Heading into the PBA bubble and his rookie season, Aaron Black made himself a playlist. “Mob Ties” by Drake, a song about ignoring the haters and just doing you. “In The Air Tonight,” a classic hype song that LeBron James listens to before games. And, in an almost prescient choice, “Freshman List” by Nav:
I was made for this / Rookie of the year.
A sprint of a season later, and he’d make good on that battle cry.
Aaron began his rookie season like all rookies do: Nervous. It wasn’t just his rookie year, but playing in a bubble with games every other day was unprecedented. When even the veterans don’t know what to expect, what more for the rookies?
In those early days, his teammate Chris Newsome snapped a photo of him holding a rainbow-colored stuffed toy which he had to carry every day—you know how Meralco’s annual rookie initiation goes—and when Aaron looks at it now, the person in the photo seems light years away from who he is now.
New kid on the block
”I had a lot of uncertainty. I prepared as much as I could, but you don’t actually know for sure until you’re put in the fire. At the time, I thought I could, but I had doubts,” Aaron recalls.
The Meralco Bolts’ first game in the bubble was a loss, but it was still special. “I was very nervous, but there was a calm that came once I was on the floor. I made my first three so that was a monkey off my back. We lost but it was a great experience because I got to go up against players who I’ve been watching. Like Matthew Wright, I respect his hard work. RJ Jazul, I saw him play in the PCCL when I was growing up and my dad was coaching Ateneo. I played against Jason Perkins in college. So playing against them in the PBA was still big for me,” he shares.
After each game, he would unwind with his roommate Bong Quinto, another player considered the biggest steal of his draft class, and talk shop with older players like Chris. He’d gather strength from packages sent from home, food deliveries arranged by his mom, phone calls from his sister in London, conversations with his girlfriend. By the Bolts’ fourth game against Magnolia, Aaron felt like he had gotten his bearings.
“We were up against Mark Barocca, Jio Jalalon, Chris Banchero, Paul Lee, and they’re some of the best guards in the league,” he says. Aaron would be subbed in after the first possession. “I told myself, I want all the smoke.”
A month into the bubble, Aaron had become Rookie of The Week—playing close to over 18 minutes a game, and notching nearly six points and seven rebounds each time. A few days later, the Bolts were up against the defending champions San Miguel in the quarterfinals, who had a twice-to-beat advantage.
Breakthroughs all around
“I watched all those guys play growing up. Even Von [Pessumal]–he was my senior in Ateneo, and I was asked to guard him,” Aaron says. He caught fire in the first game, notching 14 points including three big threes. That secured him his first Player of The Game award, and his second straight Rookie of the Week title.
Aaron’s rookie season is part of a breakthrough year for the whole team. Meralco went on to sweep San Miguel to make the All-Filipino semifinals for the first time in team history. While they were eliminated by their recent rivals Barangay Ginebra, the team left the bubble with their heads held high. Meanwhile, Bolts fans went wild online, bombarding the team’s accounts with messages of support despite the loss.
“Thank you Bolts, proud ako sa nagawa ng team” / “Maybe now is not your time. Sooner or later it will come and we will celebrate together!” / “We will not stop until we get the cup.”
“The fans were our confidence booster. They did as much as they could, even though they couldn’t physically be at the games,” says Aaron. ”The bubble was a crazy experience. Being together all the time helped me get to know the team a lot better. The rookies of the bubble will be bringing all of that experience into the next season.”
Built by struggle
The idea of declaring a goal and having it come true makes for a neat narrative, and on the surface, athletes appear to possess an unshakeable confidence. But in reality, Aaron’s path is far more complicated. Once upon a time, the ROY almost quit basketball.
After his final year in Ateneo, where you could arguably say he was underutilized, the path to the pros was not clear. “When I say I had dark days, they were very dark. After leaving Ateneo, I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know if I would play, I genuinely was thinking of what else I could do—and that thought had never occurred to me before,” he admits.
It took months before he could imagine a future in basketball once more, and even longer for him to believe he could attain it.
“It took six months before my confidence came back. Going to the States to play with Mighty Sports really helped,” Aaron adds. With a renewed determination, Aaron took to running late at night, even in the rain, and reading books about to strengthen his mindset.
”Some guys might have the mentality that just to be drafted is the goal but really, it’s just the beginning,” he shares.
But even after he was drafted in the second round, doubters would downplay it by saying he was drafted by his father. Certainly, the connection cannot be ignored. Even when he began to prove the doubters wrong, the conversation around Aaron would always tie him to his father—this idea that he was born for greatness.
Aaron accepts it. “I grew up in my dad’s shadow and of course I want to make a name for myself, but I understand that it’s never going to go away. He’s my dad and he’s my coach. I’m thankful to be his son,” he shares.
When Aaron won his award, his parents were the first to celebrate with him. His mom cried, laughing through her tears to say that running in the raid paid off. As for his dad, they both know there are more milestones they want to hit together.
“Of course, a championship together. I’d like to be known as a winner, and not just once. I also hope I can play for Gilas at one point,” Aaron says. ”I’m more confident now. I’m hungrier. When you get an award, some people think you can relax, but no—it’s more pressure because I expect more from myself now.”
To reduce Aaron’s story to simply being born for greatness misses a key point. Aaron has made history in the PBA as the lowest draft pick to win the rookie award. It wasn’t handed to him because he’s his father’s son. He earned it with every late night run, every day in the gym, every dark thought overcome. Not because he was the strongest candidate at the outset, nor the biggest name at his draft, but because he worked for it.