Friends and foes: Ricci, Brent face off in UP-UST semis duel

 

 

MANILA, Philippines – Brent Paraiso ran from the left wing to the right, drawing an imaginary-looking curve with his sneakers. The action was deliberate enough to bewilder the Tamaraws, who once again left the man with the hot hand wide open.

In a season that can be likened to a tour of vindication, it felt fitting that the Archer-turned-Tiger would connect on another deep bomb as part of University Santo Tomas’ long-awaited return to Final Four relevancy. 

The UST faithful screamed while Paraiso torched the Big Dome’s nets. He wasn’t considered a star player in the past, neither in high school nor in his early collegiate years, but against FEU – a familiar UAAP title contender – Aldin Ayo’s best developmental project announced his arrival as a household UAAP name.

Doing what he did – 18 big points – against a defense coached by Olsen Racela in a pressure-packed setting is enough to validate that. 

There are many points scored in a college basketball game. Some matter more than the rest. Paraiso hit the big shots to get the blowout started for UST, whose loyal and passionate supporters cheered him on with pride. When they needed someone who had the guts to take command against their charging opponents’ rally, there was no fear in his game. 

While all of this was taking place in Cubao, a familiar face in Diliman was unable to contain his excitement. Ricci Rivero tweeted in appreciation of the friend he considers family. Simultaneously, he marveled on Brent’s remarkable performance, and appreciated the unique journeys they share.   

“I was waiting for that (Paraiso’s performance) to happen because I know how dedicated he’s been, and I’m happy for him,” Rivero shared to Rappler. 

 

Time to move

Along with Ricci’s brother, Prince, Rivero and Paraiso immediately struck a friendship when they were first-year Green Archers in 2016.

While Brent’s high school teammate, Aljun Melecio, quickly established himself in the seniors division by winning Rookie of the Year, Paraiso and Rivero waited their time behind the graduating Jeron Teng, who was a Finals MVP-caliber player. 

The following year, both played roles in La Salle’s title defense which fell short against mighty Ateneo. Rivero won UAAP Most Improved Player of the Year and became a go-to guy for DLSU. Paraiso, who played less than 10 minutes a game, was one of Ayo’s trusted role players tasked to do two things: defend wings and attempt threes.

Not long following season’s end, Ayo famously moved from Taft to España. Brent and Ricci, meanwhile, took a leave from the Green Archers following a complicated web of controversies. 

“I’ve been through a lot since La Salle and one of those was how to deal with the rumors, because all of [that was] fake news,” Paraiso shared to Rappler. “With the help of my family and friends, I got past [what was] being said to us.” 

DLSU Sports announced on Twitter that Prince, Ricci, and Brent took a leave from the Green Archers to conclude their existing endorsement contracts, but were still enrolled and attending classes. In the same announcement, it was revealed management implemented a new policy prohibiting athletes from sponsorship deals with commercial entities. A month later, Ricci and Brent publicly shared their drug test results that displayed no found proof of banned substances.

Eventually, all 3 still left the university. 

For Ricci, it was “time to move on.”

“[Coach Aldin] didn’t really convince me, because I really wanted to play for him,” said Brent.

 

New home

Like Ayo, Paraiso transferred to UST for the next phase of his career. Ricci could have done the same, but ultimately formed a Big Four with Juan, Kobe, and Bright at the University of the Philippines.

Rivero always had star-like talent, which was why even if he sparingly played as a rookie, he was still considered at La Salle as the successor to Teng. Paraiso, on the other hand, was viewed as a work in progress, but that didn’t stop coach Aldin from fielding him on court. 

Super taas ng tiwala ko kay coach Aldin. Kaya nga ako lumipat sa UST, kasi grabe yung confidence na binibigay niya sa mga players.

(I really trust coach Aldin. It’s the reason I moved to UST, he gives players so much confidence.) 

Due to the UAAP’s rules for transferees, Paraiso and Rivero had to sit out a year and lose one season of eligibility in 2018.

But motivated by the support of his family and a willingness to change perception of him, Brent’s goal was clear-cut: 

“Be better than my old self.” 

At the start of Season 82, UST earned the status of championship contender with dominant opening victories and an admirable effort against the defending champion. 

From the first game, Ayo trusted Paraiso with important minutes. It was unsurprising. In a team that has an enviable amount of wing talent – CJ Cansino and Rhenz Abando come to mind – Brent earned playing time with his hustle, improved shooting, and familiarity to the coach’s system. 

