Arvin Tolentino's Long Road to Katipunan

MANILA, Philippines – The experience was surreal.

A few months ago, a tall, talented, and humble kid first walked inside one of the most decorated basketball gyms in the Metro. No, this gym didn’t exactly have an air conditioning system, and its floorboards weren’t state of the art – at least not the kind you’d find at the Araneta Coliseum or Mall of Asia Arena.

Still, not even the physical surroundings could negate the experience. 

So what if the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center was as hot as an unforgiving summer afternoon? So what if the playground wasn’t top of the line. There was something special about being in that place, something about taking in the ambiance with each step. A sense of pride, some Ateneans would call it. 

The first time a student takes a step on the remarkable campus of Ateneo de Manila University, something rushes in. And that jolt of excitement reaches a higher level for each Blue Eagle who makes his first entry inside the legendary gym.

This was the environment where a multitude of ADMU bigs toned their games, carving out careers that would help their school attain championship banners. Guys like Enrico Villanueva, Rich Alvarez, Noy Baclao, and Rabeh Al-Hussaini all once upon a time spent countless hours in the Blue Eagle gym, taking thousands of jumpers per week, practicing on baby hook shots and how to properly pivot their feet, learning the essentials of defense, and other very important aspects that contributed to their amateur hoops life.

And on that certain day, the tall, talented, and humble kid looked around, embracing the moment that he will go on to remember arguably for the rest of his life. On one side of the court, there was Kiefer Ravena, “The Phenom,” as some like to call him, taking jumper after jumper, exhibiting stupendous form: bending his knees, rising up, releasing the ball, follow-through, and then the “swish.” On the other side, there was Chris Newsome, the incoming Ateneo sophomore, taking in what his coaches were telling him, looking for ways to get better.

Yes, the experience was surreal. But the crazy thing was, the whole fiasco was just beginning.

Arvin Tolentino had come a long way. Despite his humble beginnings, the NCAA high school legend had worked his way up, and the fruits of his labor were right before his very eyes. 

His new journey was just about to begin. New challenges awaited him, and the mission would start at that hot gym.

“Nung bata ako, pinaka pangarap ko magkaroon nang bola. Yung sarili kong bola. Kasi nga, mahirap lang talaga kami.”

A UAAP insider once told me that the best young basketball players in the country: A) are from the provinces; B) are not financially secure; or C) both.

Tolentino grew up in the Rizal city of Angono, a young kid like any other, spending most his mornings wanting to watch cartoons and TV shows when he wasn’t ordered by mom to go to school. He admits that his family wasn’t what you would call “wealthy.” Though at that time, at such a young, innocent age, it wasn’t the young Tolentino’s concern, neither was it his responsibility.

Basketball also wasn’t a priority at that moment. Many kids start dribbling a ball by the age of two, honing their skills in order to master the fundamentals of the game at an early age. However, that wasn’t the case for Arvin, who only got into basketball months prior to the beginning of his teenage years.

“Nung bata ako, kasi nag start ako 12 years old, so medyo late na. Wala talaga akong plano sa basketball,” admitted the incoming Blue Eagle rook during our interview session a few days ago.

(When I was a kid, because I started playing at 12 years old, so that was pretty late. I had no plan of playing basketball)

He did, nevertheless, admire the game of basketball. He might not have enjoyed spending hours on the playground competing with other kids his age, but he did find appreciation in watching some of the best players in the world go head to head. 

“Mahilig ako manuod nuon – sila Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, yung mga early 2000’s,” he said, before adding that he tried to imitate the play of that generation’s dominant big men, particularly Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. “So nag-eenjoy ako sa basketball pero hindi ako mahilig mag laro.”

(I was into watching games at that time – I liked watching Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, and the other stars of the early 2000’s. I enjoyed basketball but I didn’t like playing it)

However, as you probably assumed, that would change. Eventually, Tolentino stopped just idolizing the guys he would watch religiously on his television screen and began to actually spend more time on the court. The first few months weren’t easy. New to the game of basketball, the would-be San Beda high school prodigy had to work relentlessly in order to avoid being embarrassed.

“Nung tumanda ako, nag start ako tumambay sa court. Dati ayaw ako isali nang mga medyo matanda kasi medyo pa akong bata.”

(When I grew up, I started to spend more time at the court. Before, I wasn’t invited to join the elder players because I was still young)

However, thankfully for the sake of his future and Ateneo’s, early rejection didn’t discourage Tolentino. Instead, it fueled him. “Every day nasa court ako, naglalaro,” he said. (Every day, I was playing). That and another goal – one that was simple, but not uncommon among young basketball fans.

