WORDS by Miguel Flores
Jerom Lastimosa remembers the game that changed his life vividly. He still feels the roar of the 24,000 Adamson and UP fans inside the Araneta Coliseum. He still gets a rush thinking about the clutch triple he drilled from the corner to send the game to overtime.
He still also remembers the pain from that day. He can still see Jerrick Ahanmisi driving down the lane, getting fouled so flagrantly that he couldn’t get up to shoot the free throws. He remembers that Ahanmisi made the layup, but for some reason, the referees didn’t count the basket, which could have given Adamson the lead in overtime. Instead, Paul Desiderio makes the game-winner and sends UP to the Season 81 Finals.
Losing a twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four wears on someone for a while. Now, four years removed from the biggest game of his life, Lastimosa can look back on it with some perspective.
“Ang hirap i-describe nung feeling eh. Kakaiba kasi talaga siyang experience,” said Lastimosa. “Bonus na lang ‘yung mga ginawa kong clutch shots. Gusto ko lang naman kasi talaga tumulong sa team namin.”
Lastimosa laughed at the idea of 24,000 people watching him play basketball. In his hometown of Dumaguete, people flocked to watch him play. Instead of glitzy arenas, people filled concrete bleachers and sat on monobloc chairs. Way before he was recruited to play for Adamson, Lastimosa had plenty of experience in high-stakes games or what professional basketball players call panalay.
The panalay circuits are tough, but rewarding. Team managers search for the best amateur or professional basketball players to bring in to play a game or two in one of their tournaments. Players are paid cash on a per-game basis of anything between P500 to P50,000, depending on their skill level. Even players from Metro Manila travel long distances just to participate in one of these games. Lastimosa remembers going up against ex-pros like Mark Yee when he first started in the panalay circuits.
“Matuto ka talagang maging magulang. Makukuha mo sa mga ganoong laro ‘yung pagkabeterano kasi kailangan mo talaga mag-perform,” Lastimosa remembered. “May pressure kasi may expectations.”
It wasn’t long until Lastimosa attracted some eyes from recruiters in Manila. He eventually landed at Adamson University and quickly made a mark in his debut in Season 81. Together with Sean Manganti, Jerrick Ahanmisi, and Papi Sarr, the Falcons earned the second seed in the Final Four. It was a special time for Adamson, even after they lost to UP.
“Bago pa lang ‘yung season na ‘yun, ramdam na namin eh—na parang iba ‘yung team namin. Maganda ‘yung samahan namin kasi naglalaro lang kami para sa isa’t isa eh,” said Lastimosa. “Ang maganda rin sa Adamson, ramdam mo ‘yung community talaga eh. Nung season na ‘yun ramdam mo ‘yung excitement sa mga professor, estudyante, pati sa mga admin.”
If Season 81 was special, 82 was a disaster for Lastimosa.
The Lastimosa we see on the court is brash. He takes chances, knowing he’ll have to live with the consequences of the contested shot he takes or the pass he slings to an open teammate. There’s a level of bravery and confidence needed to play like a star.
But if there’s one thing people around Lastimosa know about him, it’s that he’s sensitive. He values when people around him trust him, but he doesn’t always vocalize it out of fear, especially a few years ago.
When Adamson recruited Val Chauca a few weeks before the start of Season 82 in 2019, Lastimosa was hurt. He felt that, for some reason, then head coach Franz Pumaren didn’t trust him. He also made the mistake of volunteering to come off the bench and have Chauca start. He wasn’t aware that he was also essentially ceding most of his minutes.
He did get a bit more playing time compared to the Season 81 elimination round, but Lastimosa was supposed to break out in Season 82. Averaging 8.5 points and 4.1 assists was far from what Lastimosa expected of himself.
“Before that season kasi, maganda talaga nilalaro ko sa mga tournament na sinasalihan namin. May mga games pa nga na makaka-20-plus points ako against UAAP teams kaya mataas talaga kumpiyansa ko,” Lastimosa recalled.
“Tapos bigla na lang may bagong point guard. Masakit talaga. Kasalanan ko din kasi nagtampo ako. After that season, nag-sorry din talaga ako kila Coach Franz kasi alam kong mali talaga ‘yung ginawa ko.”
There wasn’t anything Lastimosa could do but move forward. There wasn’t any time to sulk, especially when the pandemic hit and changed everyone’s lives. For the Falcons, they also went through plenty of added uncertainty as Franz Pumaren didn’t re-sign with the team to focus on his political career.
Without a coach and a UAAP to look forward to, Lastimosa opted to stay in the Adamson dorms on the off chance that there were suddenly basketball leagues to play in. When most of his teammates went back to their respective homes, Lastimosa lived it up as one of the few people left in the dorms. He went to the gym, worked on his skills, and biked around the city as much as he could.
“Kasi malay mo ‘di ba? Baka bigla na lang ulit magka-UAAP. Gusto ko ready na ako,” he quipped.
Lastimosa passed the time around Adamson by playing pick-up basketball with other athletes who opted to continue living on the campus during the pandemic. In some afternoons, he’d get a few runs in with members of the Adamson track team or even the football team. Like a true hooper, Lastimosa was down to play with anyone. Like a true hooper, Lastimosa never really asked for anyone’s names, instead calling them bai, pre, or—in Adamson parlance—classmate.
