WORDS by Kobe Dayao
It was one of those crazy Juan Gomez de Liaño highlights. It was September 2018, in a game against the Ateneo Blue Eagles, and Juan GDL left us with one of the most memorable—albeit sickening if you’re an Ateneo fan—moments in the past few UAAP seasons.
Juan picks up the ball, 15 feet away from the rim, with an engrossed Matt Nieto in front of him. He sizes Nieto up, getting ready to make his move when suddenly, Thirdy Ravena makes a huge stride to swing over from the weak side, pushing the double-team on Juan. Juan reacts, steps back and then some, swishes the ball through the hoop, and completely paints the floor with two defenders in blue on the ground. Bonkers.
Fast forward to 2021, we see Juan again. This time, he’s got a different set of colors on.
A major contrast from the maroon-colored threads we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him in. Also this time, there aren’t any ankle-breaking moments, no head-turning Euro-step lay-ins, no crunch-time isolation contested-step-back Js over weary defenders, none of those. All we had is three minutes of run time, a single-made bucket, and a couple of turnovers. That’s not exactly the product we’d expect when you think of Juan GDL.
But the way we know Juan GDL isn’t the same way fans from Japan know Juan GDL.
It’s tough enough to make a name for yourself in a basketball-loving country like the Philippines, where it seems like there’s a new surname buzzing after every trending highlight posted on the ‘gram. And to do it all over again in a foreign land, away from your family, where the first language isn’t even your second or third? That’s tougher than a step-back J over two Ateneo defenders. But just like THAT step-back jumper, Juan never wavered from the opportunity and made sure that a shot like that didn’t go to waste.
“It’s sort of like survival mode, being on your own, building your own routine, staying consistent with it, and just dealing with a lot of things by yourself. It was tougher on the mental aspect,” Juan told SLAM Philippines when asked about life in Japan.
The struggles didn’t stop there for the 22-year-old, as the language barrier between him and his teammates proved to be another side mission he had to carve his way through.
“Not all my teammates would speak English. It was hard for us to communicate on the court,” he added.
As his first season in Japan progressed, it seemed like the punches kept coming his way. The sight of numbers piling up in the loss column became a recurring visual for the majority of the season. Taking matters into his own hands on the court would’ve been ideal, but when you’re on a new team, in a completely different part of the world, you can only control so much of what’s given, and that includes the opportunities on the court.
“It was tough. There are things we can’t control. But it is what it is, I still stayed positive throughout everything that was going on with the team and just thinking of the bigger picture, even though if things weren’t going our way, and really just look at the positive side out of every situation and learn as much as I could from every experience,” Juan said.
Putting in the work behind closed doors was something Juan would take advantage of during his tenure in Tokyo. If he couldn’t control the outcome of the game due to lack of opportunities, then he’d show he was worthy of those opportunities in practice. Yes, we’re talking about practice. Now with the limelight of Philippine sports media nowhere near him, Juan had every opportunity and all the time on his hands to work on what mattered the most.
“Life in Japan, honestly, was just grinding every day, working out, perfecting your craft. Nothing much to do out there for me but to hoop, focus on my personal growth, getting stronger in the weight room, and stuff like that,” Juan said.
But despite the x-amount of hours in the gym, it never truly amounted to bigger opportunities or minutes for Juan.
“For basketball players, it starts in practice. You gotta give your 100 percent, you gotta show the coaches your effort, and that you deserve playing time, and that’s what I did. I just couldn’t understand why things didn’t go very well from our end,” he voiced.
Juan’s situation reminds me of varsity tryouts. You know, that aching experience where you’re forced—ironically, thanks to no small part of your own will—to run through a plethora of drills, and exercises all to get a chance to play four to five minutes in a blowout game and get excused from P.E. class. That’s what it felt like for Juan. He had to hit the reset button, start at a 65 overall, and leave all the mesmerizing performances he made back home, AT home.