“Nung bata ako, pinaka pangarap ko magkaroon nang bola. Yung sarili kong bola. Kasi nga, mahirap lang talaga kami.”

(When I was a child, my dream was to have my own ball. We weren’t rich)

At 12 years old, the young Arvin was aware of the game’s greats, worldwide and local, but he didn’t bother concerning himself with wanting to be one of them. In those days, the young kid was content with just getting a chance to join the elder guys during their scrimmages in the nearby court, because playing hoops simply made him happy.

However, things were about to change sooner than anyone would expect. And Tolentino was about to find out that basketball isn’t all about fun and games. 

A Chance of a Lifetime and the Early Struggles

As Tolentino continued to play, his game rapidly improved. His height kept increasing as well, and it didn’t take long for him to see eye-to-eye – literally – with the older men who refused to let him join their games in the past.

The potential in the kid was awe-inspiring, and someone was quick to take advantage.

“Yung ninong ko na kaibigan nang papa ko, dati siyang player nang Trinity College,” recalled Tolentino as he enjoyed a Toblerone Cheesecake and Frappucino. “Nakita niya ako, tapos sabi niya saakin, ‘may potential ka.’

(My ninong, who was my dad’s friend, he used to play college ball for Trinity College. He saw me, and he told me, “You have potential.”)

And there it was. 

At that time, a young kid beaming with joy, Tolentino was just happy to hear someone tell him that he could one day make it to the big leagues. Just a few months prior, the boy was only learning the basic fundamentals of the game, from dribbling, to boxing out, to rising up for a jumper, and others. It didn’t take long for Arvin’s ninong to offer him his training services, and Tolentino drooled at the chance to take his game to an even higher level.

Only he didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself into. At least not right away.

“Then yun, trinain niya ako,” shared Arvin, who promised that the process wasn’t as appealing as it sounds. “Umaga, hapon, non-stop training.”

(There, he started to train me. Morning and afternoon, it was non-stop training)

And for the first time in his life, Tolentino began to question the game. Was it really this difficult, he kept asking. It also didn’t help that he was constantly getting pressure from the guy demanding him to work harder on the court, and from someone who was supposed to provide support at home.

“Sabi ko, ‘ganito ba ang basketball?’ Ang hirap talaga nang training. Eh syempre, hindi ko naman alam na ganun pala. Mapapgod ka talaga,” admitted the prospect who will soon don the blue-and-white colors of Ateneo. He also added that there came a point when he finally decided to just give up.

(I said, “Is basketball really like this?” Training was really hard. Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be like that. You really get tired.)

“Sabi ko, ‘ayaw ko.’”

(I said, “I don’t want this anymore.”)

It was a sad moment, according to Tolentino. He had fallen in love with the game only to come to despise it not long after. 

But the worst part? He couldn’t leave even if he really wanted to. That wasn’t his decision.

Per Tolentino: “Dumating sa point na nag away kami nang papa ko dahil gusto niya mag basketball ako. Tapos, every morning, nagaaway kami. Ginigising niya ako, tapos sinasabi ko, ‘ayaw ko, ayaw ko.’

(It came to a point when my dad and me would fight because he wanted me to play basketball. Every morning, we used to argue. He’d wake me up for training and I would tell him I didn’t want to go)

The situation had the recipe for what could have been a disastrous situation. But thankfully, things would turn for the better. 

A Change of Course

After weeks of training for countless hours to improve his game, Tolentino managed to make the varsity team of his school, Holy Deliverance Integrated School, located in the city of Angono. Arvin was unhappy with the way his young career was starting, but things would soon be looking up.

“Nag laro ako sa school saamin. Tapos, hindi naman sa pagyayabang, pero duon ko nakita na magaling ako. Sabi ko, ‘Marunong pala ako? Magaling pala ako?’ he said.

(I played for our school. Then, not to be arrogant, but that’s when I realized I was good. I said, “I actually know how to play?” “I’m good?”)

He further explained: “I was playing point guard, forward, and center.”

As the weeks passed by, Tolentino further enhanced his skills and was starting to realize how good he could be. Eventually, he would receive a shot to showcase his talents – a shot that would provide a stepping-stone to his storied amateur career.

But things didn’t get off to a great start.

“May nag scout sa school namin,” Arvin recalled. “Kumuha siya nang tatlong players. Hindi ako nakasama para mag laro sa NBTC. Yung pinakafirst na NBTC. Kumuha siyang tatlo, at hindi ako nakasama.”

(Someone came to scout our school. He got three players and I wasn’t included to play at NBTC – the first NBTC. He got three players, and I wasn’t included.)

As devastated as he was to not be selected, a motivated Tolentino worked even harder, and managed to get his shot despite the rejection, with some help from a friendly hand.