They key to that last bit? 

Being fearless. 

In his first performance against La Salle, the former Zobel product scored a career-high 22 points for his team in a losing effort. All throughout the season, he’s been reliable, because he has the guts to believe in himself. 

That manifested best in the victory against FEU, where the Growling Tigers got the closest they’ve been to the finals since 2015. Paraiso’s hard work paid off, because amid criticism, he pictured something better for himself. 

“Super grateful to God,” he responded, when asked what it feels like to get a second chance. 

“With all my struggles in life, he was there with me, and he gave me another chance of playing the sport I love.

“And he gave me a new home, which is UST.” 

A home where everybody welcomed him with open arms.

A home that gives “incredible” support to every athlete.

 

Still tight

While Paraiso honed his talents, Rivero aimed to fit his in a team that had plenty of it. 

At his best when the ball is in his hands, Ricci was forced to adjust and find a symmetry between him, his co-stars, and the rest of the stacked Fighting Maroons. His first-round performance had more downs than ups, but all that was lacking was time and reps. 

Since the second round rolled in, Rivero has etched an important role in Bo Perasol’s system. The on-court dynamic between him and his teammates still isn’t perfect, but much improved. 

“I’m just trying to find where I’m supposed to be and what I should be doing on the court for me to be able to help,” he said.

“What I’m trying to do now is just focus on defense.” 

Even if one of the repercussions from their departure of La Salle led them to different parts of the UAAP map, Ricci and Brent remain tight. They supported each other with words of encouragement through their residency. They don’t see each other as much, but text and call often. They talk about “random stuff,” said Paraiso, which ranges from stories in training, games, and every day life.

“He’s one of my closest friends and we’ve been through a lot. As in, a lot. We talk often,” explained Ricci.

“We were so close that our families were close, too. He’s like my brother,” shared Brent.

 

Different perspective

After the Blue Eagles defeated the Green Archers in 2017, the Rivero brothers and Paraiso made plans to improve as individual players in order to better their team. “But that never really happened,” said Brent. “Now we have that chance for our [new] schools and I’m really happy for [Ricci].” 

“We’ve [gone] through the best [times], especially winning our first UAAP championship together during our rookie season. And with all the things we’ve learned and experienced on and off the court, it’s something that will surely be remembered, and also, what we thought was hell, but with God’s grace, we were able to move on and continue to play the sport that we love the most,” shared his friend. 

What led to Rivero’s eventual arrival at UP was prompted by tumultuous circumstances that became a controversial topic for discussion on an often toxic place: social media. 

Few players in UAAP history have ever had the fan support Ricci has experienced since his freshman year, but at the same time, that’s come with sundry criticism. Some are fair. Most are not. 

“I don’t really know how and why, but I think I’ve seen life in a different perspective,” Rivero confessed. 

How so?

“In a positive way.” 

He continued, “[It’s] probably because I’m getting older and more mature, but I find it easier to handle things.”

 

Big test

How Rivero handles his return to the big stage will be one of the pressing questions when UST and UP tip-off what will be an epic Final Four encounter. Both he and Brent went 5-2 each in the playoffs in the two years (2016-2017) the Green Archers advanced to the finals.

After UST’s escape of FEU, Brent now has one up on his buddy. A Sunday Special win by Ricci’s Maroons will tie the two standouts, but propel twice-to-beat State U to the finals, and eliminate Brent’s Tigers. 

Both guys play similar positions. They’re the closest of friends who are familiar with each other. Not just with what they do on the basketball court, but also with their tendencies, moods, and habits. Who plays better between the two could decide whose team will prove triumphant.

“Basketball is a competition and we both want to win. So if I have to guard him, why not?” said Brent. 

“I have to,” Ricci said, when asked the same question. “It’s going to be a big test for both of us because we have to fight for our respective universities.” 

It feels like the combined journey of Brent and Ricci is coming full circle, as the rest of the country turn their heads to one of the UAAP’s most blockbuster stages. No setting could have been better for these two young men, who departed an institution that was their home since they were kids for new schools which were happy to take them in as their own.

Schools that gave them a second chance.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” claimed Paraiso. 

“We just have to make the most of it.”

That right there –  the beauty of second chances –  is one of the things that make life special. 

“Win or lose,” said Rivero of their upcoming clash, “we’ll remain brothers.” 

And that right there – friendship – is what makes it precious. – Rappler.com