“Basta makalaro lang talaga. Kahit ‘yung iba sa kanila ‘di talaga marunong mag-basketball, laking bagay na din na nakakalaro ako doon,” said Lastimosa. He recalled the first games where he played against football players. Though they didn’t have skills, the football players played tough defense on him—almost tackling him in some possessions.
“Natatakot nga ako kasi baka ma-injure ako. Hindi malayo kung paano sila bumantay sa UAAP eh.”
It is in these games that Lastimosa got to flex what we’re seeing on the court now. He’d chuck shots from long range and try to create shots in a crowded lane. He genuinely credits the classmates for helping him work on his game and gain confidence.
“Kailangan ko kasi talaga ‘yung maka-points eh. Hindi lang in one way, pero kailangan marami akong kayang gawin para maka-contribute talaga ako sa team. Kaya malaking pasalamat ko talaga sa mga nakakalaro ko noon. Hinahayaan lang nila ako eh.”
Lastimosa was ready when teams started practicing again last year in October. When the team announced Nash Racela as their new head coach in December, Lastimosa already had an idea of what to expect. He had heard the stories from Racela’s time as head coach of FEU—how Racela pushed FEU to move the men’s basketball team from Recto to their Diliman campus to keep them away from “temptations.” Lastimosa said they weren’t just getting a coach; they were getting a mentor.
“Kay Coach Nash talaga wala akong masabi. Parang tatay talaga siya. Ayoko talagang naaabutan siyang nagagalit kasi nakakatakot.”
We already got a glimpse of this early in Adamson’s season when Racela benched five players for eating ice cream without his permission. Before the season, Lastimosa already felt how meticulous Racela was.
“May isa kaming tune-up against Baste before the season. Maganda naman nilalaro ko, nagagawa ko ‘yung mga kailangan kong gawin,” Lastimosa recalled.
“May isang possession lang na hinayaan ko ‘yung bantay ko maka-drive. After the game, nagparinig siya sa amin. ‘Hindi porque’t senior kayo, magagawa niyo na lahat ng gusto niyo’, parang ganyan. Alam ko na na ako ‘yung tinutukoy niya.”
Ironically, letting Lastimosa do his thing has been the key to Adamson’s newfound success in Season 84. Lastimosa has emerged as a deadly scorer with solid playmaking skills. As of April 23, Lastimosa leads the UAAP in scoring at 15.6 points per game. He’s also sixth in 3-point percentage (35.9) and seventh in assists per game (3.6). Lastimosa got the keys to the Adamson system and has made the most of it.
“Sabi sa akin ni Coach Ryan [Betia] parang pinapabayaan na ako ni Coach Nash na ipakita ‘yung kakayanan ko. ‘Wag ko daw sasayangin ‘yung tiwala niya sa akin,” Lastimosa shared.
As a result, Lastimosa has had to learn the trappings of becoming the team’s top option the hard way. Adamson not only lost six of their first seven games, they lost most of those games by three points or less. Every game, it came down to Lastimosa having the ball in his hands in the final possession. Every game, he missed the would-be game-winner.
He had to learn to make the right plays. At the start of the second round, he immediately got a shot at redemption. Down by two against FEU with 12 seconds on the clock, Lastimosa again had Adamson’s faith in his hands. He drove hard, saw the defense collapse, and dished the ball to an open Matty Erolon, who at that point had played just six seconds of the game. Erolon hit the game-winner.
Lastimosa had earned the trust he craved from Nash Racela. In order to keep that it, he had to learn to trust his teammates.
“Sabi sa akin ni Coach Nash mas happy siya na natutunan ko na ipasa na ‘yung bola sa ganoong situation. Sobrang saya niya daw sa decision-making ko sa situation na ‘yun,” said Lastimosa.
Since then, the Falcons have been rolling, winning their last five games. From the cellar, the Falcons actually have a shot at the Final Four with a 5-6 record.
“Ang maganda kasi talaga sa sistema ni Coach Nash, walang main option sa mga play o sa mga galaw namin. Kailangan namin basahin ‘yung nangyayari. Mahirap, pero ang ganda ng nagiging resulta kapag na-e-execute namin,” said Lastimosa.
It was tough for Lastimosa to answer when I asked him if he was scared. He clearly wasn’t afraid of anything on the basketball court. But when I asked him if he was afraid that the UP game in Season 81 was the peak of his career, he couldn’t give a clear answer.
“Hindi ko pa naiisip ‘yan eh,” he said.
Perhaps it’s youthful optimism that keeps the 23-year-old Lastimosa from thinking this. Maybe it’s youthful naivety. For most Filipino basketball players, it’s not going to get bigger than playing in front of 24,000 people at the Araneta Coliseum and millions watching at home.
Maybe it’s me, it’s us, that aren’t quite as great as Jerom Lastimosa, so we just can’t see things like he does. After all, he’s on another level now. He’s on a level where he can genuinely say that he can lead Adamson to the Final Four. He’s on a level to believe that this team is only one or two pieces away from winning a UAAP championship.
He’s on a level where he can say he’s the best point guard in the UAAP or even college basketball. But he won’t say it. Not even as a joke.
“Parang ang yabang naman kasi. Marami pa akong kailangan patunayan eh,” he said.
Lastimosa has reached a level where there’s nothing too lofty, nothing impossible for him to dream of. He knows that if he continues this trajectory, he’s going to have a shot at a long pro basketball career—wherever that is.
For now, he just wants to continue learning under Nash Racela. For tomorrow, he just wants to be better.
(Photos from UAAP Media; art by Aljan Cuya)