This article originally appeared in SLAM #167
Japeth Aguilar’s failure to reach the NBA is not the end of a journey. Japeth insists it’s really a chapter in an on-going process.
By Carlo Pamintuan and Nikko Ramos
Walking alongside Japeth Aguilar was an experience in itself. Japeth attracted so much attention, eyes turned from all directions. It was a windy Wednesday night. Cars whizzed by him as he walked on the road.
Aguilar’s GlobalPort Batang Pier just scored their second victory of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup. They beat Barangay Ginebra. Three games into the tournament, they have already eclipsed their one-win performance in the Philippine Cup. The success can be attributed largely to the trades that brought in Aguilar and superstar point guard Sol Mercado.
“Congrats Japeth!” a security guard, stationed in front a nearby building, shouted. “Panalo na naman kayo!”
“Salamat, kuya,” Aguilar replied as he waved his hand. The security guard, who may or may not be a GlobalPort fan, looked genuinely happy for Aguilar.
Aguilar walked into one of the condominiums. He approached another security guard. “Pakisabi kay Jobe bumaba siya, nandito lang kami sa kabila,” he said, pointing to a restaurant beside the condo. Aguilar was referring to Jobe Nkemakolam, a close friend and former Ateneo teammate.
It was not too long ago when Aguilar and Nkemakolam were two kids walking along this same street, hoping to achieve basketball greatness. Their ambitions, however, led them to different paths. Aguilar transferred to Western Kentucky University while Nkemakolam stuck it out to win a championship with Ateneo. The former tried his luck but failed to make it to the NBA. The latter tried his luck but didn’t make it to the PBA.
Often portrayed as a silent and shy individual, Aguilar was actually a willing storyteller. As soon as we sat down, he opened up to tell us all about his basketball adventures. The central theme was that chasing a dream is no easy work.
There were some students inside the restaurant. Some stole glances at Aguilar every chance they could. He should have been a legend in this area. Everyone should have been stealing glances. As a prized recruit, he was supposed to save Ateneo basketball. But he left the Blue Eagles and wanted to build his legacy elsewhere.
“Di ko naman pinagsisisihan yung paglipat ko sa WKU,” Aguilar said. “Marami rin akong natutunan dun at nakaabot naman kami sa Sweet 16 sa NCAA.”
Ateneo went on to be saved anyway, winning five straight championships in the years that followed Aguilar’s departure. That number could have been seven if he didn’t leave.
“Yung mas pinanghihinayangan ko, palagi akong injured sa WKU kaya di ko masyadong napakita kung ano talaga yung magagawa ko,” he lamented. Aguilar had great teammates. He played alongside current NBA players Courtney Lee and Jeremy Evans. Aguilar ended up riding the bench on most games or gathering DNPs due to various injuries.
He came back to the Philippines for Smart-Gilas. Aguilar says this was a dream come true. “Dati ko pa pangarap makapaglaro sa Philippine team kaya nung dumating yung opportunity, kinuha ko talaga.”
Aguilar then applied for the PBA Draft where he was selected first overall by the Burger King Whoppers and then, well, you all know what happened. Traded to Talk ‘N Text. Played for Smart Gilas again. Returned to play for Talk ‘N Text. He was set to stay there forever because it’s the perfect team and the perfect situation for any PBA player. Except that he didn’t and it wasn’t. He took his talents to, well, wherever but the Philippines to try and become the first pure Filipino in the NBA.
“Dahil sa struggles ko last season, sinabi ko sa sarili ko na I’m struggling here, bakit di ko subukan ulit sa States,” Aguilar said. “Naisip ko na mag-umpisa na lang ako ulit doon. Naghihirap rin naman ako dito.”
Aguilar was with a good team and a good coach but because the Tropang Texters were three-deep in every position, he could not play the minutes he wanted. It was perfect for anyone, except for him. As a result, Japeth displayed flashes of brilliance. Just flashes.
Throughout Japeth’s career, he is best remembered for little nibbles of moments, for blocking Arwind Santos twice in a UAAP game, for that monstrous reverse dunk against UP at the Blue Eagle Gym, for that dunk in an exhibition game with Kevin Durant hot on his heels. It is always about nice little moments. It is always about flashes of crazy potential.
Since his contract with Talk ‘N Text was expiring, he saw it as the perfect time to try his luck in the US again. He also saw this as an opportunity to take care of personal matters. “The thought na matagal ko nang di nakikita yung parents ko, naging factor rin yun,” Aguilar admitted. “In a span of three years, two weeks ko lang silang nakita.” Aguilar called his father first to tell him about his decision.
The first stop on his trip back home was the city of Chicago to visit his parents. He made stops in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Sta. Cruz, where the D-League team Sta. Cruz Warriors are based. He even made a short trip to Las Vegas to watch Manny Pacquiao lose to Juan Manuel Marquez.
Japeth as jetsetter in North America?
Nope. Not really.
“Mahirap yung buhay ko dun,” he said. “Wala naman akong sweldo kaya yung naipon ko lang sa PBA yung ginagamit ko.” Aguilar travelled from state to state, living with relatives and other Filipinos who just wanted to help him succeed. “Okay naman akong matulog kahit saan basta walang harang yung kama.”
A journey back to the PBA became a distant option when the most exciting chapter of his basketball career began. Aguilar was invited to several tryouts for the NBA D-League. He worked out with the Bakersfield Jam and the Sta. Cruz Warriors. The latter liked what they saw and decided to pick him in the draft.
Aguilar was 13th pick of the sixth round. He was the 109th pick overall. “Para sa akin wala naman yung draft position.” Aguilar said. “Basta ang inisip ko lang, I’m one step closer to my goal.”
