Jake Figueroa is living the Filipino teenager’s dream

“SLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM DUUUUUUUNK!”

That sound reverberates from one place to the next. For some that sound starts in the FilOil Flying V Arena with someone like Kai Sotto or LeBron Lopez powering through. Then magically, that sound move on to the minds of Filipino teenagers across the country.

Everyone can agree, the idea of being able to dunk the basketball is exciting. That’s why many would want for that sound to stay in their minds forever.

For Filipinos, dunking the basketball is more than just a highlight play and two points. It represents something more; the dreams of kids to make it big as basketball players, whether it be in the country, or abroad. Basketball has always been associated with athleticism and the concept of dunking perfectly encapsulates the sport. Dunking tickles the imagination and potential of players all across the country.

That imagination is a reality for Kai and LeBron. It isn’t a coincidence then that for the past two seasons, they’ve been the poster boys of the future of Philippine Basketball.

Kai needs no introduction; the seven-foot wunderkind made the jump from the Philippines to the United States and is seriously looking like the country’s best shot at a local-bred NBA player.  LeBron, on the other hand, has made himself known this Season 82 as an athletic freak playing for the Ateneo Blue Eaglets. Both players represent the Filipino teenager’s dream in their own special way. It isn’t surprising then so much hype has been built up surrounding both players thanks to their forays to the rim.

The dunk represents the dream, but it doesn’t capture the reality of the sport of basketball. You can’t win games by just dunking. You win by scoring more points than the other team and contributing in a lot of other facets of the game. The player who does that best often wins the Most Valuable Player award in his respective tournaments.

Kai won that last season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. But LeBron didn’t win it despite the excitement he provided with his athleticism. The winner is the polar opposite of LeBron. He isn’t as athletic, long, or even as big as the Blue Eaglets forward. His name is Jake Figueroa, an undersized forward from the Adamson Baby Falcons.

“JAKE FIGUEROOOOOAAAA!”

The sound reverberates around the Filoil Flying V Arena. But it doesn’t find its way in the minds of a lot of Filipino teenagers.

The Baby Falcon has been an unknown for most of Season 82. While highlights around the internet are filled with the faces of Lopez and Forthsky Padrigao of Ateneo, Terrence Fortea of the NU Bullpups, and Kean Baclaan of the DLSZ Junior Archers, Figueroa has been a silent operator. This isn’t a coincidence given his style of play.

In terms of pure skill, his game is what an undersized big man should have. He can shoot the occasional midrange jumper but most of his production is off offensive rebounds and cuts to the basket. Considering all of that, it begs asking: how did Figueroa win MVP in the first place, especially over the more exciting players he had to play against this season?

Basketball is a game of details and this is where Jake makes his living out of. He doesn’t just get rebounds; Jake is relentless when he grabs boards. He hunts them down like a predatory beast. His cuts to the basket aren’t just meant to go through the motions; they’re supposed to be daggers to the heart of the defense. When he cuts, that means the defense missed out on a key rotation, opening up space on the floor for Jake to sneak into.

Whatever he lacks in athleticism or height, he makes up for with an incredible passion and intelligence for the game. One former High School basketball coach was left impressed with Figueroa after his 15 point, 22 rebound, four assist masterpiece against the Ateneo Blue Eaglets last February 12. Aside from his basketball IQ, that coach was impressed by the versatility of the Juniors MVP. He consistently punked whoever was in front of him. He’d use smart fakes and elite footwork against LeBron or Joshua Lazaro. When guards switched on him he’d bully them with his sneakily strong frame. When the doubles came, he didn’t hesitate to pass the ball to his open teammates.

The beauty of Jake’s game was how effortless doing all of these looked for him. Maybe calling him an undersized big man earlier was a little insulting. Here’s a more apt term that would make Coach Tab Baldwin gush: basketball player.

The way he operates on the court isn’t meant to be boxed into positions. He’s the closest to a complete player in the UAAP Juniors Division; a prospect so skilled it’s clear he worked incredibly hard to get to where he is now.

Jake wasn’t even known last season, but he’s suddenly burst into the scenes as the Juniors MVP this 2020. Coach Mike Fermin of the Baby Falcons certainly deserves credit for creating such an inclusive system for his basketball team.

Don’t mistake this for Jake being baby-fed baskets or plays by Coach Mike. As a matter of fact, most of the plays Coach Mike runs aren’t exactly meant for him. Jake hasn’t been served anything easy. Instead, he’s grabbed the opportunities that have come his way, the same way he grabs rebounds or attacks an opening on the court. He’s flourished within the program of the Baby Falcons, and he’s repaid their trust by playing the best basketball possible for an individual in the UAAP Juniors Division.

“JAKE FIGUEROOOOOAAAA!”

His name will continue to reverberate around the Filoil Flying V Arena. Maybe soon, in the Smart Araneta Coliseum and the Mall of Asia Arena. For Jake, it doesn’t matter if the sound enters the minds of outsiders. Jake doesn’t dunk nor does he show incredible feats of athleticism. He’s just happy that the sound is there. That he scored a basket. That his name is being called. That he helped his team win.

More than the imagination of dunking, that sound represents the truly attainable dream of the Filipino teenager: to simply play in the biggest leagues in the country. That’s a dream that’s become reality for Jake. He also has an MVP award as a bonus for fulfilling something he’s always imagined.