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Tied Up Nets: The no-UAAP life of Dwight, Javi, LJay

We caught up with three of the UAAP’s brightest stars to see how the lockdown has affected them, and whether they’ve been able to cope through isolation and a career-altering basketball hiatus.

Back in April, my subdivision’s head office hopped on the philanthropic bandwagon and created a mini community pantry. The pantry’s providers were the privileged village folk, and the receivers would be the dozens of delivery men who braved through the COVID-infested Manila streets to deliver us lugaw and other essentials on a daily basis. At the back of the two-tent setup is a tarp that reads, “We are NOT all in the same BOAT. We are in the same STORM.”

This humble analogy is meant to take a direct hit on the pandemic (storm) and its scaled impact among socio-economic classes (boat types). The virus itself may not discriminate by net worth, but the ability to survive against the collateral effects made by its worldwide spread does.

It also happens to discriminate by profession and industry; sports joins travel, service, and entertainment as one of the hardest to be hit. According to Forbes, America’s four major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) and its collegiate sports league (NCAA) lost $14.1B in revenue as of March 2021. But beyond the billionaires losing their green are the athletes that lay in uncertainty.

That uncertainty rings true for the Philippines’ collegiate basketball players, many of whom are using the college level to turn their skill for putting an orange ball through a hoop into a paid profession. The lockdown has closed down courts, and separated players and coaches. Then, last December, UAAP Season 83 was cancelled. As of this writing, its succeeding season’s status is still up in the air, with plans to re-open in 2022.

I caught up with three of the UAAP’s brightest stars to see how the lockdown has affected them, and whether they’ve been able to cope through isolation and a career-altering basketball hiatus.

Dwight Ramos (Ateneo, Forward)

When I first messaged Dwight Ramos, he was serving the final day of his required quarantine. He had just flown back to the Philippines after spending over a month in the U.S. training, reconnecting with family, and getting fully vaccinated. He flew back to Manila to train with Gilas in the Calambubble, which is where he was headed once he was cleared to leave his hotel.

Ramos has earned a lot of positive publicity due to his stellar performance with the national team (and also as a frequent guest on girlfriend Kianna Dy’s YouTube videos, which are, in my opinion, actually pretty cute). He averaged 12.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.7 steals in three games, and was the most consistent player on a Gilas team filled with UAAP stars. His Gilas performance has made his pending UAAP debut one of the most exciting in history for a non-local product. But after a year of residency, the cancellation of Season 83 has delayed the former NCAA Division 1 player’s UAAP Seniors debut anew.

I really just accepted what it was. There’s only so much that I could do and control. DWIGHT RAMOS

His story resembles that of what plenty of quarter-lifers have experienced due to the pandemic: A critical event’s postponement or cancellation (the UAAP for an athlete, or a licensure exam for a student) that can derail career progression and growth during a critical pivot point in life. The uncertainty caused by the delay tends to trigger a loss of motivation, as was the case for Dwight.

“I had days during the quarantine when I was just dead, [I said,] ‘I’ll just chill for today’,” Dwight admitted. There were some days where I felt like taking it off just because the season wasn’t [going to] start…” 

This candid admission from Dwight is quite unique for an athlete, especially in an age when they’re romanticized for having a “Mamba Mentality.” But Dwight had been all alone, trapped within the four walls of his Katipunan condo. His brother, who was one of the reasons he decided to move to the Philippines in the first place, eventually flew back to the U.S. Dwight had to run around his condo’s parking lot — sometimes while dribbling a basketball — just to keep in shape. It took him nine months until he was able to play five-on-five again, when Gilas began training for their trip to Bahrain. For him to remain motivated, he needed to pull from past struggles, and keep his future goals in mind.

“For me, when I was playing in college in the States, I didn’t play that much. So it feels kind of almost the same thing, where I wasn’t really playing games… I had to turn my mind into trying to improve,” Dwight said. “I just feel like this is my career and I just can’t be lazy with it. It’s been a long time coming so I want to make sure that when next season comes, I’m really prepared.”

His coming out party in Bahrain showcased the fruit of his labor, highlighted by his 20-point, 7-of-7 performance in a win over Thailand. This perfect performance came from the same player who, just a few months earlier, was throwing up airballs on the first private court he was able to access after months devoid of shooting a basketball.

(Editor’s note: After another impressive performance at the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, Dwight Ramos is slowly building up his legendary status as national team player. All that, while having zero experience playing college ball in the Philippines.)

Javi Gomez de Liaño (UP, Forward)

The night before the initial lockdown was announced, Javi Gomez de Liaño was having dinner at his girlfriend’s house. The main topic of conversation was regarding his future plans. UP’s veteran forward planned to postpone his final playing year in the UAAP to play in the MPBL, after which he fully expected to play out his swan song in UAAP Season 84. But since the announcement of the lockdown, the MPBL has yet to resume operation, and there is still no certainty as to the resumption of the UAAP. 