Aguilar enjoyed his time with the Warriors. He stayed in nice hotels and took advantage of all the perks of being a D-League player. He got to practice with basketball players who were at the cusp of being called up to the NBA. Aguilar visited the Golden State Warriors and marveled at the life they are living.
“Ang ganda nung practice facility nila tapos may buffet pa talaga,” Aguilar recalled. “Lahat ng gusto mong kainin nandun tapos yung maganda pa, marami silang healthy options.”
The dream seemed within reach. Japeth saw the possibilities. Yet it wasn’t meant to be. He was ultimately cut from the Sta. Cruz Warriors roster.
“Nung ni-release nila ako, sinabi nila sa akin na it was a tough decision. May na-cut sila na player na naglaro na sa NBA dati, naglaro na rin sa D-League pero na-cut pa rin siya,” he shared. “Sinabi nila kasi sa akin ‘We’re going to release you today but it doesn’t mean that you don’t belong, it just so happened that there are better players right now. We’d love to see more of you so we’ll give you a practice player contract if you want it.’”
Feeling that it will, at least, keep him close to his dream, Aguilar accepted the practice player contract. “Sayang kasi e,” he said. “Gusto ko sana tuloy-tuloy yung workout ko with the guys. Playing against some of the best players, yun yung nakapag-decide sa akin na ituloy ko yung pagpa-practice.”
Like other overseas Filipino workers, Aguilar felt the grind. It was tough living in a place where he had no relatives and few friends. In time, Aguilar realized that being a practice player was not the path he wanted to take. The top players in the NBA D-League don’t make a lot of money and a practice player makes a lot less. He decided to head back to Chicago to be with his parents again.
Before landing in Chicago, he actually made a memorable stop in Phoenix where he played some ball. “It was a good experience kasi I was able to play with Mike Bibby,” Aguilar shared. “I even got the chance to catch a lob from him for a dunk.”
When he finally reached Chicago, he hired a trainer and played as often as he could to stay in shape. He played in open runs and teamed up with or battled NBA veterans. “I played with Shawn Marion, Shannon Brown, Antoine Walker, Brian Cook, the Pargo brothers, Kwame Brown even former Ginebra import Chris Alexander.”
The happy times didn’t last long. One by one, players left to go back to their own leagues. Aguilar was left to play with nobody. No team. No league. Nothing.
Japeth decided to come home.
“Seven months na akong walang sweldo tapos nakikita ko yung parents ko na nagtatrabaho everyday,” said Aguilar. “Naisip ko na kailangan ko na silang tulungan.”
We all have projections when it comes to Japeth Aguilar’s career. Some believe that he’ll be one of the most successful players of his generation because of his uncanny athletic ability. The others believe he’ll be one of the biggest question marks of Philippine basketball. Some think he’ll be staying in the Philippines for good. The others think he’ll end up ditching GlobalPort to try his luck anew abroad.
So where does Japeth Aguilar see himself three years from now? “E ku balu,” he said in Kapampangan, which translates to “I don’t know.”
“Ewan ko saan ako dadalhin ng basketball pero for sure, nandun yung desire ko to keep chasing and keep improving pero ngayong nasa Philippines ako naka-concentrate talaga ako to playing for GlobalPort and the national team.”
Aguilar signed a one-year contract with GlobalPort. He plans to gauge his performance in the next three conferences. Then, he’ll decide what to do next. His dream of being the first Filipino-born player in the NBA will always stay with him but he said he has given himself a deadline.
“Ako naman kasi, my goal is to never stop improving but I’m giving myself until I’m 28 years old.” Aguilar stopped before he could finish the sentence. “Then I’ll stop chasing my dream” was supposed to end his sentence but he never uttered the words, perhaps realizing he’ll have to give up on his childhood wish, his lifelong goal, his undying source of motivation, in two short years.
It’s a painful moment for anyone, to finally let go of all you ever wanted. Most of us gave up on our childhood dreams a long time ago. The harsh realities of real life made us kill them and settle for the next best thing, the practical thing.
Not Japeth. He is holding on to his dream and has been putting in the work. He tried and he failed. He’s ready to try and maybe fail again. Aguilar takes his inspiration from a former teammate who had to wait until he was 28 years old to try and make his dream of playing in the NBA come true.
“Yung roommate ko, Army siya, kailangan niyang mag-duty sa military ng 5 years,” Aguilar said. “Nung 23 siya may contract siya with the San Antonio Spurs but he had to serve for five years but he really wanted to play basketball.” Now 28 years old, Aguilar’s former roommate Daniel Nwaelele is again trying to make it to the NBA and for Aguilar, there’s nothing that could stop him from doing the same thing if an opportunity presents itself.
Japeth finished his meal and walked out of the restaurant. It was past midnight but he was still a bundle of energy. That’s what winning does to competitive players like him. After not being able to play for real stakes in a long while, he now enjoys playing in basketball games that matter. Better yet, he enjoys playing in games where his performances directly determine outcomes.
Three games into the PBA season, Aguilar is averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, and a steal per game. He’s the talk of the town and he hasn’t even made a dunk yet. He’s slowly transforming himself: from just a player who shows flashes of brilliance to a consistent contributor to his team’s cause. He credits most of his success to the experience he gained while he was in the United States.
A lot can happen from this point until the end of Aguilar’s current PBA contract. An NBA D-League team might call. He could dominate the league and even win a PBA championship. Or he could stumble all over again.
Say what you want about him being just a D-League practice player. Say he was all about the hype machine that went nowhere. Say it as loud and as often as you want. Chances are, Japeth’s not even listening. The man stands by what he did and what he hopes to do.
“None. No regrets,” he said bluntly. “Wala naman akong dapat ikahiya e. I was chasing my dream and I’m a better basketball player and a better person because of the journey. Hindi ko nakuha yung gusto kong result pero wala akong pinagsisisihan.”