“He didn’t believe in me. Sabi niya sa coach ko, ‘Hindi yan makukuha. Hindi yan marunong,’” remembered Arvin about the scout who would give him his first taste of dismissal.

(He told my coach, “He won’t be taken. He doesn’t know how to play.)

Regardless, Tolentino’s varsity coach urged the scout to give his young star a second opportunity. With a whole lot of convincing, the scout budged, telling Arvin that he could come along – but just as an observer, not as an active participant. That was good enough, according to Tolentino. Once he was there, no one would stop him from accomplishing his goals. 

And no one did.

All Roads Lead to Beda

Three players were selected from Tolentino’s area to try-out for a shot to make Antipolo’s NBTC team. Arvin tagged along, but he was warned not to expect a chance to display his talents. However, things worked out, albeit against a couple of challenges both on and off the court.

“During try-outs, nanduon si Coach Eric Altamirano,” remarked Arvin, who also had to worry about a couple of things before getting on the basketball court.

First, there was the issue of persuading the scout that rejected him to begin with to let him showcase his capabilities. It wasn’t easy, but just the right amount of urging did the trick, and Arvin would get his opportunity. One opportunity, at least.

But there was another hurdle to deal with – his shoes.

“Naalala ko nuon, wala pa akong sapatos. Ginamit ko lang yung shoes nang daddy ko, eh malaki yung paa ko. Tapos sira pa yung sapatos. Eh no choice,” said the sized-12 athlete. 

(I remember at that time, I still didn’t have shoes. I used my dad’s shoes, but my feet were so big. And his shoes were broken. I had no choice)

Arvin had managed to convince his first critic to give him a shot, only to be faced with another obstacle related to his family’s unfortunate circumstance. But rather than being demoralized, Tolentino’s situation motivated him to do even better. He entered those try-outs with a chip on his shoulder; someone who had everything to prove, tight kicks be damned.

The result?

“Yung nangyari, ako yung nakuha, yung tatlong unang pinili hindi.”

(What happened: I was chosen, and the three guys selected before me weren’t.)

Just a year prior, Tolentino started playing basketball. And in a short period of time, he had gone through so much already. Making Antipolo’s NBTC team was the icing on the cake for the young hopeful. But what was even more important were two valuable lessons Tolentino learned in the process:

A motivated and hard-working person can accomplish whatever he wants if he puts his mind to it.

Nothing beats falling in love with the game of basketball.

At that time, making the NBTC club and proving the scout that doubted him wrong were of most importance to Arvin. But more than that, it would soon open a lot of doors and opportunities for the young lad.

“Na-discover ako sa NBTC. Kalaban ko nuon sila Kiefer Ravena, Baser Amer, yung Team Manila, si Terrence Romeo, Mike Tolomia, Art Dela Cruz. Ang lakas nila. Pero wala akong idea kung sino sila,” Tolentino mentioned. “Ako yung pinakabata. 12-years-old. Yung mga teammates ko, 18, 17.”

(I was discovered at NBTC. I went up against Kiefer Ravena, Baser Amer, Team Manila, Terrence Romeo, Mike Tolomia, Art Dela Cruz. They were so strong. But I had no idea who they were. I was the youngest at 12-years old. My teammates were 18, 17.)

His time at NBTC gave Arvin a maiden view of the competition he would face in the upcoming years of his life. And it also gave way for many high school scouts to try and convince him to take his talents elsewhere. Institutions like “FEU, Ateneo, and Xavier” called, he said. But Arvin wasn’t content with just taking the best offer on the table. He had his eyes on one place where he felt he could be the best basketball player possible.

“Nag try-out ako sa Beda,” (I tried out for San Beda) noted Tolentino, who would go on to win multiple championships for the school, but not before getting another episode of rejection.

“Hindi ako nakuha, hindi ako nabigyan nang scholarship,” he added, before saying that his family also couldn’t shoulder the tuition fee expense of making him study at San Beda.

(I wasn’t taken and I didn’t get a scholarship)

With Beda supposedly out of the picture, the Tolentino family turned their eyes toward UPIS, which was happy enough to accept Arvin after watching him practice with their squad a couple of times. He would be their ticket to the big leagues, they believed. But fate intervened, and San Beda Red Cubs coach Ato Badolato came just in the nick of time, giving the young basketball prodigy, whose legend was growing, an opportunity to play for one of the most successful Jr. NCAA basketball programs.

“Dapat magiging UPIS ako. Sa UPIS na ako nag pra-practice. Tapos, mag eenroll na dapat ako. Pero, kinausap kami the night before ni Coach Ato. Sabi niya, dito ka nalang sa San Beda.”

