Abarrientos is a name in Philippine Basketball circles considered as royalty. It may be bold to say as such considering only one legend has emerged with such a surname, but it speaks of this player’s greatness. Johnny Abarrientos, the Flying A, is an icon in Philippine Basketball. Whoever follows his path is bound to be compared to him, as he’s set a barometer that’s unlike any other.
It was a hot Friday afternoon, February 17, 2017, at the Filoil Flying V Arena. The FEU Baby Tamaraws and the Ateneo Blue Eaglets were slugging it out in a do-or-die Final Four affair, with a spot in the Finals at stake. Despite FEU having the higher seed and the edge in experience, Ateneo was still heavily favored to win in this winner-take-all. The reason for that was the load of talent in their roster, something even the battle-tested Baby Tamaraws couldn’t match.
It would all boil down to grit for FEU. It was no longer surprising to see spitfire guard LJay Gonzales do his best to match whatever SJ Belangel was giving or the Blue Eaglets. But LJay couldn’t do it alone, he still needed some help to beat Ateneo. All eyes were on Kenji Roman, Jack Gloria, and even the pesky Jun Gabane. But that afternoon someone else heated up the already-hot gym. There was a sneaky prospect flashing off screens, spotting up, and driving to the rim all throughout the game.
His name at the back read “Abarrientos”, with the number 17 right under.
“Anak ba yan ni Johnny A?” many asked after this breakout game of his. To which Baby Tamaraws Coach Allan Albano replied, “Hindi. Pamangkin niya.”
The similarities were uncanny. The silence in his play. How his calculated movements paired with a certain zip to his step. It was unique, distinctly “Abarrientos.” With a surname as heralded as that, RJ’s emergence shouldn’t have felt like a surprise. But it did. It took a while before RJ was able to make his mark because of some missing elements to his game.
“Nung bago ako, halos ayaw ko dumepensa eh!” RJ remembers with a laugh. This was easily attributed to either of two things; lack of effort, or nerves. Effort has never been an issue with RJ. He’s always had a high motor. The problem was, he only exerted this energy on the offensive end of the floor. As early as Season 78, you already saw his deficiencies on the defensive end. This could have been the pitfall of a prospect as talented as RJ. But thankfully, he had a father figure who was there to guide him moving forward.
“Siya yung nagpush sa akin how to play defense, paano palakasin loob ko,” RJ said of his head Coach Allan. RJ was never given minutes in an instant just because of his relationship with Johnny A. He had to earn them and a part of that process was learning how to play defense.
Coach Allan taught Abarrientos the IQ side of defense. During practices, however, one of his teammates was teaching him how to hone his energy and balance its usage for both ends of the floor. LJay Gonzales, the player RJ’s always been connected to ever since their Season 79 run guided him.
They were fiery rivals against one another during practices. “Sobrang competitor niya,” RJ said of his former teammate. “Di siya nagpapatalo.” Their one on one games with one another are stuff of legend. It’s in these battles where RJ’s ability as a creator was honed. His one on defense was also developed, as he had to deal with LJay’s drives and craftiness time in and time out.
Beyond basketball, RJ had to match the competitive fire of LJay. It’s either he would adapt or fall off completely. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. At that point, he’d treated competition as something more than just training. “Enjoyment lang,” said RJ.
He’s always had a certain bounce to his step as early as his rookie year in FEU. It was in his time with LJay where he learned how to hone this and work it into his game. Their relationship off the court translated on the court. They became the Baby Tamaraws’ dynamic duo and led the team to success in their time together.
RJ for his part garnered individual success as well. Two SLAM Rising Stars Classic appearances, a spot in the UAAP Season 81 Mythical Five (or Six?). He’d made the leap from mere surname into an actual prospect, thanks to these two people who helped him throughout his journey.
Yet, the shadow continues to be there. Abarrientos. The comparisons to his uncle will forever live on. RJ could have easily folded under all the pressure. Instead, he’s chosen to embrace it, instead of running away from it.
“Wala na tayong puwedeng gawin dun,” said RJ about the comparisons to his uncle. It was his uncle who established their namesake in Philippine Basketball after-all. He views this as a challenge, something that can push him to become even better.
Just this month, he faced a different type of challenge at the FIBA 3×3 Asia Cup. Gilas Plipinas had two games slated for that game, both non-bearing at that point given their two losses the day before. They could have just thrown both away and avoid risk of injury. After all, Ricci Rivero already injured his ankle during Day 1 of the competition. What was the point right?
Their first game was against the bigger, older Iran team who swept both of their contest the day before. It wasn’t looking good for the trio of Rhayyan Amsali, Barkley Eboña, and Abarrientos. These were three amateur players pitted up against more established Iranians. Rolling over and giving up looked like the better option at that point.
That never happened. RJ didn’t allow it.
Everything was a blur. Stepback. Swish. Repeat. Again. And again. Suddenly, Gilas Pilipinas found themselves up 19-18 against a more-favored Iran team. Off a made basket from the Iranians, Eboña grabbed the rebound and immediately kicked it out to the hot hand. Abarrientos was scorching at that point, having scored 16 of the 19 points of Gilas Pilipinas.
Maybe he’d get the ball, set things up first for an efficient basket. The possibility of him faking a three and using that as a launchpad for another nasty step-back was in play. There was time on the clock to make something happen.
He did neither of those things.
With a full two minutes left on the clock, he caught the ball, elevated, and threw it up for three.
Was it a bad shot? In theory, yes. Lots of time on the clock to get a better look at that point. Plus, he had a taller player on him. Yes, it was a bad shot.
But RJ is a bad shot-maker. Usually, the great players rarely distinguish bad shots from good ones. As long as it feels good out of their hands and they have complete trust in themselves in that moment, they’ll let it fly.
The shot fell through. RJ popped his jersey in front of the crowd. On one leg, he led Gilas to a huge win over a bigger, badder Iran squad.
RJ’s never been afraid to show his emotion. As he improved on the court, his belief in himself also grew. He developed a distinct type of confidence on and off the court. He was always real, flashing a swagger even his uncle didn’t have.
After that shot against Iran, RJ basked in the moment he earned.
That moment wasn’t made to prove he was the better Abarrientos. That moment was about showing how he was a better RJ, a better player overall. That was RJ trying to make a name for himself beyond the surname.
Photos from FIBA.com