Mike DiGregorio and the pursuit for PBA relevance

2017 PBA Commissioners Cup Blackwater-NLEX pic 3 by Roy Afable

Weeks after the Blackwater Elite picked up Mike DiGregorio, who was dropped by Kia Picanto to their unrestricted free agent list, came descriptions of the 26-year-old point guard in sports news websites which had chronicled his transfer and done features.

“Cast-off.” “Practice player.” “Virtually unknown.”

“That kind of stuff bothers me,” DiGregorio says now. “Honestly, it adds another log to the fire. I know they mean nothing negative or malicious by it.” But the media’s preferences to describe DiGregorio is beyond the point. It’s just the reality in the PBA, where you have to earn reputation. In his two years so far in the league, DiGregorio has gotten accustomed to how the system works, and those kinds of outside stuff only fuels him to go further.

“That kind of thing lights a fire. It burns me up. I never pictured myself as just a practice player, or a cast-off, or a pushover. That’s how outsiders look at me at but that’s never who I am,” he says. “I never looked at myself like that.

Picked by the Elite, DiGregorio transformed the mediocre expansion franchise to a quarter-finalist. With Blackwater’s win over the Globalport Batang Pier, the team is now assured of a quarter-final spot in the 2017 PBA Governors’ Cup with a 5-5 record. Whatever happens to their game against Rain or Shine, Blackwater will be in their highest ever finish yet in their franchise existence. The team only made the playoffs once prior, and that was when the PBA took 10 teams to the next round (the Elite finished ninth).

DiGregorio is one of the key components of that turnaround, going far off when he first got on the board where everything felt unsure. “It wasn’t like they handed me free reign from the start. When I got there, they said they want to use me and that I could help the team, but nothing was guaranteed. They give me an opportunity and it was up to me to take it and run with it. If I produce, then great, if not, for sure they would move on to the next guy. It was up to me to take that and come in everyday in practice to prove my worth. When I got in the games, I produced, and then produced more and more and more. The leeway, the leash they gave me became longer and longer and so my freedom, the coaching staff and management trusted me a lot more,” DiGregorio says.

The playmaker became a consistent starter logging in big minutes while scoring in double-digits and shooting well from the outside. “So obviously it got to where I am playing now, I get 35 minutes a game, I get freedom to make mistakes and to play my game. It’s an awesome feeling. It wasn’t like that when I first got here. They didn’t say, I want you to do this, I want you to do that. They just said keep working hard and they’ll give me an opportunity,” he says.

Given the player he is right now, it is hard to imagine DiGregorio was once fighting for his spot in the league — a relative unknown as pundits would portray. But it hasn’t always been an easy path for him.

PBA - Mahindra vs Blackwater - May 7, 2017 - PRT - 5

Like most Fil-foreigners wanting to land a good career in the PBA, DiGregorio started from scratch. Even if his uncle was a former NBA pro, and hoops was always in their pedigree, DiGregorio knew it wasn’t going to be his calling card. Even the credentials he had as an amateur prior to going to the Philippines didn’t mean much as he was quite frankly a relative unknown in this side of the world.

“In high school I was an all-state, all-conference player. In college, I played in a high major Division II school in the state and I was the leading scorer on that team,” he shares.

“(But) when I got here, no one knew who I was, so I played one year D-League and entered the draft. It wasn’t like I went to Ateneo or La Salle or people started knowing my name. I had to earn my respect and earn my name. It’s coming to fruition now. (But) that stuff doesn’t bother me. I’m born to work hard. If I had to do it the hard way, I’ll do it. I never looked at myself that way.”

DiGregorio admits he didn’t even know about the PBA until his sophomore year in college. Like most American-based hoopers, he thought of making the NBA. “It was late. I never knew about how big the PBA was here. I heard from relatives here and there but I never really took it seriously until college,” he says. “My goal as a little kid was to make it to the NBA. That was my dream. I’ve always wanted to be a professional basketball player. I used to write notes to myself and put it in my sock drawer so I see it everyday, notes like ‘keep working hard’ or ‘keep doing what you do to make it to the NBA.’ I did little things like that.”

Obviously, has his career progressed, DiGregorio became realistic. And the PBA was the next best thing especially for someone with Filipino heritage. Still, it didn’t guarantee him anything, but he went for it. “Later in my college career, that’s when the PBA became a goal of mine,” DiGregorio shares.

With the help of agents Matthew Manotoc and Marvin Espiritu who recruited the six-foot guard to play in Manila, DiGregorio suited up in the PBA D-League before applying in the 2015 PBA draft. He was selected 35th overall by Kia.

