The career arc of a blue-chip prospect—no matter what the sport—is easily predictable. They come in with a lot of hype, get drafted high by teams that really need their skills, maybe lead those teams to success if managed properly. And if they’re really, really good—or lucky—they become pillars of the franchise. They go down in legend. They become immortalized in the annals of the sport.
But not everyone gets to be a superstar. Many who get the chance to play at the highest level are aware they will likely not enjoy as much buzz and hype—and they’re fine with that so long as they get to do what matters most: play the game.
Have you ever wondered what happens to these sportsmen when their time in the pros is up?
Some simply fade away and do other things. Some find a calling outside basketball. Some, like Paolo Bugia, will find a new calling in the sport, making things happen from the sidelines.
The former second-round pick in the 2005 PBA Draft and journeyman has transitioned well into his role as the Phoenix Fuel Masters’ team manager of three years, serving as the link between the stalwarts of the court—the players and coaches—and upper management, while facilitating the team’s every need. One could say Bugia is doing well; the Fuel Masters are at the top of the league in the current PBA Philippine Cup, ranking second only below the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.
Getting to this point, however, wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
“[In] 2015 I got cut from the Alaska Aces,” Bugia shares one Friday morning, revealing that the idea to retire was something he wasn’t really planning at the time. Very few ever do. It’s tough to face the fact that one’s playing days may be over. “I still wanted to try out in other teams, but that was my 10th year in the league; a lot of people, even the management was telling me, that maybe it's time to move on to something more stable, such as corporate. One of the things about being a basketball player is you try to push and get a contract year in and year out, until no one gets you.”
The first thing Bugia did after deciding to retire, on the advice of Alaska chief Fred Uytengsu himself, was send his resume around the league, hoping for something to open up on the sales and marketing side. Bugia did have an MBA from Ateneo, and he figured he would’ve been able to fit in a company that knew of him from his playing days. He would get entry-level offers—which didn’t fit where he was in life family-wise—until the team manager position opened up as Phoenix was purchasing the Barakos from Red Bull.
One of the hardest challenges for any professional player is to accept that one’s time playing at the highest level is finally up. Bugia went through a bout of self-doubt. “Even though I hung it [up] already, I still [thought] that I could play [at the time],” he says. “But now? Looking back, it kind of felt like I should've made a decision earlier, because sometimes, when players play, they want to ride it out. You see the last two or three years, when you're 34, 35, 36 years old, there's nothing really there. It's more of the fear of moving on, the fear of changing.”
Bugia emphasizes that it was important for him to be self-aware of what his worth was in the PBA—and this self-awareness helped him move on and settle into his new role comfortably. “I know a lot of players, they move on and play until they're 39, 40, you know, but those are different. Those are superstars,” he says. “I really knew I wasn't that kind of player. I'd be a role player and try to make it to every team, try to contribute as much as I can.
“To be cut at 35 as a role player, to be in the league for 10 years as a non-superstar, I wouldn't see it as a failure. It's just really accepting the fact that your career as a basketball player is over, then you should try to make a transition.”
View from the other side
Now, Bugia understands the business side of professional basketball a lot more—which is something he wishes he grasped as a player. At this level, the game is completely utilitarian. The main objective is to win, garner prestige, draw fans, and make money from them. If you lose, nobody watches you. Most fans (and players) don’t realize that pro basketball is really a business first; the game itself is a very close second. Bugia has had to make an emotional distancing from the players on the court and the game he’s loved in order to help the team become successful.
“It's necessary,” Bugia says of the business mindset needed in his role. “Because if you don't have that, if you still think as a player, then you might turn this thing into a charity. Sometimes, there's a lot of gray areas there, maybe you can help [the players] out, but for the most part it's really about the performance of the team.”
It’s safe to say now that Bugia is a basketball success story, even if he found that success in his time off the court. There’s no shame in not being a blue-chipper, and not having the storied career of a franchise player; what matters is you maximize your skills and find a role that’s best for you.
It just so happens Bugia’s best role by far is that of managing the team from the sidelines. Now he’s all about developing talents and helping Phoenix succeed. One of his biggest career dreams is to help Phoenix put up grassroots programs to support athletes at an early age, much like Milo and PLDT have done for children’s sports.
For younger players in the league still trying to find their way, Bugia has some sage advice: don’t chase the money. “Let's say, [if you’re] maybe even in the top 10 [draft picks], you'll probably get signed,” he says. “It won't be a big contract because you're not a blue-chip prospect, but it gives you a chance. In the PBA there's a number of stories where [players] just sign wherever they wanted to show their stuff, and upon renewal, they get a bigger contract because they showed something nice.”
For players who already earned a lot of mileage, sitting on the fence about moving on, Bugia’s own experience facing the same dilemma can serve as lesson. There is an important question to ask when you’re at a career crossroads—no matter what career it may be—and answering said question honestly and with all self-awareness is essential.
“What are you chasing?” says Bugia, revealing the abovementioned important question. Which leads to other questions: “Are you chasing a farewell tour? Are you chasing an MVP run?” he continues. “You know where you are. If you're an All-Star, maybe [you will get what you’re chasing after]. If not, are you just afraid to let go? Maybe you don't have to waste one or two more years chasing something that you could actually attain in a different avenue.Start early instead of just chasing it and hitting a wall.”
Photograph by Tammy David