MANILA, Philippines – Five years ago, in the second round of the UAAP Season 73 men's basketball tournament, Arthur dela Cruz had a double-double against the De La Salle Green Archers.
He was a rookie for the Ateneo Blue Eagles then, wearing jersey No. 4. Dela Cruz converted four of his six field goal attempts, and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds as Ateneo won the game 74-57. It was the first – and last – double-double of his UAAP career.
Later that season, Ateneo won its third consecutive UAAP title by beating Far Eastern University in the Finals.
Dela Cruz played a key role in Ateneo's campaign that year, and many believed he would be an even more important factor when the Blue Eagles set out to defend their title in the coming season.
Yet Dela Cruz was not part of Ateneo's roster for Season 74. He left the team -- and the school -- unceremoniously for reasons that were never fully explained. He returned to his high school alma mater, San Beda College, served one year of residency, and a season later, he was back on the court and was again on his way to winning a championship.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Dela Cruz is in his final year of eligibility for the Red Lions, who are now seeking an unprecedented sixth straight championship in the NCAA. He has won a Finals Most Valuable Player award, has built his name up by playing in the PBA D-League, and is planning to enter this year's PBA Rookie Draft.
Asked if he had any regrets about leaving Ateneo, Dela Cruz was quick and decisive in his response. "Wala eh," he said.
A champion, and a Finals MVP
When Dela Cruz left, the Blue Eagles were the UAAP champions. They reigned for two more years, a fact that is not lost upon him.
"I'm happy for them," Dela Cruz said. "But still, looking for myself, individually, masaya ako kasi hindi ako magiging Finals MVP or whatever, (hindi ako makakakuha ng) individual awards kung hindi ako lumipat."
Dela Cruz was the Finals MVP back when the Red Lions won championship in Season 89, scoring 20 points and grabbing 16 rebounds to help San Beda edge the Letran Knights in the do-or-die Game3 of the series.
"I think, malaking bagay din 'yung exposure ng D-League," Dela Cruz adds. "Kasi lalong lumaki 'yung pangalan ko individually. Thankful din ako kay God na dinala ako sa San Beda."
Had Dela Cruz stayed in Ateneo, he would have already declared for the draft last year. But because he had to serve one year of residency in San Beda, he has one more year to show what he is capable of – and he relishes the opportunity.
"Wala na dapat ako, tapos na dapat 'yung season ko sa college," he noted. "Pero magandang bagay na rin ito na one more year pa, para ma-prove ko kung ano pang pwede ko pang gawin."
It helps that Dela Cruz has proven that he can be a winner in both the UAAP and the NCAA.
"Malaking bagay din kapag madami kang championships," he said. "Tinitingnan din ng coach 'yun eh. Kasi kung mamaya, sa mga big situations, hindi mo kayang i-handle 'yung mga ganoong things."
"Magaling ka nga, but kabado ka naman. Hindi ka nag-champion, hindi ka champion player," he added.
Dela Cruz has developed into one of San Beda's best weapons. Last season, he averaged 12.41 points and 9.35 rebounds per game, while consistently showing an ability to elevate his performances during crucial contests.
Yet the question lingers: What if he didn't leave? Dela Cruz has won championships in every season he's played in San Beda, but Ateneo's reign in the UAAP ended two seasons ago, and they have not played in a Finals series since.
"Everyone's talking about it, na kung hindi daw ako umalis, may maganda pang chances ang Ateneo," Dela Cruz admitted. "Eh hindi naman mako-control 'yung mga ganoong bagay."
"I mean, maganda na rin 'yung nangyari sa kanila. Nag-champion na sila, and sobrang lakas nila. Talagang buong UAAP, pag sinabing UAAP, Ateneo or La Salle or silang dalawa," he added.
"But ang laking bagay din sa akin kas na napunta ako sa San Beda. And one of the reason why, kasi high school, dito na rin talaga ako, and brotherhood talaga itong San Beda. Whatever happens, sama-sama pa rin kami."
This season, Dela Cruz will reunite with one of his former Ateneo coaches, Jamike Jarin, who will serve as San Beda's new head coach in the NCAA Season 91.
Jarin still remembers how Dela Cruz played in his lone year for Ateneo, noting that for a rookie, he got a lot of playing time.
"For me, speaking for Art, I think wherever he went, he's gonna flourish because of the way he plays, the way he thinks the game, his character, his attitude… that's why he's been successful," Jarin said.
Jarin will surely be thrilled to know that Dela Cruz is more determined than ever to help San Beda win a championship, especially in his final collegiate season.
Dela Cruz vowed that this time around, he will showcase not just his basketball skills but also his leadership quality.
"Dati hindi ako masyadong nagsasalita sa team," he said. "But now, I need to be vocal. Last year ko na. Ayoko sana masayang ito. Every game counts para sa amin, especially the seniors."
"Gusto namin maging memorable ito. Kahit na preseason, tapos season, saka PCCL – gusto namin fun talaga kasi madadala namin ito," he adds. "'Yun din, kinukuha din namin 'yung six-peat namin. History na 'yung hinahabol namin this time, kasi wala pang nakakagawa ng six-peat."
His lone year in Ateneo is just a memory now for Dela Cruz; he has bigger goals in mind for his final year with San Beda, and for his basketball future in general.
"I'm done with the Ateneo," Dela Cruz says. "I mean, wala na akong problem with that. I'm happy na rin na nag-champion sila, and nag-champion na rin ako."