To continue our exclusive interview series with Filipino athletes, Dribble Media’s ZerJosh Serrano sat down with Gilas pool member Rey Suerte as he talked about prioritizing his education, and forging his basketball career from the province.
Original photos from Tristan Tamayo/Inquirer.net, ABS-CBN Sports
It doesn’t come as a surprise why city people aspire to experience life in the province, where almost everything is simpler and the breeze is cooler. There is this serenity that rural life provides, something that the city just can’t offer.
But for a young Filipino basketball player aspiring to play in the PBA someday, growing up in the province is still not the ideal situation. It’s in Manila where all the basketball eyes and cameras are focused, so hoopers from the province always face a more uphill climb to prominence.
Such was the case for Rey Suerte, a Davao product who is now part of the Gilas pool after being drafted in the PBA last year. Unlike most professional cagers who started playing the sport ever since their hands were big enough to dribble the basketball, Rey was only introduced to the game when he was already in fourth year high school.
Rey: Late na ko naglaro ng basketball. Nagstart ako nung fourth year high school ako, hindi katulad ng ibang players na elementary pa lang naglalaro na. Nakahiligan ko naman so nagdecide ako na magpursige, at gamitin yung paglalaro ng basketball para makapag-aral ako.
But Rey would face different sets of hurdles in pursuing a basketball career. The first challenge was to play for a school that could offer him a scholarship, something that was hard to find in Davao.
Rey: Mahirap yung buhay basketball player sa Davao. Yung family ko noon, mahirap lang din. Kung isa kang student-athlete sa Davao, hindi madali kasi pili lang yung mga schools na nagbibigay ng allowance. So nag-decide ako na kapag may other schools na magoffer sa akin ng scholarship, kukunin ko na talaga agad.
Photo from Rappler
The 6-foot-3 scorer would then play one year in Davao, before taking his talents to Cebu and accepting a scholarship from the University of the Visayas. However, cracking into the line-up was no cakewalk for Rey as the coaches weren’t that impressed with his skills just yet.
Rey: November 2013, kinuha ako ng UV so lipad kaagad ako papuntang Cebu. Pagdating ko pa doon, ‘di ako pinalad kasi hindi ako nakasali ng Team A. So first year ko sa UV struggle talaga pero hindi ako pwede madiscourage.
Aside from Manila, Cebu is also one of the hotbeds of basketball talent in the country. CESAFI (Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation Inc.) is arguably the next biggest collegiate league outside of UAAP and NCAA, and it has recently produced distinguished names like Junemar Fajardo, Greg Slaughter, Mac Tallo and Paul Desiderio among many other well-known hoopers.
Through sheer hardwork and determination, Rey eventually made it to UV’s Team A in 2015, a squad bannered by Leonard Santillan and Jun Manzo. UV would fail to capture the championship that year, and their hopes of bouncing back the next season dimmed when Santillan transferred to De La Salle University and Manzo went to the University of the Philippines.
With UV losing its main stars, Rey rose to the occasion.
Rey: Naline-up ako sa Team A noong 2015, pero andoon pa sina Leonard and si Jun. Natalo kami that year, then next season lumipat na yung dalawa sa Manila. So I took that opportunity na i-lead yung team. Fortunately, nag-champion kami from 2016 to 2018 and nakakuha ako ng dalawang MVPs.
Even though Cebu was far from the bright lights of Manila, Rey’s talent was soon discovered by scouts all over the country. Coming off an MVP year in 2016, Rey received a call from no other than Coach Aldin Ayo, who was still La Salle’s head coach back then.
Photo from spin.ph
Sure, it was an opportunity that’s hard to pass up. But Rey was focused on his education at UV, and did not want any delays in finishing his degree.
Rey: Sa UV pa lang, madami na nagsscout sa akin. Early 2017, gusto ako i-recruit ng La Salle. Si Coach Aldin Ayo pa yung mismong tumawag sa akin. Kaso nasa isip ko noon, tatapusin ko muna pag-aaral ko sa UV. Wala naman ako regrets na sana nakapaglaro ako sa UAAP nang mas maaga. Unang goal ko talaga makapagtapos ng pag-aaral habang naglalaro ng basketball.
After finishing his degree at UV, Rey left the comforts of Cebu to continue his basketball career in Manila. He got drafted by Che’lu Bar and Grill in the PBA D-League, where he would further showcase his scoring prowess.
While playing in the D-League, Rey got wind that he could play one more year in the UAAP. His advisers and managers, composed of Dondon Hontiveros and Danny and Marvin Espiritu, told him that it would be wise to test his skills against the better players in the UAAP. Rey agreed to it, and the decision came down to two historic universities: the Far Eastern University and the University of the East.
Rey: Na-scout ako unang-una ng FEU, particularly by Coach Olsen Racela. Nag-offer din yung UE, so I compared both teams kung saan ako mas magagamit. Naisip ko kasi na kailangan ko talaga ng exposure. Yung FEU that time, madaming guards tulad ni Wendell Comboy at Hubert Cani. Sa UE naman, kulang sila sa perimeter. Kaya nagdesisyon ako na sa UE ako maglalaro.
Photo by Rio Deluvio/Manila Bulletin
Rey and the rest of the Red Warriors would only come up with a lowly 4-12 win-loss slate in UAAP Season 82. Rey averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds that season, and his herculean efforts were rewarded when he notched a seat in the Mythical Five.
Despite failing to steer UE to greater heights, there’s no doubt that Rey’s versatility on both ends of the court earned him the attention of the country’s best coaches. He applied for the PBA right after, and was picked second overall by Blackwater. More than that, he was among the five names in that draft class who were selected to be part of the Gilas pool.
Photo courtesy of PBA
As someone who started playing the game as a 4th-year high school student, Rey never thought that he would come this far. Although there is always the pressure of donning the Gilas uniform, he says that it is his responsibility to repay the country’s trust in his abilities.
Rey: Silbihan ko pa lang yung bansang Pilipinas sobrang honored na ako. Pero kailangan ko pa rin magsumikap para yung binigay nila sa akin na opportunity, masuklian ko naman. Medyo may pressure nang konti kasi di ko naman inakalang mapupunta pa ako sa national team. But at the end of the day, gagawin naming ang lahat para magbigay serbisyo sa bansa.
For a young kid from the province just wanting to play basketball so that he could afford earning his college degree, Rey is a living example of how grit and determination can lead you to success. And even though he already booked a seat among the best basketball players in the country, Rey reiterates that placing utmost priority on education is still the way to go.
Rey: Una, huwag kalimutan ang pag-aaral kasi yan ang hangad ng family nila. Disiplinahin nila ang sarili nila at pagbutihin ang pagpraktis. Lahat tayo nanggagaling sa baba. Walang shortcut sa success kaya pagsumikapan nila.