MANILA, Philippines – For the first time in five years, Prince Rivero and Kobe Paras found themselves sharing the same court last Monday, when they both participated in the Gilas Pilipinas Cadets' practice at the Meralco Gym.
Rivero and Paras were teammates in La Salle Greenhills, a partnership that culminated in NCAA Season 89 when they led their team to the finals. La Salle may have lost to the powerhouse San Beda Red Cubs, but Rivero still earned MVP honors and was joined by Paras in the Mythical Five.
They went their separate ways at the end of that season. Rivero committed to play for De La Salle University in the UAAP, while Paras famously took his talents to the United States.
Five years later, their basketball journeys took them back to the same court, to the same team. They are in wildly different places: Rivero's status in La Salle is still uncertain, after taking a much-publicized leave of absence from the Green Archers in February along with his brother. Paras, meanwhile, declared in March that he will turn professional after a tough stint in the US NCAA that saw him commit to three different schools in five years – and play for only one.
All the issues swirling around them dissipated on Monday night, however, as they trained with members of the "23 for 23" pool ahead of their campaign in the FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup.
"It's been forever!" Rivero exclaimed afterward, when practice was over. "Noong nalaman ko na Kobe will be joining us, na-miss ko lang 'yung feeling of playing with him."
"Ang tagal din naming hindi nagkita niyan," Paras said of Rivero. "Ang tagal din naming hindi naglalaro, so masaya. It brings back memories."
In a way, their roles have reversed. Rivero was the go-to guy of LSGH when they were in high school, a stocky forward with post moves that were polished beyond his age. Paras, meanwhile, was an up-and-coming star who wowed crowds with his athleticism, but was still clearly a work in progress.
Now, Paras is the established star – the one with stints in various FIBA tournaments and the Southeast Asian Games. Rivero had a solid rookie campaign for La Salle, and helped them win the UAAP title in Season 79, but his minutes took a hit in Season 80, and his future is uncertain.
"Dati, I was the one who was trying to teach him the stuff that I learned from the older batch ahead of me," said Rivero, somewhat wistfully, when asked how his dynamic with Paras has changed.
"Now, siguro, as of this moment, 'yung age medyo hindi magma-matter," he added. "Kasi 'yung experience na nakuha niya (sa United States), sobrang different from the experience that I got here."
Rivero sees all the changes as a blessing. Even in high school, he could already see Paras' potential. Now that they are teammates again, he is looking forward to learning from the younger player.
"It's another chance for me to learn from him, especially galling siya out of the country, and may nakita siya there na hindi ko nakita here," said Rivero. "That might be able to help me with my game."
"I'm going to maximize whatever I can squeeze from his brain, and from doon sa brains ng iba pa naming magiging kasama sa Gilas, para matuto din ako, para ma-improve ko ang game ko – not just basketball but also sa life," he added.
Of course, Rivero also wants to do the same for Paras. "Hopefully ako, makatulong din sa kanya, as someone na mas veteran ng kaunti," he expressed.
The goal for Paras and Rivero now is to lead the Gilas Cadets to victory in the FilOil tournament. Rivero knows that with Paras in the fold, there will be more eyes on them when they start competing on Saturday.
"Even before he got here, ito na 'yung some of the best players ng collegiate basketball," said Rivero. "When he got here, siyempre, mas aangat. The expectations will go higher than what people are expecting before."
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