PBA - Meralco vs Blackwater - April 16, 2017 - PRT - 3

The first few months of his PBA career was a bumpy ride for DiGregorio. He had not been getting that much exposure at the point guard spot that had premier playmaker LA Revilla. Of course, it gets aggravated when a certain Manny Pacquiao suddenly decides to play as if his Kia team was just an extra recreational activity.

On December 12, 2015, however, DiGregorio figured in a game which first gave him the spotlight or got the attention (or at least any semblance of it) of the PBA fandom. Kia, then named Mahindra, was battling Globalport with Revilla nursing an injury. Coincidentally, it was DiGregorio’s 25th birthday.

“I really wanted to do well on my birthday. I knew coach would give me an opportunity with LA being hurt. I’ve worked so hard for this. It has nothing to do with the birthday; it’s just on top of it but I’ve really worked hard for this moment,” he said in 2015.

The moment he was referring to was a showdown against Globalport’s ace Terrence Romeo. Romeo was already a superstar level point guard in the league during that time who packs good experience under his belt; in stark contrast, DiGregorio was playing in only his third professional game since being activated by Mahindra.

“Terrence is a great player. I have a lot of respect for him. I know he works really hard. It’s always fun to play against the great players. It was during my rookie year, it was one of my first couple of games in the line-up. I was ready to prove myself what I can do. It was a great opportunity coach Chito (Victolero) gave me at that time, I was getting a lot of minutes, he wanted me to guard Terrence, so I wanted to show him and everybody else I am here to make a statement,” DiGregorio says now.

“I am not going to let you just do what you want against me. On the other end, offensively, I am not going to let you rest, I am going to attack you just like you attack me. It was a fun game. It’s a competitive game.”

In that game, DiGregorio forced Romeo to miss 12 straight three-pointers. He had 19 points of his own in close to 35 minutes of play, including an efficient 5-of-7 mark from long range.

Late in overtime, DiGregorio taunted Romeo after making a bucket against him. He paid for it dearly, as Romeo scored five straight points including the game-winning basket off a crossover against DiGregorio himself. “I kind of got into the moment, the heat of the game, a couple of certain points in the game, made him miss, it’s always fun,” DiGregorio says.

Globalport edged a competitive Mahindra squad that night, 118-116. But for DiGregorio, the showing he had proved his point. That was the very first game people came to realize he can perform at this level, and that he has the potential. From being a relative unknown, that game will forever be remembered by DiGregorio as something that made people think, ‘hey, this kid’s got game.’

“There are not many birthdays like this. This is high-level, professional basketball. This is against some great players,” he said in 2015. “I think Kobe Bryant says all the time in his farewell tour is like ‘the most respect people can give me is to play hard against me’ so I wanted to go at him. I know he was going to go at me.”

(READ: Blackwater secures a spot in the quarterfinals with a win over the GlobalPort Batang Pier)

PBA - Blackwater vs NLEX - May 3, 2017 - PRT - 2

It still had been a roller-coaster ride for DiGregorio after that unique birthday ‘celebration.’ But if there is anything that has propelled him to new heights, it’s DiGregorio’s unwavering belief in himself.

“I have the utmost confidence in myself and my abilities,” he says. Ot isn’t irrational; he expounds that such confidence stems from how hard he works.

“My confidence comes from my preparation. I don’t think there are many people in the league that work as hard as I do. I am saying that because I know how much time I put in. I am there before practice, after practice, outside of practice I put in hours in the weight room, extra time in the gym, eating right, getting enough ice baths, so I do everything. It’s been like that for a while.”

It took a while for him to etch his name in the PBA ranks, but DiGregorio always envisioned grander things for himself.

“I am not surprised, but with Blackwater, the opportunity is there, I took it, I was ready for it. I expect this out of myself so I am not surprised myself,” he says. “It feels really good. To be kind of putting my name further out there and people recognize my talent, it’s gratifying and it makes all the work worth it. It feels good.”

In a league where the average span of a player’s career is five years, DiGregorio hopes to double his total playing years.

“My plan is to keep going. I don’t plan stopping anytime soon. If I keep the right mindset or mental focus, being hungry, not feeling content after every single day, having that drive every after season, I think I can stretch out my career that long,” he says. “I hope to double that; 10 years, 12 years, I have no plans of stopping soon.”

DiGregorio is leading the charge now for Blackwater. He is averaging 15.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, and 1.3 APG, in 33.2 minutes per game while shooting 43.6 percent from three-point distance. And in the league, those numbers doesn’t just reflect a regular-rotation player, but also one worthy of an all-star appearance.

Who knows where DiGregorio is headed. He is only 26 years old, he arguably has found his niche, and he hasn’t peaked yet.

Not bad for one used to be (or at least labeled as) a cast-off, unknown, or pushover.

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