MANILA, Philippines – With Colegio de San Juan de Letran on the brink of winning its first NCAA crown since 2015, former coach Aldin Ayo has just message for the team's current captain, Jerrick Balanza.
Ayo is delighted at how Balanza recovered from a life-threatening illness last year to become a stabilizing presence for Letran this year, and is proud of how he has developed as a basketball player.
But as far as he is concerned, Balanza has some things to take care of beyond the basketball court.
"Isa lang ang message ko kay Jerrick eh. He has to finish his studies," Ayo said.
Ayo memorably steered Letran to the NCAA title in 2015, when they pulled off an upset of San Beda University in Season 91. Since then, the coach said that all members of that championship squad have gone on to graduate – except for Balanza, Christian Balagasay, and Tommy Olivario.
"(Kay) Jerrick medyo ako kinakabahan eh," Ayo admitted. "Christian and Tommy, I'm sure they're going to get that degree."
"Pero ito si Jerrick, after this, siguro ko, magko-commercial. Message ko sa kanya, he has to finish his studies," he stressed.
Balanza could only smile and shake his head when informed of his former coach's comment. He revealed that until now, Ayo continues to check up on him, and his most frequent question is simple.
"Every time na nakikita kami, tinatanong niya, 'Kelan ka matatapos?'" said Balanza.
Balanza, who was a freshman when Ayo was in charge of the Knights, admitted that he can't help but make excuses.
"Sinasabi ko, 'Coach, nahihirapan ako eh.' Sabi ko, 'Coach kakabalik ko lang, nagkaganito ako'," he said.
Even though he was only under Ayo's tutelage for a year, however, Balanza knew his coach well enough to understand that Ayo was not one to accept those kinds of reasons.
"Siyempre, kung mahirap, pagdaanan mo, hindi 'yung puro ka rason," said Balanza. "Ayun na naman, sermon na naman."
"Sabi niya, 'Tapusin mo.' Sabi niya, 'Gusto ko lahat ng 2015 na nag-champion tayo, gusto ko graduate lahat 'yan. Kayong dalawa ni Christian, noong rookie kayo, kayong dalawa hindi pumapasok. 'Yung mga kuya niyo pumapasok, kayong dalawa hindi'," he added.
Though Ayo is no longer his coach, Balanza still takes his advice to heart, and knows that Ayo only has his best interest at heart.
Thus, he said he intends to do as Ayo says and finish his studies once his NCAA career is over.
"Sabi ko sa kanya, siguro mga tatlong sem na lang siguro ako eh," he said. "After nito siyempre, hindi na ako maglalaro ng NC, papasok na lang ako."
"Siyempre, tapusin ko na kasi hindi naman pang-lifetime ang basketball. 'Yun ang talagang pinupukpok niya sa ulo namin. Hindi lifetime ang basketball," he added.
"'Pag na-injury ka diyan, tapos ka agad. Anong mangyayari sa buhay mo? Hindi naman nawawala sa isip namin 'yung ganoon."
At the moment, however, Balanza's focus is on leading Letran to the Season 95 title. They have a 1-0 lead over San Beda in the best-of-3 series, and can secure the crown on Friday with another win in Game 2.
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