Throwback Thursday: Super Sidekick

This article originally appeared in SLAM #158

Peter June Simon is playing like a superstar even if his status, statistics and swag all say otherwise.

By Carlo Pamintuan

The game of basketball needs superstars. Teams want superstars because not only do they help you win games, they help you attract fans. And in the world of basketball, you can never have enough fans.

What makes a superstar a superstar, you ask? Well, talent is definitely a requirement so is athletic ability; and it never hurts to be exciting. Good microphone skills is a plus; so is good looks.

However, there are those times when two talented players find themselves in the same team. For the sake of team chemistry, it is widely accepted that one of them needs to be The Man. It is also widely accepted that one of them needs to be The Other.

Welcome to the world of one Peter June Simon.

Immediately after their Commissioner’s Cup elimination round game against the Powerade Tigers, PJ asked me to come down and meet him at their dugout.

James Yap was right outside the door with Josh and Baby James. Coaches, assistant coaches, and players from both teams were moving to and fro, sharing quick greetings and short hugs. Their wives and girlfriends were all there waiting in the hallway exchanging dinner plans and exercise regimens.

PJ opened the door and told me to come in. He was wearing khaki shorts, Vans loafers, and a blue Jeremy Lin shirt. The room was almost empty save for a half naked Marc Pingris and a couple of ball boys who were collecting used towels and stuffing them into huge laundry bags. Two younger guys in semi-formal attire, my guess would be on-the-job trainees, looked nervously at PJ, trying to decide if that was the right moment to have a picture taken with him. Mueller tape was all over the wet floor along with banana peels, Gatorade cups, and water bottles. The reassuring aroma of alcohol and cologne overpowered any other scent that may or may not have been in the room.

PJ, or Nonoy to his family and childhood friends, grew up in a humble home down in Makilala, North Cotabato.  He was about six years old when he first held a basketball.

Naglalaro rin kasi ‘yung tatay ko dati sa college,” PJ shared. “Actually, siya rin ang first coach ko kasi teacher at basketball coach siya sa high school ko.”

The game felt natural for the young PJ. He played wherever organized basketball was available. He played at his school’s gym, at the church’s gym, at the court near the palengke. If there was a playing court within a 10 kilometer radius from his house, you can bet your ass PJ has played there.

After he graduated from high school, he realized that staying in North Cotabato could not help him realize his dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. “Kami-kami lang kasi yung naglalaro doon kaya ‘di rin kami masyadong gumagaling at syempre pangarap ko ring makapaglaro sa Maynila pagkatapos ng high school,” PJ shared. “Pero mahirap lang kami at teacher lang ang mga magulang ko kaya di nila akong kayang paaralin sa Maynila.”

Instead, PJ tried out for University of Mindanao’s basketball team. That early in his career, PJ was already thrown in a do-or-die situation. “Kung ‘di ako matanggap or kung matanggap ako pero walang scholarship, uuwi na lang ako sa amin, ‘yun ‘yung mindset ko sa try-out kaya binigay ko lahat,” he said. Luckily, he made it to the team and the school gave him full scholarship.

After spending three years in UM, PJ was prodded into trying out for the UST Growling Tigers of the UAAP. He balled with the likes of Niño Gelig and Cyrus Baguio. The kid from Makilala, North Cotabato was starstruck. “Na-intimidate talaga ako sa kanila kasi ang gagaling nila,” he sheepishly shared. Although he did not play his best, PJ was offered a scholarship but they said he will need to start his studies from scratch and redshirt one year. PJ thought that the three years he spent studying and playing for UM were too much to sacrifice so he passed on the opportunity and went back to Davao.

There was a mixture of pride and pain when he was telling me about what life was like growing up. Pride because he made it through. Pain because it was not easy. He stood up and got a bottle of water.

Mahirap yung pinagdaanan ko kaya paminsan ‘di pa rin ako makapaniwala na naabot ko ‘yung mgapangarap ko. Parang Cinderella story rin ang buhay ko.”

In all honesty, Cinderella’s story pales in comparison with PJ’s. Cinderella was just a pretty girl with small feet and a fairy god mother that gave her everything she needed. PJ is a basketball player who worked hard for everything he ever got. No one handed him anything.