(I was supposed to go to UPIS. I was already practicing there. Then, the night before I was supposed to enroll, Coach Ato talked to us. He told me to go to San Beda instead.)

“Ang dami nag sabi saakin, ‘San Beda, best yan sa high school.’ Tapos sinabi ko, ‘Ma, sige sa San Beda nalang.’ So yun, nag start na ako mag practice sa Beda.”

(So many told me, “San Beda, that’s the best for high school.” So I said, “Mom, let’s pick San Beda instead.” So, there, I started practicing at Beda.)

Coach Ato promised Tolentino a chance to play for the legendary high school program. Maybe he wouldn’t get to display his talents right away, but the time would come. Being patient was something Arvin was used to, considering the adversities he had already faced prior. But it was settled and there was nowhere else he wanted to go.

Rise to Stardom and a Ticket to the Upper Ranks

Ren-Ren Ritualo. LA Tenorio. Nico Salva. LA Revilla. JV Casio. Ronnie Magsanoc. Samboy Lim.

These are just some of the names of notable basketball players in the country who spent their high school careers in San Beda, being a Red Cub.

Tolentino was eager to add his name to the list. Actually, he was just eager to play. But he couldn’t right away. The six-foot-five, versatile player said that he sat out his entire first year, thanks in large part to the absence of Coach Badolato, who retired from coaching the Red Cubs prior to his new recruit’s freshman year.

But not everything felt disastrous. Tolentino continued to improve his game by playing with San Beda’s Team B, and in his second tour of high school, he was invited to join the RP Youth Under-16 club.

“Sobrang bilis nang improvement ko. Lahat inimprove ko. Kapag may practice, sali ako sa mga big men at sa mga small men. Nung second year ako, sumali ako sa RP Youth U16,” noted Tolentino, who added that he first got acquainted with future teammate Hubert Cani and future opponent Prince Rivero of DLSU on the national club.

(My improvement was rapidly fast. I improved on everything. When there was practice, I’d join in with the big men and the small men. In my second year, I joined the RP Youth U16.)

He continued: “Yun yung the best na nag improve saakin nang sobra-sobra, yung training namin sa RP Youth. Duon talaga gumaling si Arvin Tolentino.”

(That was the best system that improved my game to a high level, our training at RP Youth. That’s where Arvin Tolentino became better.)

Nonetheless, Tolentino acknowledged that not every thing was rainbows and butterflies during his training with the national squad. There were good days, there were better days, and there were even really great days. But there were also some bad days that felt demoralizing. 

But, knowing how much motivation and determination can fuel someone, Arvin looked for something to keep him going. Something to make him go that extra mile during long-running sessions. Something to keep him fired up during suicides. Something that made him want to win in every single scrimmage.

“Nahirapan ako sa traning, pero sinabi ko, ‘para sa family ko ito,’” he said, reminiscing on all those times. Tolentino mentioned that his mom and dad never pressured him to be the greatest. They inspired and pushed him, sure, but they never demanded it of him. They just wanted him to get to play the game they knew he loved. Even his dad.

(Training was hard, but I told myself, “this is for my family.”)

But Tolentino knew what was on the line. With each hour at night he spent shooting hundreds of jumpers in an empty gym, he wasn’t fighting just for a bright future for himself; he was sacrificing everything in order to attain a better tomorrow for his family. They had given him so much, worked countless of hours for him. He wanted to return the favor. And the opportunity was right in front of him.

“Minahal ako nang basketball, at sobrang minahal ko ang basketball,” he said.

(Basketball loved me, and I loved it back so much.)

Tolentino returned from his training a better player with more confidence. He knew his time was coming. And in his third year, he finally got the call to join the Red Cubs.

And then suddenly, everybody was put on notice: one of the brightest stars of the future of Philippine basketball was here.

Tolentino was an all-around menace. He was absolutely dominant in the paint with his arsenal of moves, and he could also hit threes. He was also an unselfish player, willing to get out a pass to an open teammate when he faced double and triple teams. Rebounding wasn’t a big challenge either.

In 2013, San Beda won its fifth straight Jr. NCAA basketball crown. In the latter three years of its reign, Tolentino was their undisputed best player. He might not have won an MVP award, but what he accomplished for the school will put his name along with those mentioned above.

“Wala akong pakialam sa MVP, Mythical. Gusto ko lang talaga championship,” Arvin remarked when I asked him whether or not he was disappointed to not get the plum. He did, though, win the Finals MVP in season 89 – his concluding year in Beda – along with a Mythical Five selection. In that season, the standout put up 13.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 1.6 APG. 

(I don’t care about the MVP award or Mythical selection. I just really wanted to win championships.)