For him, every practice was another tryout. Every chest pass had to be on-target, right smack in the middle. Every suicide had to be run with gusto. Every defensive and offensive play had to flow perfectly even with his eyes closed. And every shot, even the ones that didn’t count in the scrimmages, had to catch the coach’s attention. He had to prove all over again, to people who didn’t know, that he was capable of being the guy that WE know. That he was more than capable of turning a team around if given the right opportunity. I mean, we’ve seen him do it before, so why would it be impossible to see him do it again, right?
Well, it’s not impossible. It’s because, unfortunately, the Juan GDL we know, wasn’t the Juan GDL they got to know.
And that was okay for Juan. He never deterred from the challenge even when it wasn’t going his way. Just like any Filipino-blooded hooper. He took control of what he could and faced the hurdles he dealt with head-on.
“I’m always up for whatever challenge is thrown at me, I look forward to that. That’s life, sometimes you wouldn’t understand what’s going on so you just have to take a step forward, focus on the brighter side and just keep improving in whatever way, on the court, off the court, just focus on personal growth and just get better every day,” Juan said.
The debut season wasn’t an easy one for Juan, but he walks away from the first page of this book that he’s writing with some much-needed pro experience as he gears towards opening a new chapter in his very young career.
“It was a tough season. Definitely went through struggles, ups and downs mostly on the basketball aspect. But besides that I made the most of the time I had there, I made sure I enjoyed and made every day count. It was really a great learning experience foreal.”, he recalled.
“I’d love to go back there and to play in Japan again. Why not, if the opportunity comes up? It’s a dream of mine, also, to play in Europe. Hopefully one day I can make it. I think my faith, relationship with God is very strong, I rely so much on that. But at the same time, I think I’m on the right track because I believe I put in the work and sacrificed a lot for the game that I love,” Juan added.
As Juan moves on from his Japan stint (for now), he’s set his focus on dawning a familiar set of colors. A similar bluish hue as his Tokyo Z threads, only this time, with big bold letters across that spell PILIPINAS.
Juan will take his time to get acclimated with the new system and the new set of faces he’ll be sharing the court with. More adjustments, but more time to adapt to it.
“It’s always my job to adjust to whatever system. Right now that’s under coach Chot. They like to run a lot, dribble drives, a lot of pick-and-roll actions too. Definitely suits my game well. A lot of freedom actually with Coach Chot,” Juan said.
“It’s an honor, I feel truly blessed. A chance to represent our country again and hopefully continue to make the whole nation proud. I’m just really looking forward to the games, definitely excited, really just can’t wait to get going,” he added.
The next few games for Gilas will be big, not just for the country and the team, but Juan as well. His individual performance will be his next side mission, and the games itself will be the next big tryout; his next opportunity to capture the attention of scouts keeping a close tab on him. And an opportunity to remind people who Juan Gomez de Liaño is.
“I’d say these upcoming games are very important for us because we’re all representing our country, Pilipinas right across our jersey. We have a whole nation behind us so, of course, we’re just gonna do our best, give it our best shot, play for them, play for the country, and if I perform well, it will definitely open up doors. The experience I had in Japan definitely I’ll bring along, I’m just trying to be more of a leader out here, be more vocal, keep the team on the same page and be a great teammate to my teammates,” said the Gilas guard.
Juan’s back home.
He left Manila with an excitement equal to a kid in a candy store. A demeanor on the court that was so cold-blooded, even the fans from the nosebleed sections could feel it. He left with a youthful attitude that rivals only that of his younger self in his first season with UP. And most of all, he left without knowing what was to come at him, and what hurdles he had to go through to get to where he is now. Now that he’s back, it’s a whole different ball game. We’ll still be seeing the same patented step-back jumpers, same freakishly-quick outlet passes, and the same crunch-time player we all know and love. Only this time, he’s got a fire burning in him like we’ve never seen.
This isn’t the same Juan GDL we used to know. Same, but different.
(Photos from Juan’s Instagram; eftokyoz; FIBA)