Two years ago, Perez was hauling boxes of his belongings out of the Ateneo dormitory. Once hailed as the future of the San Sebastian Golden Stags program, Perez had jumped ship to join the Blue Eagles. He waited out the residency period but was deemed ineligible for Season 79 after failing to meet grade requirements. In the end, Perez had only suited up for a grand total of two pre-season games with the Blue Eagles.
His former San Sebastian coach Topex Robinson, who by then was heading the Lyceum Pirates, helped Perez empty his dorm room.
“We didn’t say much. Tahimik lang kami habang naglilipat ng gamit,” recalls Robinson. “My heart bled for him that day because you could see how much Ateneo meant to him. Gustong-gusto niyang maglaro doon.”
Perez, meanwhile, can joke about it now. “Si [coach] bumitbit ng sapatos ko. Bata ko ‘yan eh,” he jokes. “Malungkot kami, syempre, kasi one and a half years din ako doon. Pagkalipat ko ng LPU, nanibago ako. Hindi ako agad naka-adjust. Pero sabi lang ni Coach, may plan si God.”
Unlike Ateneo, Lyceum’s young team had never even made the final four, let alone win a championship. There were no PBA stars that Lyceum could claim as products of their program. They wouldn’t be the favorites, but underdogs—dark horses, if you believed. But when Perez played his first game with the Pirates, something clicked into place: He was home. “Ang pinaka-best na nangyari sa college career ko ay ‘yung hindi ako pumasa as Ateneo kasi doon ako natuto maging humble,” Perez shares.
Looking back, Perez believes everything happens for a reason, and that every phase of his college career built who he is today: “Sa San Sebastian, doon ako nagsimula. Sa Ateneo naman, na-humble ako. Sa LPU, nabuo ako at mas gumanda laro ko.”
Perez’ arrival at Lyceum also coincided with a massive culture change that Robinson was undertaking for the team. In this new Lyceum, empathy led the way, players were asked to meditate, and outreach events would be scheduled mid-season. Now, Perez is one of the undisputed stars of Philippine collegiate basketball. The Pirates are making a strong bid to return to the NCAA finals, and after that, Perez is expected to be one of the top PBA draft picks this year. But everyone knows it wasn’t smooth sailing to get here.
If you ask Robinson, Perez’ own attitude has changed so much since his rookie year. “It didn’t happen overnight. It took a learning process and a lot of effort on his part to really decide and embrace a different side of himself,” says Robinson. “But CJay learned to let go of his ego.”
He adds, “The more accolades CJay gets, the more he humbles himself. And that’s unusual.”
Just listen to how Perez talks about NCAA Season 93, where the Pirates swept the elimination round only to get swept by the San Beda Red Lions in the finals.
“Kasama ang season na ‘yun sa favorite memories ko. Ang gandang experience kasi ang dami naming natutunan,” Perez says. After they lost, first instinct was to head to the dugout and mope, but Robinson asked everyone to stay on the court, partly to show respect to the Red Lions but also to help them let go and turn that pain into motivation for the next season. The whole team stood there, eyes wet, then went to a buffet for some comfort food. Mere hours after the loss, Perez was dancing and laughing with his teammates.
“Sa season na ‘yun, natutunan ko na hindi ko kaya nang ako lang. Kailangan namin ang isa’t isa,” he says. “Kung uulitin ko lahat, gusto ko pa rin mag-LPU. Mami-miss ko talaga dito. Ngayon naman, goal naming gawing mas memorable pa ang season na ito.”
With the next stage of his career just around the corner, Perez hopes he will find a similar home in the PBA.
“Gusto ko maging parang ‘yung mga player na kahit hindi sila palagi scorer, binibigay nila lahat sa team. Parang si Calvin Abueva, hindi palaging best scorer pero impact,” muses Perez, whose first collegiate nickname “Baby Beast,” is a reference to the physical San Sebastian alum. “Ngayon, gusto ko rin si Scottie Thompson kasi sa rebounds niya, nafu-fuel ‘yung team sa hustle niya.”
Like Thompson, Perez hopes he could one day play for the national team as well. “Noong rookie pa ako, hindi ko pa pinapangarap ang ganyan. Pero ngayon, dahil sa mga nakikilala ko, at sa mga napapanood ko, naging dream ko na rin.”
Speaking of the national team, Perez also dreams of playing for Yeng Guiao—not just because of his iteration of the national team but for his overall coaching style. “Gusto ko si Coach Yeng Guiao kasi ginagamit niya lahat ng players niya. Kahit sikat ka na o hindi, lahat binibigyan niya ng chance,” Perez says.
This, coming from one of the biggest collegiate stars. “Syempre, iba ‘yung college sa pros. Marami diyan na magaling sa college pero nahihirapan sa PBA. Hindi mo pwede i-expect na kung ano ka sa college, ‘yun din sa PBA.”
Perez does not talk with the bravado of a typical college star, which may just be his biggest asset going into the pros. “He’s never forgotten his ‘why.’ When we talk, CJay says he’s doing all this to help his family have a better life. It’s not about him. That’s what sets him apart,” says Robinson.
If you were to ask Perez what advice he’d give himself during his rookie year of collegiate basketball, it’s the same mantra he’s telling himself now as he heads towards the PBA. It’s that the hardships will always be there. Instead if allowing them to cut you down, embrace the bad times, learn what you can, and allow them to make you better.
“Ibigay mo lang best mo,” Perez says. “Huwag kang matakot mangarap.”