What started off as an improbable journey led to one of the most outstanding careers of a high school hoops wunderkind. But it wasn’t just basketball that made Arvin’s stay in San Beda so, so special. 

He was able to collect memories from his five-year stay in the school that he promises to keep always. “Hindi lang sa basketball, pati sa school. Halus lahat nang kaibigan ko galing duon.”

(It wasn’t just about basketball. All my friends are from San Beda.)

When asked to share some of his antics, Tolentino started to burst out in laughter. He just shaked his head and started remembering some of the best moments from everything that occurred in campus.

“Kasi, diba athletes kami, so tinatamad mag aral. Eh yun naman eh, diba? So, pupunta ako clinic. Sasabihan ko sa teacher, ‘Ang sakit nang ulo ko.’ Tapos, matutulog ako nang buong araw.”

(Cause since we’re athletes, we’re lazy to study. It’s really that way. So, I used to go to the clinic. I’d tell my teacher, “My head hurts!” Then, I’d just sleep the entire day.)

It was a classic trick – one that is commonly used by students all over the country. But there just always seems to be that one instructor that wouldn’t easily be fooled. 

Tolentino, for all his greatness on the court, wasn’t an exception to this. Not when “Ms. Robles” was around the corner.

“Talagang disciplinary siya. So, wala siyang consideration. Kung hindi mo kaya, yari ka,” mentioned Tolentino, before adding: “Yun yung nagpatino saamin talaga.”

(She’s really a disciplinarian. No consideration. If you can’t do it, you’re in trouble. That was the teacher that really fixed us up.)

Whether it was scoring all day on the court, sneaking out of class to get a few hours of much-needed sleep, spending numerous hours just laughing and making jokes with teammates, eating as much Master Siomai as he could, or anything else, Beda was truly an amazing time for Arvin Tolentino. 

It gave him another home away from home. It gave him the chance to make friends, whom he now considers his family, too. But most of all, it give him the avenue to earn a ticket to the school he will now play for in college. 

But before picking the said school, there was a long and taxing decision process.

Green, Blue, Red, or Maybe Somewhere Else. Where Will It Be, Mr. Tolentino?

The best high school players in the country usually get calls of recruitment even before their pre-college playing career comes to an end. The same was the case for Tolentino, who during one night received a phone call that would commence a crazy whirlwind of a recruitment process.

“Yung unang team talaga na tumawag, La Salle, nung third year ako,” recalled the tall and slim hoopster. “Yung main scout nila yung tumawag. Naalala ko kakaligo ko palang nun, sabi niya, ‘I’m from La Salle.’ Napa-wow ako. Yung La Salle gusto raw i-recruit ako.”

(The first team that called was La Salle, when I was in third year. Their main scout was the one who called. I remember I had just taken a shower and he said, “I’m from La Salle.” I was wowed. La Salle wanted to recruit me.)

Over the past few years, DLSU has recruited a number of talented big men for its roster. With a six-foot-five possible star in Tolentino around, the Taft-based university quickly went to work, setting up a meeting to converse with Arvin and his parents.

“Sinabi ko kaagad sa parents ko, at natuwa kami. Unang una na nameet ko si Quinito Henson. Tapos, yung mga pare, si Boss Danding [Cojuangco], yung scout, yung mga managers.

(I informed my parents right away, and we were thrilled. I first met Quinito Henson.  Then, I met the priests, then I met Boss Danding Cojuangco, then I met the scout, then I met the managers.)

According to Tolentino, the meeting took place in an environment that simply amazed him. “Muntik na ako maligaw. Parang kailangan nang signs,” he described it.

(I almost got lost. I needed signs.)

La Salle’s pitch was impressive. However, his family was smart and quick to not promise anything. Not once did the Tolentinos mention any guarantees or confirmations. 

“Wala kaming sinabi na, ‘Yeah, we’re interested.’ Nakinig lang kami. Hindi rin kami tumangap nang kahit ano,”

(We didn’t say anything like, “Yeah, we’re interested.” We just listened. We also didn’t accept anything.)

Part of the reason why they didn’t accept any offer from Mr. Cojuangco and the rest of DLSU brass was because of the potential of other suitors. Moreover, while Arvin was being wooed to be a Green Archer, San Beda was simultaneously doing their best to attain him for their senior’s team.

Tolentino knew he needed not to rush anything. He still had time, and he was determined to use as much of it as possible in order to come up with the decision he felt was best for him and his family. But the pressure escalated, as one candidate made its presence felt in a big way.

Enter National University.

“Nasunod yung NU,” the Beda high school graduate started to chronicle. “Sabi nila, ‘We’re interested.’”

(NU came next. They said, “We’re interested.”)

