The first time I saw Will Allen Gozum in person, I was simply in awe of his presence. Of his size. Of his funky hair. Of his built.
The thought bubble that popped in my head when I saw him: This is how 18-year-olds are built now? The guy was huge. I was old enough to be his uncle, but Gozum was big enough to pick me up and carry me like a toddler.
Another thought bubble: Does he ever stop eating?
Gozum, the reigning NCAA Juniors MVP, wasn’t even playing basketball when I first saw him. He was in civilian clothes for the SLAM Rising Stars Classic press conference, chowing down chicken wing after chicken wing after chicken wing, like he was putting together a personal highlight reel of an elite wing eater.
I could’ve been watching him for a whole five minutes—looking away for a few seconds just to avoid being creepy, then looking back to see if the spectacle was still ongoing. After about an hour, I checked back at his table and saw that Gozum vs chicken wing was, indeed, still ongoing. Food trip-wise, it was inspiring.
Chicken wings, the garlic parmesan kind, is Gozum’s favorite snack. “Solid eh,” he told me. Smart guy.
Gozum once ate 10 chicken wings in one sitting, a career-high. That’s not a lot. But the 6-foot-6 center/power forward is only in high school and has yet to hit 20 years old. He still has a lot of room to grow.
For the past two years, Gozum’s growth with Mapua University had been significant. As a Red Robin, he developed into a traditional big man inside the paint, where he towered over his fellow high school kids, muscled his way to get loose balls, and danced in the paint to stun defenses.
Both of his high school playing years at Mapua resulted to two NCAA Finals appearances, where he went one out of two. The first championship in 2016 was historic: it was the Red Robins’ first title in 16 years and it ended the seven-year reign of San Beda.
But last year, Gozum and the Red Robins lost in heartbreaking fashion to another team chasing its own history, the College of St. Benilde-La Salle Greenhills. So heartbreaking that after the game, Gozum, also a champion rice eater, could only stomach one cup of rice in Binalot.
To recap, his legacy as a Mapua Red Robin looks like this: back-to-back finals trips, one NCAA title, one season MVP title (he averaged 14 points on 49 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks), and a whole lot of rice for his pregame meals.
Like watching him devour chicken wings and rice like a pro, Gozum’s Mapua highlights are awesome to watch. Squint a bit and you might see a young Ranidel de Ocampo, minus the kontrabida beard; squint really, really hard and you’ll catch traces of old school Rasheed Wallace, minus the attitude.
I think now is a good time to reiterate: Will Gozum is only in high school and has yet to hit 20 years old. He still has a lot of room to grow.
That growth will is unstoppable now that he’s going back to his UP roots for college ball. Who’s waiting for him there? His former UPIS teammates Javi and Juan Gomez de Liaño, 6-foot-8 Bright Akhuetie, Paul “I called game” Desiderio, ex-Adamson standout Jaydee Tungcab, Diego Dario, and vet coach Bo Perasol. With a lineup like that, a UAAP Final Four finish no longer feels like a reach. Maybe soon enough, bonfires after victories will no longer be followed by LOLs.
We all know how UP has performed in the men’s basketball tournament in the past decade. But, again, for perspective: the last time the UP Fighting Maroons made it to the Final Four, Gozum wasn’t even born yet; Baby Paul Desiderio can’t speak yet to say “Atin ‘To!”; and the Nokia 6110 was cool. “Pa-Snake” was an actual thing the last time UP had a legit chance at the championship.
A lot can change now that Gozum is taking with him his huge appetite for winning to a starving UP squad. But he’s not looking to disrupt things as a freshman. Rather, he will try to blend in and contribute in any way he can.
“Basta magta-trabaho ako and I will give my best,” he said.
It’s amazing how things work. Gozum left UPIS for reasons unknown, started fresh in Mapua, won a title, snatched an MVP trophy, and now he’s back in Katipunan for unfinished business. And he is still only in high school and has yet to hit 20 years old. He still has a lot of room to grow.
Forget the lost UPIS years. Forget the heartbreaker of the 2017 NCAA Finals. Forget eating 10 chicken wings in one sitting. Gozum is out to break his own records.
Just how hungry is he to play for the UP Fighting Maroons?
“Parang makaka-50 wings ako,” he said.