Things started to look up for PJ after he signed with the Davao Eagles of the Metropolitan Basketball Association. “Masaya ako na nagka-kontrata ako sa Davao Eagles kahit mababa lang ‘yung sweldo. 15,000 lang ata ako noon,” PJ said. But that gig did not last long. The MBA was then on its death bed and soon enough the crowds started dwindling and the checks stopped coming.

PJ moved to Cebu and played for a team sponsored by the Lamoiyan Corporation. The bosses saw his potential and decided he was good enough for their PBL team.

Dun ko nakalaban sila James, sila Paul (Artadi), at ‘yang si Marc,” he said while pointing to his only teammate left in the dugout. In the PBL, PJ’s career blossomed, in his final conference there, he won the Regular Season and Finals MVP awards and helped his team win the title against the storied Welcoat franchise.

Nakailan si James kanina?,” Marc asked. PJ borrowed the stat sheet I brought. “Kinse,” Simon replied. “Mabuti naka-kinse pa siya. Two points lang siya kanina di ba?” Marc asked again. “Oo nga. Mabuti uminit nung third quarter,” PJ answered.

The careers of PJ and James have been intertwined since both made it to the PBA in 2004. “Sabay dapat kaming sasali sa draft ni James pero sinabihan ako na ‘di na pala ako pwede,” he said. Apparently, someone submitted his name for the 2001 PBA Draft. To this day, he does not know who did it. PJ was drafted by the Sta. Lucia Realtors with their pick in the fifth round, 43rd overall. The Realtors selected him after Marvin Ortiguerra, Francis Zamora and Michael Almonte.

Nung nalaman ni Coach Ryan (Gregorio) na free agent pala ako, kinausap niya ako agad tapos pinapirma na niya ako ng kontrata.” Signing PJ as a free agent was the second best decision Coach Ryan did while he was still with the Purefoods franchise. The first was making sure Shell drafted Rich Alvarez so he could select James with their number 2 pick.

The first two and a half years were tough on PJ. He was a PBL MVP and he knew he was skilled enough to contribute on the court but his minutes were few and far apart. “Hilig ko talagang mag extra work pero nung ‘di ako nakakalaro, dumating ‘yung panahon na parang tinatamad na ako,” he shared. On regular practice days, they work from 12 noon to 3 pm. PJ will then rest for a hour or so and do either plyometrics or weight training for another 2 and a half hours. But in those years, he found it hard to find the will to keep pushing.

He was playing behind James, Noy Castillo, and a reinvented Alvin Patrimonio at the 2-guard position. “Mabuti na lang palagi akong kinakausap ni Cap (Patrimonio’s nickname to teammates and coaches),” PJ said. “Sinasabi niya lang lagi sa akin dadating rin ‘yung time ko basta dapat lagi lang daw akong handa.”

PJ’s  opportunity came when Alvin and Noy both retired. At that point, he was the first guy off the bench to sub for James.

PJ glanced at the stat sheet. He scored only 7 points in the game. A far cry from the 19 points he was averaging under former coach George Gallent. With Coach Tim Cone’s system, PJ is tasked to play alongside James and not as his replacement. He is also expected to play hard on both sides of the floor. His responsibilities: shadow the opposing team’s high scoring guards, keep James’ legs fresh for offense.

Coach Tim is still trying to introduce his system to the B-Meg Llamados but he said that among all the players, PJ gets the triangle most. I told PJ about what Coach Tim said about him and as always, PJ coughed up a humble reply. “Naliligaw pa rin ako sa triangle pero sinusubukan kong intindihin unti-unti.” PJ also admitted that he has been reprimanded for ad-libbing on offense. “Paminsan may makikita akong butas tapos didiskartehan ko na lang. Kahit nakaka-score ako, sinasabihan pa rin ako ni Coach Tim na maglaro sa loob ng sistema.” He said this was difficult to understand at first because he was still scoring but later on, he understood that playing inside the triangle was best for the entire team.

PJ’s minutes under the new system fluctuated. He started in some games and came off the bench in others. He often got the minutes but rarely got the number of touches he got before. He was playing alongside James now so he got less shots compared to the days when he basically dictated the offense when he came in to replace James.