“I didn’t know what to do because all my plans were all set,” Javi said about his initial reaction to the lockdown. “I didn’t know what the future has in store for me (sic).”

One thing that has stayed constant through the pandemic is his graduation date. The Physical Education major says he’s been locked into his studies over the past few months with the goal of graduating in June. He’s also still hoping to get his Master’s Degree in Human Movement Science, which would coincide perfectly with his final season for the Maroons. But considering the unpredictability brought about by the pandemic, Javi says his plans became wide open, with his biggest goal to play professional basketball abroad.

“As of now, wala pa naman… Wala pa naman ‘yung MPBL… I haven’t thought about the PBA Draft because I really want to play abroad as well, because I feel like I can do it.”

Javi’s Gilas teammate, Dwight Ramos, finds himself experiencing delays in plans that, in the short term, should otherwise remain the same, but the UP forward is entering a massive transition point in his career. He has just one UAAP playing year remaining, and therefore needs to open up his options. That’s why he’s decided to take more of a wait-and-see approach to his once concrete plans as he says he’s giving himself until 2022 to receive an opportunity to play abroad and simultaneously await news on the UAAP.

While Javi can’t control when basketball leagues resume, he remains in control of his own development. Since he was cut from Gilas a month before the lockdown was first announced, Javi has lost 40 pounds. He credits combining consistent exercise with an improved diet, and a motivation fueled by the feedback he received in February 2020 from the Gilas coaches.

When I got cut from the Gilas team in 2020, the coaches told me that I was overweight, and I won’t survive, and I won’t fit in the system here in Gilas if I don’t take care of my physical health JAVI GOMEZ DE LIAÑO

He played admirably during his Gilas debut, including a 19-point, four three-pointer breakout performance. This earned him another stint with Gilas for the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.

(Editor’s note: Following his graduation in June, Javi announced that he will be playing in Japan’s B.League.)

LJay Gonzales (FEU, Guard)

It was 6:55pm when LJay Gonzales finally replied. We had a scheduled interview for 6pm, which I reminded him about two hours earlier, but thought maybe I had been ghosted.

“Kakatapos ko lang po tunulong sa bukid p o bro,” his text read exactly, typos and all. 

Bukid. LJay has spent the last six months in his home in Isabela, returning in November 2020 after spending the first half of the covid-induced quarantine period at his dorm in Diliman. When we hopped into a call a little past 8pm, he explained that he had spent the afternoon helping his parents by planting and plowing rice crops.

You read that right. The star point guard of the third-seeded team in UAAP Season 82 doubles as farm help for his parents up in Region II. But his agricultural work is a necessity, a consequence of how his family has been affected by the pandemic.

“Nakikita ko po sa parents ko, parang nahihirapan sila sa pandemic kasi wala naman pong trabaho,” Gonzales said.

LJay’s situation shows that even amongst the collegiate athletes, there is a massive imbalance in how the pandemic has laid waste. Prior to the pandemic, the modest allowance Gonzales received from FEU would already go into taking care of his family. And with his household’s income being slashed due to the lockdown, he’s forced to work on more than just his basketball skills in order to keep his family’s head above water.

Sobrang hirap ng buhay ngayon. ‘Pag hindi ka gagalaw, hindi ka makakakain. Kaya ako, gusto ko silang tulungan sa buhay, i-angat LJAY GONZALES

But the 22-year-old is well-aware that his basketball career is his family’s ticket to a better life. He has up to three playing seasons left in the UAAP, after which, barring any setbacks, he should have a lengthy professional basketball career that would be enough to provide for his family. He says he uses them as a primary motivator as he continues to train despite the downgrade in equipment and access to basketball courts up in Isabela. 

LJay would train for up to three hours, five times a week on his own — on top of the bi-weekly Zoom training the FEU coaching staff conducts. In order to find a court that is usable, he’d have to talk to friends, or shoot a text to the caretaker of his high school’s basketball court. On some days, he’d settle for shooting in an open court, right under the scorching sun. Keeping his Westbrook-esque physique is also important for his on-court abilities, and he innocently mentioned to me the difficulties he’s experienced just to find usable weights to lift.

“Gumawa nalang ako ng paraan!” LJay said, chuckling. “Minsan, humihiram ako ng barbell dito sa mga kaibigan ko. Isang barbell, isang dumbbell. Minsan nga ‘yung kahoy nga ‘yung binubuhat ko! At least meron kang binubuhat kaysa wala kang binubuhat.”

Picture it: A rising collegiate star lifting blocks of wood in the middle of the day with a farm as his backdrop. That’s the everyday pandemic-life for LJay Gonzales. There is no assurance of when he’ll be able to play organized basketball again, but despite the uncertainty, he has to take what’s given to him to find a way to be better. For him, and for his family.

“Kung hindi man matutuloy siguro ‘yung UAAP, ang gagawin ko lang, tutuloy ko lang ‘yung workout ko,” he said. “Kung ano ‘yung kulang ko, papalakas ako. Tuluy-tuloy lang para sa pangarap sa buhay.”