Cover Story is a series of profile features that put the spotlight on stories that need telling. These are the big names, those you’re already following on IG. If their names aren’t big yet, the bet is that they will be, eventually.
WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
It’s not too late to buy some Calvin Oftana stock.
If you’ve paid attention to Philippine basketball recently, I bet that Calvin Oftana can pass as your next favorite player. At 6’5″, his transition from playing the 4 position in college to one of the premier wings in the country who possesses good movement shooting and an encouraging on-ball juice should just excite you. These things don’t come hand-in-hand with our players regularly and maybe that’s where we credit Oftana’s willingness to develop his game.
Those improvements did not go unnoticed, as Oftana received an invite to be part of the Gilas Pilipinas pool and made the final 12 for both games in the fourth window of the 2023 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers. It was officially his second time to be named in the national team, after suiting up for a single game with Gilas back in the Asia Cup Qualifiers.
But this time, the circumstances were much different. Competition was tougher, our roster was considerably stacked, and eyes were on the lookout as to how they would perform. And just like the overarching theme of the former San Beda Red Lion’s basketball career has been so far: constant growth.
To be quite frank, everyone that reached this part of the story might not even remember a single Calvin Oftana moment if they decide to rewatch this past window years from now. He played little less than seven minutes on average in the two games of Gilas. It’s definitely not a good sample size to gauge what Oftana could bring to the table.
Preparation time was also an issue Oftana and company had to endure, with only having more than a week to practice. It was tad different back in the Asia Cup Qualifiers, composed of collegiate players inside a bubble setup. So it was expected that the desired chemistry was not going to be formed in this window. Schemes won’t be as smoothly executed with the lack of familiarity. Being thrown into the fire again, it was another learning opportunity for him to incorporate new skills into his repertoire. And Oftana is very thankful to be under the tutelage of various coaches.
“Kay Coach Jong at Coach Tab, madetalye talaga. Every galaw, dapat alam mo ‘yung ginagawa mo. Every labas ng screen, alam mo rin dapat ‘yung dinedepensa sa’yo. Pagdating sa NLEX [Road Warriors], matatalino na ‘yung mga kasama ko kasi pro na sila. Sa Gilas naman kay Coach Chot, hindi na gaano dinetalye kasi nasa sa amin ‘yun kasi we’re all in the pro na rin,” Oftana said about the different coaches that handled him.
Scanning through the roster, it was no-brainer that the national squad had the firepower from its guards and wings. The hole was in their big men, as only Japeth Aguilar and Kai Sotto manned the middle. Carl Tamayo should be considered as a tweener and was unavailable for the second game, due to commitments with UP. That left other forwards like Oftana to adjust with the current construction of the team, and he was more than willing to take that sacrifice.
“Naglaro na lang din ako ng 4 kasi tinuturo din ni Coach [Chot] lahat ng plays sa amin [from 1 to 4 positions], except the 5 guy. ‘Yung 3 and 4 guy kasi most probably same lang ng ginagawa sa sistema ni Coach Chot,” Oftana said.
Let’s now talk about the games and Oftana’s game even more.
Their much-awaited game that made a lot of us sleep later than expected versus the Cedars of Lebanon was as good as advertised. The atmosphere was great, and of course, seeing Jordan Clarkson rep the flag was astonishing. While all of that transpired, Oftana spent most of his time on the bench egging on his teammates. Even so, he was not unfazed being on the sidelines and instead used it to his advantage to identify aspects that needed polishing.
“Gusto ko ma-improve lahat [skills]. ‘Di ako nagsesettle lang na may shooting lang. I’m working on my dribbling skills din. More than that, mga coaches naman makakakita ng ginagawa mo sa court, kaya nasa kanila din final decision kung ilang minutes [you’ll have] or kailan ka ipapasok,” Oftana when asked about his outlook towards his limited minutes.
When you closely watch Oftana’s basketball film, his response to the question seems to fit well with the current skill set he has. Like what I’ve mentioned in the first part, Oftana’s ability to shoot the ball at high efficiency (37% from 3 on catch-and-shoots and handoffs according to InStat) and be able to become your secondary ball handler at his height caters to a modern style of play moving forward. That only makes the former NCAA MVP a reasonable candidate to make the lineup in the 2023 World Cup here in our home soil.
Speaking of an opportunity to play in front of the Filipino crowd, Oftana was given a glimpse of what it feels like in their clash with visiting Saudi Arabia. For some of the players in Gilas, it might just be a game, but for a first-timer like Oftana, the experience felt like living a dream. And no one blames him for that sentiment.
“Ang sarap at ang saya. Parang gusto ko na lang umupo habang nakikita ‘yung mga Pilipino na sumusuporta sa’yo at sa buong team [Gilas Pilipinas]. Gusto ko rin na maglaro agad and makapag-contribute sa team, Oftana said.
Again, playing time of 10 minutes wasn’t that long enough for Oftana, and most of them were spent when the game was already out of hand. But his mindset remained the same and was determined to give the thousands watching inside the MOA Arena and the millions in their households a treat.
“Nung after ng pagkatalo namin sa Lebanon, diretso agad kami sa biyahe. We did a couple of film viewings, para makita plays nila [Saudi Arabia]. Ayaw talaga namin mapahiya sa sambayanang Pilipino at sobra kaming determinado manalo,” Oftana said.
Of course, we would not be able to encapsulate Oftana’s Gilas ride without talking about the Jordan Clarkson experience. You could just imagine the privilege of becoming teammates with a legitimate NBA star that has encountered the best of competitions. Although not sharing the court in both games, just a chance to be with Clarkson is something that Oftana cherished in this stint.
“Masaya, kasi NBA-caliber and hindi lang basta NBA player kasi scorer talaga siya. Mabait naman si JC at may sinasabi siya amin nila Kai [Sotto] kung ano pa ‘yung dapat namin i-improve individually,” Oftana said.
After the window, then came a self-reflection for Oftana. It may not be the most productive stretch of his basketball career, but his inclusion to the roster validates the point that Oftana is already amongst the best players in the country.
“Feel ko marami pa ang kulang sa sarili ko. I’m not satisfied din with the way I played this window, kasi I was just given a specific role and I’m not playing that much. But I’m still grateful na nakapasok ako doon [Gilas Pilipinas] at nagawa ko ‘yung dapat ko gawin,” Oftana’s realization after the fourth window.
For Oftana’s final takeaway from this experience, he had one specific reminder on top of his head. And probably, it explains why we are here, talking about Oftana. The pursuit to get better in spite of the tides not being in his favor. A quality that every aspiring basketball player should possess.
“‘Yung everyday drills, dapat mag-focus ako doon. Kasi minsan nakakalimutan ko ‘yung mga specific na gagawin. Every second or minute na tinatawag kami ng coaches, ayun talaga ang iniisip ko and knowing my role na pwede ko i-contribute sa team,” Oftana replied.
This is not the spiciest of takes, but I’ll say it out loud: Calvin Oftana is bound for greatness. Yes, I would also like to state once again his transformation from playing like a big to now a 6’5″ that moves like a guard-wing (the appropriate position for him). That statement alone reiterates why he’s just getting better.
(Cover photo from FIBA; Game photos by John Oranga)