MANILA, Philippines -- On Monday morning, Vic Manuel reported to NorthPort practice, even posting a photo on his Instagram story.
He was traded to the Batang Pier on Friday, after an injury-riddled conference with Phoenix Super LPG. Manuel, 34, was excited to play in NorthPort where he believed he would thrive beside young point guard Robert Bolick and center Greg Slaughter in Pido Jarencio's system.
"Nag-usap pa kami ni Coach Pido," recalled Manuel. "Excited siya, eh siyempre sobrang excited din ako maglaro para sa kaniya and maka-team up si Greg and Robert, 'di ba."
But by that afternoon, Manuel was no longer part of NorthPort. The San Miguel Beermen acquired him in a shocking trade that saw veteran forward Arwind Santos depart the franchise.
On social media, fans expressed their surprise at the deal. Manuel himself had no idea that it was in the works.
"Syempre nagulat ako kasi morning pa lang um-attend pa 'ko sa meeting ng NorthPort eh. Tapos nag-usap pa kami ni Coach Pido. So wala naman kaming idea pareho," said Manuel, who was on his way back home when the PBA announced the trade.
"Pag-uwi ko, nagpahinga ako. Pag-gising ko, 'yun, kalat na 'yung news about doon. Siyempre nakakagulat," he said.
In the span of 48 hours, Manuel's outlook in the upcoming season shifted. With NorthPort, he would have been a veteran mentor to Bolick and up-and-coming forward Jamie Malonzo. In San Miguel, he becomes a part of a powerhouse squad that has championship expectations and tremendous pressure every time they compete.
Manuel, who previously played for Meralco and Alaska in his PBA career, looked at the situation in a positive manner. It was good, he said, that the trade came quickly and he didn't even get an opportunity to fully practice with the Batang Pier.
"Good thing lang kasi pa ko nagpapraktis sa NorthPort tapos nangyari na ulit 'yung trade 'di ba. So mas maganda 'yun. Doon na lang ako mag-a-adjust sa San Miguel," he said.
Adjusting to San Miguel, of course, is another matter entirely. Manuel is aware that there is great pressure in playing for the Beermen as the team is expected to contend for a championship in every conference. Manuel, in fact, was twice on the wrong end of a finals series against San Miguel when he played for Alaska.
It doesn't help that, fairly or not, San Miguel fans will see Manuel as a replacement for Santos -- one of the greatest players in franchise history and a former PBA Most Valuable Player.
"Mahirap talaga," Manuel admits. "Mahirap palitan 'yung inalisan ni Arwind."
"Sinabi ko din naman sa coaches 'yan sa San Miguel, na talagang pressure kasi alam naman natin mga nagagawa ni Arwind sa San Miguel," he added. "Sobrang laki niyan, dami niyang nagagawa doon."
Manuel said he is ready to embrace this pressure by doing what he knows best -- buckling down to work and fulfilling his role in the team. He and Santos have different skill sets: Manuel is known for operating on the low block, while Santos has range all the way up to the three-point line. Santos is also a defensive stalwart for the Beermen, something that Manuel has not developed a reputation for in his career.
But he insists he is ready to take on whatever role is given to him by the San Miguel coaching staff, led by Leo Austria.
"Sinabi ko din sa coaching staff… kung ano 'yung role, gagawin ko," he said. "Tapos siyempre, maglalaro talaga ako. Eh hindi naman ako pwedeng tutunga-tunganga doon. Syempre pumalit ka doon tapos tutunga-tunganga?"
"Siyempre, kailangan pakita mo na may maibubuga ka pa, 'di ba, na may ibubuga ka, na may matutulong ka sa team. Sabi ko 'di naman ako takot makipagbarugan diyan sa mga laro na 'yan. Laro lang 'yan. Sanay naman ako sa pisikalan," he said.
"'Yun ang motivation ko ngayon sa kanila, 'di ba, na kaya kong sumabay. Kaya kong maglaro nang maayos doon."
Injuries limited Manuel in his lone conference with Phoenix Super LPG, where he averaged only 12.8 points per game on 46.5% shooting along with 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per outing. In the previous Philippine Cup, his last with Alaska, Manuel averaged 15.6 points, 6.1 boards, and 2.2 dimes per game.
His performance in the last Philippine Cup does not sit well with Manuel, who has heard the criticism from fans after his struggles.
"May makikita ka na 'Ah, wala na 'yan, laos na 'yan. Injury-prone 'yan.' Ganoon," he revealed. "Sabi ko, sige, eh 'di ipapakita ko sa kanila na hindi pa ako malalaos, na kaya ko pang sumabay. Sabi ko nga, injury lang 'yung makakapigil sa akin eh."
Manuel is currently rehabbing the groin injury that hampered him in the Philippine Cup, although he already worked out for the Beermen on Monday and Tuesday. Austria expects him to join their full practices by next week in preparation for the Governors' Cup.
There, Manuel will try to contribute in San Miguel's bid to win a championship for the first time since 2019. The past two All-Filipino Cups have ended in disappointment for the Beermen, who saw Barangay Ginebra and then TNT Tropang GIGA overtake them in the conference that they used to dominate.
For Manuel, this is a chance to finally win a first PBA title.
"Sana makuha," he said. "Makukuha ko na 'yung first championship, with San Miguel pa, 'di ba? Lalo na sila lagi kalaban ko sa finals, 'di ba?"
"Papakita ko muna 'yung best ko, kung ano 'yung kaya kong gawin na makakatulong sa favorite teams nila, 'di ba. 'Yun lang," he also said. "Kasi alam ko naman (na) may magagawa pa ako eh, sabi ko nga, basta healthy lang ako."