"Coach, saan galing ‘yun?" a reporter asked.
"Basta pinanganak ‘yun dito sa planeta," then-University of Santo Tomas (UST) head coach Pido Jarencio answered.
The press room erupted in laughter.
It was classic Jarencio. Good-humored and enthusiastic to banter with reporters after a win. It was July 2010. The Growling Tigers just defeated the University of the East (UE), 80-67. The player he was jokingly pertaining to was Eduardo Daquioag. He scattered 10 points in only 16 minutes of action. It was his first game in the UAAP.
Five years ago, almost no one knew who Daquioag was. The reporter couldn’t even pronounce his name properly. But his innocent curiosity is a perfect allegory to Daquioag’s odyssey in the UAAP. From an obscure newcomer, his meteoric rise this Season 78 has made him one of the most recognizable names in the league.
Making an impression
Confirming Jarencio’s well-researched retort, indeed, the 24-year-old Daquioag was born on this planet. In Dingras, Ilocos Norte to be exact. A son of a carpenter and a housewife, he grew up in a modest household in a non-descript town. At a young age, he knew the value of hard work.
He was discovered in the Ilocos Regional Athletic Association in his third year in high school while playing for Ilocos Norte College of Arts and Trades. But it was all by accident.
The Growling Tigers coaching staff, headed by Jarencio and then-assistant coach Beaujing Acot, traveled 500 kilometers up north to scout Daquioag’s teammate, Jeoff Javillonar, a 14-year-old with heaps of potential. After watching him play, the UST brain trust was convinced to recruit when he finishes high school. But his unassuming teammate made an impression too.
"Dapat talaga si Javillonar lang kukunin nila. Kaso nakita nila ko na masipag maglaro kaya kinausap na rin ako," said Daquioag.
Acot brought Javillonar and Daquioag to Benedictine International School, where he was the head coach. There, they teamed up with the Tigersharks’ top gunner, Clark Bautista. They won titles in various tournaments in the country, including the National Students Basketball Championship in Cebu in 2008. The sweet-shooting Bautista was named MVP, while Daquioag was included in the Mythical Five.
A year later, however, the school’s basketball program was dissolved, putting the players in limbo. Luckily, Acot was hired by Rizal Technological University’s (RTU) juniors team. Again, he brought with him Daquioag and Javillonar, while Bautista joined UST as a college freshman.
While at RTU, Javillonar was named to the RP Youth Team under Eric Altamirano. When he graduated, Altamirano convinced him to move to National University (NU), where he was newly appointed as head coach. It put to waste UST’s investments. In contrast, college teams weren’t exactly tussling to get the unheard-of Daquioag. He tried to follow his longtime teammate by trying out for the Bulldogs but he was shown the door.
"Parang hindi naman nila ako pinapansin nun," said Daquioag. "Kaya nag-tryout ako sa UST. Walk-in lang ako nun kasi open (tryouts)."
But by then, Acot was no longer part of the Growling Tigers after having a personal spat with Jarencio. Daquioag no longer had a confidant and a backer who could strongly vouch for him. Jarencio knew him, but the mercurial mentor was still unsure about the reed-thin kid that caught his eye in Ilocos Norte. So, as Daquioag learned from his hard-knock upbringing, good ol’ hard work never fails.
"Siguro nakita nila ‘yung athleticism ko tsaka sipag kaya nakuha ko. Ako rin kasi lagi bumabantay kay Jeric Teng nun," said Daquioag, who is playfully called "Father" in the Growling Tigers’ lair.
"Nung unang pasok ko kasi sa Benedictine, sobrang laki ng polo ko. Sabi ni Tata (Bautista), para akong pari. Kaya tinawag niya kong ‘Father,’ hanggang sa (nadala na sa UST)," shared the high-leaping guard.
After his surprisingly impressive UAAP debut against UE, Daquioag spiraled to anonymity anew. Was it simply a case of beginner’s luck? He failed to duplicate his maiden performance and found himself glued to the bench for most of his rookie season.
