National Treasures

College Hoops

By Mav C. Gonzales, for Yahoo! Southeast Asia

What could be worth putting off playing in the UAAP? For these four players, playing for your country gave them a basketball experience no university could ever provide.

Every year, thousands of hopefuls try out for college basketball teams. Only about 120 will make it, and get to play in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) league.

One way to improve your chances: Make the cut for the RP Youth Team.

The catch: In 2008, a ruling has been imposed that active National Team players cannot play in the UAAP. Because of this rule, some in the Team had to postpone their stint in the college leagues.

Nonetheless, the one-year hiatus is no match for the exposure you get. "Coaches really look at the youth team to recruit players," says assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga. "A lot of the good players in the country try out for the youth team so a lot of them have big potential."

The open tryouts for the Youth Team span two weeks. After an initial three or four cuts, there around only 20 are left. The final 20 go through a one more round of qualifications, and those who don't make the last cut will form the reserve team.

"Normally there are tryouts [to select players for the RP Youth], then others are personally invited by coaches," adds Arespacochaga. Apart from necessary court skills, the only requirement to make the team is age eligibility, which varies per league.

Aside from the honor of playing for the country, the players of the RP Youth Team are entitled to free shoes, a monthly allowance, trips abroad and massive attention from the media.

2008 was heyday for Philippine basketball;government support for the National Teams was then in full swing. The RP Youth emerged champions of the SEABA Under-18, and  ranked 7th in the All-Asia Tournament.

A handful of the current college basketball players came from the 2008 crop. College Hoops traces the journey of four RP Youth alumni to the big league.

RR Garcia

Where he came from: Southern City Colleges, Zamboanga

Where he is now: Far Eastern University

RR tried out for FEU, San Beda and Letran after high school. Letran and FEU both offered him a spot, but he eventually chose the latter.

He spent a year as a Team B member to play for the RP Youth. When he returned to the UAAP this year, the vastly improved point guard emerged as the season's Most Valuable Player.

RR was flooded with offers, but he decided to remain at FEU. "Lahat ng school gusto ako i-recruit pero nasimulan ko na sa FEU eh, kaya loyal ako. Nakakahiya rin kay Jens at Mark (his fellow Zamboangueños at FEU). Parang pinabayaan ko sila," RR says.

Even San Beda, who dismissed him when he was a freshman came with an offer. "Sabi ko: 'Wala na. Dati di niyo ko pinapansin eh,'" he kids.

Now that he's playing in the seniors, RR says it's nostalgic to go up against his former teammates. "Masaya, kamustahan. Pero pagdating sa game, laro lang," he says.

Frank Golla

Where he came from: Ateneo High School

Where he is now: Ateneo de Manila University

Frank didn't expect to play in the RP Youth, moreso to be its captain. Coach Sandy, who was also coaching at Ateneo, just asked for Frank's name and birthday, and everything else followed.

Though he had a confirmed spot at Ateneo, Frank has never regretted postponing his UAAP game time to play for the RP team. "I realized that this is a once in a lifetime experience. I can say that I served country in some way," he says.

The RP Youth boys had training twice daily, and some players who lived far away just moved to a dorm inside ULTRA. "We even had practice early morning on weekends. Para daw di kami lumabas ng Friday night," he quips.

Frank is the only one in the Youth team who went to Ateneo so he never hears the end of it from those who went to La Salle. During their rookie year, they would all joke around because they didn't get enough playing time. They would even give each other high-fives.

"Pero this year, di na ko pinapansin ni Jovet Mendoza [who went to La Salle] pag may matchup kami. Super focused na siya sa game," Frank says. "But off the court naman, we're still friends."

Jolas Terso

Where he came from: National University - High School

Where he is now: National University

Jolas is an NU homegrown talent, played for the Bulldogs juniors team. One of the coaching staff of the RP Youth contacted his high school coach to invite Jolas for the tryouts. It didn't take Jolas a split-second to say yes.

"Malaki natulong ng RP Youth sa'kin kasi tumaas confidence ko at nadagdagan yung experience ko," he says.

In the year that he was part of the National Team, some of his coaches tried to recruit him for their respective schools. "Nagsasabi sila na lumipat na lang daw ako ng DLSU pero ewan ko kung seryoso sila dun," he says.

"Nagdadalawang-isip ako pero nung natapos yung RP Youth pinili ko na lang mag-stay sa NU. Nahiya ako sa NU kasi dito na din ako natuto. And gusto ko silang makalaban," he adds.

Jolas is especially happy to be at NU, with their revamped basketball program and facilities. "I'm still excited on games with my former teammates. Kasi kahit sa court lang magkakasama ulit kami, pero as opponents nga lang."

Joel Tolentino

Where he came from: University of the Philippines Integrated School/Reedley International School

Where he is now: De La Salle University

Joel was playing for UPIS when he tried out for the RP Youth. He transferred to Reedley after making it to the National team and quit the juniors league.

"The best thing about being in the RP Youth is that you're playing for your country," he says. "But the worst thing is that when we lose, it's like the whole country's losing as well."

After his Youth Team stint, he was wooed by various colleges. As an Ateneo Grade School grad, coach Norman Black tried recruiting Joel post-RP Youth. However, he decided to don the green-and-white instead. "I went to Ateneo na before so I wanted to try a different school naman," he says.

He says it's fun to play against his former RP Youth members, but it's inevitable to have some kind of competition. He and Jolas are both point guards so they do get matched up. Frank is playing for his alma-mater-turned-archrival.

The bond formed during their RP Youth days will never be dissolved though.

Paraphrasing the Adidas motto, "Teams change but the brotherhood remains."