From the moment he was born, Gab Banal immediately embarked on a long journey towards a professional basketball career. Having been born to a former PBA player and champion head coach, it was practically inevitable.
With a surname that has become household in the sport, Gab naturally had to deal with high expectations early on. Before he could even utter his first word, people already placed bets on how tall he’d eventually be. Before he could even learn to stand up on his own, people already wondered how soon he’d make it to the PBA. The possibility that he wouldn’t was extinct to them.
Ironically, the one person who never put pressure on him was his dad.
Joel Banal suited up for the Great Taste Coffee Makers in the 1980s. Spot the tall guard who had a wristband on each arm plus high socks on his legs. That’s him. His specialty was defense. You would often catch him assigned to the opposing team’s best player, making life easier for his teammates, particularly Ricardo Brown and Bogs Adornado, by letting them focus on offense.
Gab never saw his dad in live action. But he did see him play through YouTube. The younger Banal sat stuck facing his monitor, marveling at how his dad put Billy Ray Bates, one of, if not the most dominant player to ever play Philippine basketball, in handcuffs. From the clips, he remembers seeing glimpses of Magic Johnson in his dad, gracefully dishing off a perfect pass at the perfect time to the perfect teammate.
He never caught any of his dad’s games live but Gab recalls joining his dad, watching him coach 6am Alaska practices back when was six years old. “Me and my brothers were always there. Everyday. When we got home, we would rolled up our socks to make a ball and pretend that we were Jolas, Johnny A and Bong Hawkins.”
Joel never forced Gab into liking basketball though. At least not explicitly. Fortunately, the love for the game came intuitively. Without surprise, that emotion was strengthened by a son bearing witness to how all of his dad’s hardwork – sleepless nights, getting up early for practice, heartbreaking losses – finally paid off.
“I will never forget that feeling when he won a championship with Talk ‘N Text as a coach. I was so proud of him,” Gab shared. “I told myself I wanted to experience that first-hand someday.”
As he attempted to inch closer to that goal, it proved to be an advantage to have a former PBA player and head coach be available almost always on-call.
Coach Joel wanted the passion to come from his son. And the moment that it did was an internal victory for him. So every time Gab called on him to ask for assistance to work on something, he would yield. From shooting drills in the morning to post-game workouts, dad was always available for his son.
Even in those one-on-one trainings, Gab never felt any pressure from his dad. There was never a trust-me-I’ve-been-there moment. All there was, was work to be done, work that both of them hoped would lead to the fulfilment of both of their aspirations – a bright basketball career for Gab, and the success and happiness of his son for Coach Joel.
This isn’t about a second-coming. Gab’s voyage to the pros is mutually exclusive from any other Banal-named stint in basketball. Both dad and son knew that.
And now, the dream that a father and a son once dreamt together has reached a salubrious yet daunting checkpoint. Hours from now, Gab will sit in the middle of a mall, amidst several hundreds of people, crossing his fingers that Commissioner Salud calls out his name.
At this point, dad will have to let go. From this moment until the draft, Gab will have to own the dream. He’s worked too goddamn hard for it anyway.
Safe to say, Coach Joel will still be there. Proud of however things may pan out. Watching from the inside, knowing he can’t be the one to open the door and welcome his son, but trusting in good faith that someone will.
But right now, all of this, is about Gab.
“Getting into the PBA is my personal dream. And I just wanna enjoy every bit of my journey in fulfilling my dream.”