Our conversation ultimately led to PJ’s relationship with James. How does he react to all the fame James has? Was he ever jealous with the attention James got? Has he ever wished to play without James’ shadow hanging over him?

PJ answered slowly. Every word was calculated. He is not the type who’d rock a steady boat and he was careful not to say words that might be taken out of context. “Sa palagay ko sobrang laking bagay na magkaibigan kami ni James,” PJ said. “Pagpasok ko pa lang sa Purefoods, alam na naming lahat na si James talaga yung star player. Ako naman kahit anong maitutulong ko sa team, gagawin ko lang.”

PJ looked at the stat sheet again. It showed he only played 23 minutes. “Nung umpisa medyo frustrated rin ako kasi syempre gusto ko ring ipakita na marami akong magagawa para sa team namin pero iniisip ko na lang na ang layo na ng narating ko. Basta paglaruin lang nila ako, wala silang maririnig sa akin.”

When a player is as good as PJ, it’s normal to explore options. Maybe he can score more if he was with a weaker team. Maybe he can win individual awards if he was not playing behind James. Maybe more fame and fortune will come his way if he asks for a trade.

“PJ, meron bang mga taong bumubulong sayo na magpalipat ka na lang sa ibang team para dumami pa yung playing time mo?” I asked.

Ay, meron. Napakarami,” PJ replied while trying hard not to laugh. “Sinasabihan nila ako na sisikat ako lalo kung ilipat ako sa ibang team pero sa akin lang, hindi ako hihingi ng trade. Kung ilipat man nila ako, tatanggapin ko pero ‘di ko kayang ako yung humingi ng trade kasi inalagaan naman nila ako mula nung pumasok ako sa PBA.”

I sat quietly for a couple of seconds. PJ took it as an opportunity to take a break. “Sandali lang ha? Banyo lang ako,” he said.

As I sat inside the locker room, I pondered on why I ran out of questions. I know I prepared for this interview. I listed down every question and follow up I wanted to ask him.

When I saw PJ walking back, I understood why I ran out. He already told me all I needed to know about him. There was no need to complicate things. No need to ask sensitive questions to get a different reaction.

It’s simple for PJ. He was nothing before. He is something now. And that something feels pretty damn nice. He looks genuinely happy where he is right now. And why not? He defeated the odds and rose from obscurity to be one of the best basketball players in the country. Some people might see playing behind James as a hindrance. PJ sees it as a gift. “Mas madali naman talaga ang basketball ‘pag may kakampi kang kasing-galing ni James.”

Instead of sulking with what other people might call a secondary role, PJ works to inspire the people around him. “Kapag nakakauwi ako sa Davao, sinusubukan ko talagang tulungan yung mga batang nangangarap ring maging basketball player. May basketball clinics ako at pinupuntahan ko rin yung mga schools na kinukuha akong guest,” PJ said. “Ang sinasabi ko lang sa kanila, naranasan ko rin yung kinalalagyan nila ngayon. Tignan niyo ang nangyari sa akin, pwedeng ring mangyari sa inyo.”

I had a few more minutes left with PJ. He told me he was heading out to meet some friends for dinner in a couple of minutes. I asked what he still wants to accomplish in his PBA career. “Kung papayag si Lord, gusto ko pa sanang maglaro ng at least 5 years pa, more championships, at kung pwede gusto ko rin na mag-retire ako sa B-Meg.”

There is no denying the fact that PJ is one of the most talented scorers in the league today. Say, he played for a weaker team instead of B-Meg and say he was their first option on offense. Who’s to say that he can’t pull off a Gary-David-like-oh-my-god-my-hands-are-on-fucking-fire shooting spree that could bring his team to the Finals? Who’s to say that he can’t lead the league in scoring or compete for an MVP?

The thing is, Peter June Simon is not interested with such accolades. He has a lot of personal trophies in his room that are collecting dust. He knows that he is a tremendous basketball player. But he also knows that right now his team does not need him to be a superstar, not even a Super Sub. His team needs him to play a role and he’s more than willing to do it.

What do you still want to accomplish? The brutal simplicity of PJ’s answer; it was all he needed to say, it was all I needed to hear.