Thirty-three years before Thirdy Ravena was tapped to play in the Japan B.League, there was another high-flying Blue Eagle who was a signature away from taking his talents overseas.
Jojo Lastimosa could have been the first homegrown Filipino in an international professional basketball league. In 1987, he was recruited to play in the International Basketball Association which was eventually renamed the World Basketball League.
Among the prominent names who suited up in the WBL were John Starks of the New York Knicks, former PBA imports Sean Chambers, Jamie Waller, Vincent Askew, Willie Bland, Jose Slaughter, and Ricric Marata, who saw action for the Vancouver Nighthawks.
"I was sent a contract already. I was thinking about it," Lastimosa shared.
However, the idea of settling down and getting married and the uncertainty of relocating abroad in a league that was still in its infancy made him decide to stay put in the Philippines.
It would have been a remarkable journey for someone who, as he was growing up joining barangay leagues, harbored no illusions about leaving his hometown to play in a bigger stage.
“I had no ambitions of being a PBA player or to be somewhere else,” said Lastimosa. “I guess that's what happens when you do not worry about getting recruited. It will just happen to you. If you have the game, people will find you.”
Lastimosa was a high school varsity standout from Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) when during a tournament among Jesuit schools, he was asked by Fr Raymond Holscher if he would be interested to play for the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles.
Only in third year then, Lastimosa wasn’t exposed yet to the finer details and science of the game. But Fr Holscher knew the Blue Eagles would be landing a diamond in the rough.
Little did all of them, Lastimosa included, realize back then that this prized find from Cagayan de Oro would go on to become one of the best players in the country.
Fans who have followed the two decades of Lastimosa's career were witnesses to two iterations of his game.
The Jolas of the early years with Ateneo, Mama's Love, and Lhuillier was the explosive highlight reel who was also a fixture in slam dunk competitions in the amateur ranks. He took inspiration from his idol who also wore jersey No. 6, Julius Erving.
Among the local players, he closely studied the moves of Crispa superstars Freddie Hubalde and Atoy Co.
"I love the way Freddie drives to the basket and Atoy's patented fadeaway shots,” he said. “I tried a combination of the moves of different players. But I was really a penetrator and a scorer so I guess my game was more similar to Freddie’s.”
The Jolas who became one of the most potent and clutch offensive weapons in the PBA in the 1990s was a dead-shot shooter who still could drive to the basket but was just as deadly on the pull-up jumper.
He explained this transformation: "The game just evolved naturally for me. I think I was already smarter and I could see the floor better. That comes with maturity. Once you see the defense catching up on you, you will eventually have to figure out how to adjust. I learned to slow the game down."
Lastimosa's long list of achievements has been well-chronicled: 1985 Philippine Amateur Basketball League (PABL) Invitationals Most Valuable Player, 1988 PBA Rookie of the Year, three-time Mythical First Team, three-time Mythical Second Team, and 10-time PBA champion,
There is a belief among fans that he should have won the MVP award at least once in his 15-year PBA career. (LOOKBACK: The should-have-been PBA MVPs)
His best season was when he became the franchise player of Alaska in 1991 after Purefoods traded him in exchange for Boy Cabahug. That season, he averaged a league-best 22.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists as he steered Alaska to a championship and the year's best record.
But Lastimosa's real value goes beyond statistics and individual accolades. His biggest contributions lie in the leadership he displayed on and off the court and his earnest respect for the game of basketball.
He was named captain of the Philippine national team in 1987, a role he reprised when he was appointed co-captain of the 1998 RP Centennial team which won the Jones Cup title and the Asian Games bronze.
Lastimosa was also the leader of the Alaska dynasty which was the most successful team of the 1990s, winning a historic Grand Slam in 1997.
"My style is patterned from the way I was brought up – you take care your own, you take care of your family, you show a lot of empathy, and of course, you show your work ethic," he shared as he talked about his brand of leadership.
"I think one thing I did well even from my days in Cebu up to my time with Purefoods, then Alaska, was that I took care of my teammates. I care about them and their families."
It’s this big brother, protective nature of Lastimosa which got him into a number of scraps. He was never known as a roughhouser, but he never backed down from anybody, especially if his teammates were getting the raw end of the physical plays of opponents.
“I could be nasty if the situation called for it,” he said with a laugh. “People knew I was never going to start a fight, but if they did anything stupid to me, or to my teammates, I would get back at them.”
He recalled a time in the PABL when an opposing player hit his Lhuillier teammate and good friend Samboy Lim.
Lastimosa came to the defense of the Skywalker and tagged the instigator on the head, resulting in a free-for-all between the two teams.
Then there was an incident when he was headbutted by Rudy Distrito and they were both thrown out. They continued to brawl outside the locker rooms of the Cuneta Astrodome.
From then on, the man known as the Destroyer learned not to mess with him.
Lastimosa has often been misunderstood for his no-nonsense demeanor, but those who know him well recognize that underneath that icy exterior resides a genuine passion for the game that fuels his ardent drive to win.
"A lot of pros lose sight of why they play the game. Oftentimes, the business side of the game will run over your purpose and desire,” he said.
“For me, money and the financial gains were always going to be incidental. For me, it was always about the game.”
"I have never changed my approach to the game from the time I started playing, and that is to take the game seriously,” Lastimosa added.
“I love the game. It is a fun game that has been good to me. I have to take care of it. So I have to take care of my body so I could give everything in every game. Being serious sometimes is more fun than just screwing around."
Lastimosa has always been a straight-shooter who was never afraid to be himself. Throughout his career, he was secure in the thought that he need not kowtow to anyone to gain appreciation or a more favorable reception. He allowed his game to do the talking. And when his game talked, people were enraptured, so they watched and listened. – Rappler.com