But NU, which was represented by Mr. Hans Sy in the meeting with Arvin and his mother, was not in the mood to let the kid take his time to ponder a decision. After all the formalities and discussions, they wanted an answer on the spot, putting Arvin in a tough situation that would dictate his future.

And needless to say, the offer was tempting, if not insane. 

“Nagulat kami nung sabi nila kailangan na nila yung commitment,” stated Tolentino, laughing at the amazement of the happening. “As in on the spot. Pero sabi namin hindi pa kami ready kasi third year pa ako, at may time pa ako mag decide.”

(We just got surprised when they said they needed a commitment. As in on the spot. But we said that we’re not yet ready because I was still in my third year, and I had more time to decide.)

Tolentino and his mother left the meeting without assuring anything to National University, closing the book on a potential partnership between both sides. Nevertheless, Arvin still had a pair of juicy options: go to La Salle and play for a team on the rise, or stay in Beda, which was a comfort zone for the in-demand prospect.

But before deciding between green or red, another party came to the mix. And it would change everything.

“Next na dumating, Ateneo. Sila yung last. With Coach Bo [Perasol], Mr. Paolo Trillo. Sinabihan na rim kami ni Boss MVP,” my guest explained.

(Next that came was Ateneo. They were the last. With Coach Bo Perasol and Mr. Paolo Trillo. We were already told as well by Boss MVP.)

While Arvin was falling in love with the game of basketball, his reputation started to rise. But behind the scenes, the multi-skilled three-time champion also did his best to become a student of the game. Training with both bigs and smaller guards, Arvin managed to develop an offensive repertoire that could hurt defenses from different angles. This involved a lot of film viewing, drills on the court, and multiple hours of basketball education. 

Still, Tolentino didn’t mind. He watched every second of every game tape like a predator hunting his prey. He worked the extra amount of required hours in the gym to hone his skills. He was always looking for ways to get better. He didn’t just want to be talented or athletic; he also wanted to have a high basketball IQ. 

That factored in making him a tremendous player. And it was arguably the deciding role in his eventual decision to pick Ateneo.

“Ang ganda nung sinabi saamin. Talagang inintroduce yung team, ano plano sa team, ano mangyayari saakin sa team. Lahat maganda,” Tolentino recalled.

(What they said was amazing. They really introduced the team, the plan of the team, and what my role in the team will be. Everything was great.)

But it wasn’t just the beaming son that was impressed with the Eagles’ pitch.

“Sabi nga ni papa, ‘Yan na, Ateneo na, Ateneo na choice natin.’”

(My dad even said, “There it is, pick Ateneo, Ateneo is our choice.”)

Before they gave any confirmation or before any welcome party could be thrown, the Tolentino clan opted to not deliver the good news right away. “Nung December pa, committed na kami. Pero hindi namin sinabi,” explained Arvin. 

(We were already committed in December. But we didn’t say it.)

Saying, “We’re sorry, but we have to reject your offer” to La Salle wouldn’t be difficult. Without a doubt, Tolentino appreciated the effort exhibited by the Lasallians, grateful for coming to him first before anyone else. But Boss Danding and his staff knew how the game was played; there’s a lot of good news, but there’s a lot of bad news, too – especially when going up against a rival institution that has as much resources. And unfortunately, DLSU’s mission to recruit the NCAA star didn’t succeed.

The tough part of formalizing his decision to pick Ateneo, Arvin says, was delivering the bad news to San Beda.

What Beda offered Tolentino expanded beyond the hardwood. The school offered him a place where he felt safe. It offered him acquaintances that would grow to be best friends. It offered him memories that will go on to remain with him for many years to come.

But this was reality. And Arvin, having worked years for the opportunity in front of him, wanted to carve his own path, and that was to play in the UAAP, for the university located in Loyola Heights, Katipunan.

Eventually, Tolentino mustered up the courage to give the disappointing answer to his soon-to-be alma matter, but not without some help from someone.

“Gusto namin (his family) kami yung mag sabi sa San Beda,” Arvin disclosed. “Pero, humingi ako nang tulong sakanya (Manny V. Pangilinan), kasi malaki rin utang nang loob ko sa Beda.”

(My family wanted to give the news to San Beda. But, I asked for help from him, because I owe so much to Beda.)

MVP, fulfilling his promise to take care of Arvin, made it sure that everything would be okay.

“Sabi niya, ‘Ako bahala. Gagawin natin nang paraan.’”

(He said, “I’ll handle it. We’ll find a way.)

And find a way they did. A few weeks later, the news was out, and it was official: Ateneo may have just landed its next big star.