"Hindi naman ako kabado nun, ‘yung confidence ko nung high school, dinala ko sa UST. Gusto ko magpakilala agad. Kaso hindi ko napagpatuloy. Ang pangit na ng mga sunod na laro ko. Mga lay-up, hindi ko ma-shoot," said Daquioag.
Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, it did.
In the summer of his second year, he complained about a recurring tonsillitis. When he had it diagnosed, it was found out that he had rheumatic fever. It’s a rare but potentially life-threatening disease caused by bacteria in the throat.
"’Yung bacteria, kumalat na sa dugo ko. ‘Yung normal na bilang ng anti-streptolysin O (a form of antibody) ng isang tao is 0 to 200. ‘Yung akin, 800," said Daquioag.
From May to July, it was a procession to the hospital for a series of tests. He spent more time in the doctor’s office than on the basketball court. His delicate condition affected his training and delayed his improvement. Eventually, he was ordered to sit out his entire sophomore season.
"Sobrang nangamba ko nun! Inisip ko kung tapos na ba ‘yung career ko. Nagdasal ako sa lahat ng simbahan. Nag-Manaoag ako, Pampanga, St. Pio sa Libis, Baclaran, Quiapo," bared Daquioag.
It was a crushing blow to a young kid with high hopes and far-reaching dreams. It caught him by surprise like an intercepted pass. He was always the healthy one with his toned physique and limitless energy.
"Tinanggap ko na lang. Mahirap ipilit kasi mas importante nga naman ‘yung health ko," said Daquioag. "Pero tuwing pinapanood ko sila (UST) tapos ako nakaupo lang, naiinggit ako. Inisip ko na lang na may reason lahat ng bagay."
Whatever it was—his church-hopping or modern medicine—Daquioag’s condition stabilized in a year. Although a longer recuperation period was ideal, his resolve to get back on the court couldn’t be sidelined. Also, it became a now-or-never situation.
"Kapag hindi kasi ako maglalaro, mawawala na scholarship ko. Hindi rin ako makaka-aral. (‘Yung desisyon), nauwi sa ‘pangarap ko o wala?’ Kaya sinugal ko na," said Daquioag.
When he returned, he displayed the same athleticism and quickness. But he was mostly erratic, usually earning the ire of the cantankerous Jarencio, who minces his words with a dull butter knife.
"Si Coach Pido, mumurahin ka talaga. Kapag malambot ka, wala ka," said Daquioag. "Kapag na-discourage ako, walang mangyayari sa’kin. Hindi ako puwede mag-quit kasi pangarap ko ‘to eh."
In his third year, he became a key rotation player for the Growling Tigers as the resident wing defender, while contributing sporadically on offense. His extended playing time gave him confidence and validation. He had his fair share of moments in UST’s second straight finals appearance. But the thing he remembers the most is how painful the defeats were, including the one in 2012.
"Matalo ka na sa eliminations, huwag lang sa finals. Hindi ka naman nagpa-practice para lang maging runner-up," said Daquioag.
Last year was supposed to be his coming-out party but a left ankle injury sidetracked him. He was regrettably inconsistent. He would score in double figures in one game then struggle horribly in the next. UST stumbled out of the Final Four with an underachieving 5-9 record.
Now in his final year, with a clean bill of health, heavy playing time, and a skyrocketing confidence, Daquioag has shown his true mettle. To say that he’s playing well is an understatement. Out of nowhere—much like his first UAAP game—he’s become one of the leading MVP candidates with norms of 20.5 PPG (tied for second in the league), 3.8 RPG and 1.0 SPG. Really, who saw this coming?
"Hindi ko in-expect na magiging ganito performance ko. Ang iniisip ko lang naman, go for the win every game. Mataas lang confidence ko tsaka ayoko sayangin ‘yung opportunity," said Daquioag.
"He’s (Daquioag) more mature in his way of playing. Last year, he committed lots of mistakes. He’s wiser now in decision-making and finishing plays," said teammate Karim Abdul.
