilled over during the Filoil tournament. Yet through it all, Chabi Yo continued to play splendidly.
It just goes to show that even if one individual is so talented, he can’t do it alone, especially in a stage as prestigious as the UAAP. One-man teams never work, no matter how good that one-man is. Just ask the Season 77 and 78 Ateneo Blue Eagles. Or even the Season 74 NU Bulldogs. Thankfully for these Tigers, their struggles were occuring during the best possible time, the preseason. They still had time to work through their flaws, Chabi Yo included.
Despite the struggles, the Growling Tigers were learning. Chabi Yo in particular was starting to add different facets to his already deadly game. “Nadagdagan yung aspect of his game,” remembered Renzo. “Not just by scoring by also creating for his teammates.”
“With Coach Aldin, I learn many,” said Chabi. “He always tells me I’m undersized, so I have to be agile, mobile, and know how to do everything.” It fit that principle of unpredictability Mayhem hinged itself on. Big men are often put into boxes. Grab rebounds, set picks, roll to the rim, watch out for open looks. But teams know big men are supposed to do that. The challenge for Chabi, especially considering his lack of size, was to add more to his game. He couldn’t just be a center. He had to be as complete a basketball player as possible, with skills which went beyond the stereotypes we’ve given the positions in line-ups.
Eventually, the UAAP season rolled along and Chabi started to show his wares. The narrative from the offseason continued; Chabi continued to be UST’s consistent force who always produced great numbers. However, it was his other teammates who were getting the shine despite Chabi’s consistent dominance. Rhenz Abando introduced himself versus the UE Red Warriors. Mark Nonoy was a whirlwind against the UP Fighting Maroons. On September 11, 2019, it was going to be Soulemane Chabi Yo’s time. He would dominate. He would be given attention. He would be called a monster prospect. Things he’d been used to when he was in San Lorenzo.
Versus the defending champion Ateneo Blue Eagles, Chabi Yo put up 25 points and 13 rebounds while being pitted against MVP-favorite Angelo Kouame. The difference was, this was no longer San Lorenzo. This was the University of Santo Tomas and Chabi was able to put up these numbers within Coach Aldin’s Mayhem system.
Not once did we see Chabi force the issue and isolate from the low post. All of Chabi’s baskets were within the flow of the UST offense. Even more impressive, aside from leaping high for fastbreak dunks or putback jams, Chabi showed skill in getting those baskets. He’d show post footwork by catching William Navarro off a dream shake. He also showed touch by scoring on multiple floaters against Kouame. The mid-range jumper has also been emerging as a weapon for the UST big man.
This wasn’t just Chabi Yo the foreign student athlete, nor was it Chabi Yo the dominant athlete. You couldn’t even call this Chabi Yo the one-man show ala San Lorenzo. This was Chabi Yo, the legitimately good basketball player and legitimately good basketball players are able to contribute to their team without stepping on other people’s toes.
“Chabi kasi, he plays the 4-5 spot,” said Subido. “But he has the guard skills. He can pass, he can dribble, very agile. (He) can do a lot of stuff on the court. Maganda sa kanya, nagccomplement siya very well with everyone.”
Despite the Tigers falling short against Ateneo, their performance evoked fear on the rest of the UAAP. These Growling Tigers felt real. Even scarier was they added a new piece to make an already deep artillery even better. This was an actual basketball team with very good individuals. They can only get better.
“You know we have nine rookies. We lack experience, and this is our first tournament. So we have to adjust and learn from our mistakes,” said Chabi Yo. “Get more confidence. We know (Ateneo is) a champion team but we try to give our best even if we have mistakes. We just have to learn from it and want it more.”
We all know Soulemane Chabi Yo. That’s a given. But the UAAP knows the UST Growling Tigers even more. They tickled the imaginations of fandom last season and now they’re showcasing themselves as reality. Things are only getting better for UST. Chabi Yo may just be the final piece to the Final Four puzzle they’ve been trying to crack since Season 79. Better yet, he may just help catapult UST to even greater heights.