One Big Fight

Even before the end of his last year in high school, Tolentino had already started practicing with the Blue Eagles, who are welcoming eight rookies on board for Season 77. Arvin walked in the Blue Eagle Gym for the first time, embraced everything for a few moments, realizing that a tough and adventurous road had led him to where he was. 

But not long after, it was time to get down to work.

“Ang bait nila, winelcome nila ako, inintroduce nila ako. Na-feel ko talaga na isa na ako sa team,” Arvin said about his first few training sessions with the club.

(They were so nice, they welcomed me, they introduced me to everyone. I felt like a member of the team right away.)

Arvin was also surprised. Heading into his first few practices with the squad, he expected to go through some struggles and learning pains that is common for most freshmen. But that wasn’t exactly the case.

“Unang-una kong practice, nasabi ko – hindi naman sa pagyayabang – na hindi naman ganun kahirap sa college. Konting adjustment lang. Kaya ko naman pala,” mentioned the confident young man, who later added that he enters each game with a mindset that he is the best player on the court, regardless of the opponent.

(My first ever practice, I told myself – and I’m not being arrogant or anything – that college wasn’t that hard. It just needed a bit of adjustment. I could handle it.)

However, Arvin’s easy-going first few sessions didn’t last long. With the easing-in process over, his teammates started to go at him harder, teaching him that he wasn’t playing with boys anymore, but rather with growing men – some of whom were pretty big.

And the first guy the Bo Perasol-coached team decided to utilize on Arvin was none other than the hefty Alfonso Gotladera, who definitely showered the rook with some love.

“Nung si Gotladera, pinoste ako. Eh, sa high school, isa ako sa pinakamalaki, so kala ko kaya ko. Tapos nag-spin, then tinamaan ako nang siko, pasok yung shot tapos foul pala.”

(When Gotladera posted me. In high school, I was one of the biggest, so I thought I could take him. Then, he utilized a spin move, hit me with an elbow, the shot went in, and there was a foul on me.)

Suddenly, not everything seemed so easy and free flowing anymore

“Sabi ko, ‘ganito pala,’” (I told myself, “So it was like this”), remembered Arvin who also added that he got a nice little remark from Kiefer Ravena on the subject: “Start palang yan,” The Phenom promised while laughing.

With all the off-court drama and the intense competition of last year’s UAAP season, it feels like so long ago when Ateneo swept UST in 2012 to claim its fifth consecutive senior’s basketball title. The Blue Eagles’ dynasty is one that many will talk about for years to come, and it will be remembered more for the good times rather than the disappointing way their bid for a six-peat came to an end.

Last year, Ateneo lost mainstays Greg Slaughter and Nico Salva, and had to suffer through a few games without Ravena, who was absent due to injury. The controversial but productive Ryan Buenafe had also graduated, waiting in the wings for his shot in the PBA. The Blue Eagles have been forced to reboot heading into this season, leaning on their newcomers and on the returning Ravena, Von Pessumal, Nico Elorde, and Chris Newsome to lead the way.

Not a lot have predicted the guys in blue to make another run at the title, though anything can happen in the UAAP. But with eight kids new to the college basketball scene, it’s no secret that Coach Perasol and his staff have a lot of work to do.

Still, the future is bright. Arvin Tolentino, Thirdy Ravena, Hubert Cani. These are just some of the names ADMU students will be admiring over the next few years. But before celebrating success, there’s going to be a long, challenging obstacle course to get there. And Tolentino, no stranger to facing the odds, is prepared.

“Nothing is impossible naman. Sa talent namin, kaming mga rookies, madaming potential. Compare mo sa rookies nang ibang team. Kasi isipin mo rookies namin, halos lahat saamin All-Stars nung high school at champions,” Arvin reminds us.

(Nothing is impossible. With our talent, us rookies, there’s so much potential. Compare us to the rookies of other teams. Think about it, us rookies were All-Stars and champions in high school.)

“Napakabright nang future namin. Kailangan lang namin experience.”

(Our future is very bright. We just need experience.)

And experience will be key for this team. The quicker they can attain it, the faster they can get back to obtaining titles once again.

In the first round of Season 77, the Blue Eagles will open their season against an Adamson squad ushering in a new era, one without Head Coach Leo Austria, who, ironically, now plays a role in Ateneo sports. But following that, the club will be tested early when they go up against Far Eastern University.

FEU is entering its first season after the RR Garcia-Terrence Romeo period, but the Tamaraws have been impressive in the FilOil Flying V Hanes Premier Cup preseason tournament so far. Standing at 6-0, FEU has performed at an elite level led by Mike Tolomia, whose recent play indicates that he will be an MVP candidate this season.