The 6-foot-1 Daquioag is a blue-collar type, who plays hard on both ends. He can penetrate to the lane with his deceivingly strong body. He’s a harbinger of punishment in the open court. He’s a good rebounder for his size with his leaping ability and a fantastic on-ball defender with his long limbs.
He, however, has to learn to be more of a playmaker (only 1.5 APG) to become a more efficient player. Also, he needs to develop a consistent outside shot.
"Isa talaga siya sa mga inaasahan sa team. Mataas ang confidence niya. He just needs to improve every day. Huwag siya ma-satisfy," said UST head coach Bong Dela Cruz.
"Si Ed parang kapatid ko na. We motivate each other. Sobrang laki ng inaasahan namin sa kanya. Kailangan mag-exit kami nang maganda. Dito na rin nakasalalay future niya," said fellow senior Kevin Ferrer.
Not a few observers believe that Daquioag can’t sustain his MVP-type season. They feel he’s just an aberration or an anomaly. But the versatile guard is eager to prove otherwise.
"Ako ‘yung tipo ng tao na kapag lalong dina-down, mas papatunayan ko na mali ka," said Daquioag.
With his expressionless face and calm demeanor on the court, Daquioag looks like a serious, introspective guy. But actually, he’s the team's clown and prankster. He relishes goofing with his teammates in the locker room or during shoot-around. There’s a plastered smirk on his face, as if he’s always thinking of something mischievous.
"Nandyan ‘yung tatapikin ko sila sa b*yag. Hahampasin, sisikuhin. Dudukutin ko ‘yung puwet nila," chuckled Daquioag.
While it’s generally likable, having a fun-loving, loosey-goosey personality doesn't always translate well in basketball, where psychology and mental toughness are as important as having a correct shooting form. Having a proper mindset is what hinders Nick Young from becoming a Kobe Bryant. But for Daquioag, his easygoing attitude is his coping mechanism to the pressures and nuances of competition.
"Para sa'kin kasi dapat relaxed lang. Kapag nakikita ka ng teammates mo na nag-e-enjoy, mahahawa sila. Kapag masaya ‘yung buong team, walang (nararamdamang) pagod, walang pressure. Tsaka kapag game naman, mas focused na ko," explained Daquioag.
"Pataas nang pataas ang laro niya. He’s enjoying the game. Hinahayaan ko na lang siya (mangulit)," said Dela Cruz.
UST’s pristine record got smeared last Saturday after dropping a nail-biter against NU. Daquioag, after averaging 24.3 PPG in their winning streak, was limited to nine points with three turnovers. He was saddled by foul trouble and was bothered by a pain in his right foot. Also, he looked like a guy who was pressured to perform. But that’s the barter with prominence.
Daquioag was one of the last players to exit the locker room along with Ferrer and Abdul. He morosely faced the reporters. It was as if he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He knew he played a mediocre game. He knew he wasn’t able to give his all.
But after a while, he started to loosen up anew. At the end of the day, he’s still a lighthearted guy, grateful to play the game he loves. He, however, doesn’t let go of defeats easily.
"Kapag natalo, the following day, ‘yun pa rin iniisip ko. Ano ba nangyari? Hindi ko nalilimutan agad," said Daquioag.
For sure, opponents and fans don’t quickly forget about him too. It may have taken awhile, but Daquioag has finally made his mark in the UAAP. Better late than never recognized.
His anti-streptolysin O count is still higher than normal. He injects an antidote every month to assuage the effects. But that doesn't bother him. The thought that punctures his mind daily is that soon, his UAAP career will end.
"Buwan na lang—hindi nga taon eh, dalawang buwan na lang—matatapos na ko sa UAAP. Ibibigay ko na lahat. Full heart, go hard, kahit sa dying seconds," said Daquioag.
It has been quite a story for Daquioag. From an inconspicuous start to a life-threatening illness to a memorable final season. If everything falls into place, he’ll certainly have a wider grin as he rides off to the proverbial sunset. Or maybe off to somewhere on this planet.
This story was originally published on the ABS-CBN Sports website.