Ateneo will face University of the Philippines in its third game, and then go on to battle with a Ray Parks-less NU Bulldogs, which have looked very impressive as well in the preseason. Then on August 2, the team’s much-awaited clash with La Salle takes place, as both squads look to add another chapter to the country’s greatest sports rivalry in history.

The thought of facing rival La Salle, in front of thousands at the Big Dome, with the entire Philippines – and many more around the world – watching, gives Arvin chills.

“Pinakanakakaexite yung Ateneo-La Salle. Syempre big crowd, lahat nakatingin sainyo. Trending ka nun sa Twitter!” joked Tolentino when I asked him about how he felt about this year’s maiden DLSU-Ateneo joust.

(Ateneo-La Salle is the most exciting! Of course, there’s the big crowd, everyone’s look at you. You’re going to be trending in Twitter!)

“Siguro yun yung paghahandaan namin na todo,” he began to get serious. “Gagawin ko lahat para matalo La Salle. Kasi, syempre, basketball ito. Walang mabait dito. Magkaibigan tayo off the court, pero on the court, iba na,” he added, explaining that though he is absolutely grateful to La Salle for their recruitment efforts, when it comes to the basketball court, Arvin means business.

(I guess that’s what we’re going to prepare for most. I will do everything to beat La Salle. Of course, this is basketball. No one here is nice. We’re friends off the court, but on the court, it’s different.)

La Salle is the defending champion of the league, and with most of its core returning along with some added depth, many expect them to reign once again. And that’s okay, according to the former-Beda-turned-Atenista player. It’s more than okay, because it adds fuel to the fire. “Gusto ko lang patunayan na we’re a better team,” he says.

(I just want to prove that we’re a better team.)

And how does Ateneo do that? How does a club filled with countless newbies, most likely bound to lean on a new system, take down the goliaths of college basketball? 

It’s simple: “By being the best defensive team. Kasi, mga bata kami eh. Inexperienced, pero sa talent naman wala kaming problema. We have to stop them. Syempre, depensa naman talaga kailangan sa basketball eh. Kung kayo yung best defensive team, kayo yung best team,” articulated Tolentino, before talking about how the best teams in the NBA are usually those who emphasize defense.

(We’re a bunch of kids. We’re inexperienced, but when it comes to talent we have no problem. Of course, defense is what’s needed in basketball. If your team is the best defensive team, you’re the best team.)

“But it’s not what you ask of me; it’s what I ask of myself.” – LeBron James

Many great athletes have made it known that pressure can make or break someone. Pressure can come from different venues – it could derive from your coach, friends, family, financial situations, or many others.

And sometime, it can come from yourself.

Thankfully for Arvin Tolentino, no one outside is pressuring him to do this and that. At least not yet.

“Honestly, yung mga expectations nila saakin, walang pressure,” Arvin assured, when asked whether Blue Eagle brass has told him how much he needs to accomplish.

(Their expectations of me, no pressure.)

However, that doesn’t mean it’s not coming from a different source.

“Ang pressure ko, ang expectations, galing sa sarili ko,” the young cager promised, before showing some hint of emotion in his following statements: “Gusto ko mag champion next year, or this year pag kaya. Wala akong pakialam sa sinasabi nila. Ineexpect ko is from me. Ang gusto ko, ma solve yung expectations ko sa sarili ko.”

(I want to be a champion by next year, or this year if possible. I don’t care what others are saying. What I expect is from myself. What I want is to solve my own expectations.)

That’s a lot, especially from someone who has yet to play a single second of UAAP basketball. Needless to say, Arvin will need thick skin and a boatload of confidence in order to achieve what he has set out to expect from himself. But when I asked him why he felt so at ease in making such bold claims, Tolentino just smiled and gave two very simple reasons.

“My family is my inspiration,” he first said. After all they’ve been through, it felt like no test could bring them down anymore. Not on the basketball court, and not outside it. And second:

“Nag babasketball ako dahil mahal ko ang basketball. Hindi ako nag babasketball kasi para sa mga ibang tao, hindi ako nag babasketball para sa pera, nag babasketball ako dahil gusto ko, at mahal ko, at para sa family ko.”

(I play basketball because I love basketball. I don’t play basketball for others, I don’t play basketball for the money, I play basketball because I want to, and I love it, and it’s because of my family.)

Before leaving our interview, he was kind enough to give a prediction of things to come.

“We’re going to be champs. Two years from now. Even this year, we can do it.”

The story of Arvin Tolentino is far from over. - Rappler.com

Naveen Ganglani is a sports journalist for Rappler.com who has covered leagues both international and in the Philippines. He also watches way too much movies and TV and plays video games way too often. Follow him on Twitter: @naveenganglani