Mac Belo: The selfless heartbreak kid

Many will remember the extraordinary moment when Mac Belo made the game-winning putback on a Saturday afternoon, November 21 and catapulted his FEU Tamaraws to their second straight UAAP Finals.

Others will never forget how he stood up victorious after he fell from jumping so high for that follow-up. He tapped the part of his chest where his heart is, clearly overcome with emotion – despite still wearing his notorious poker face – before he was engulfed by his ecstatic teammates.

Some may even remember how Belo was all alone in the air for that stickback as time expired for the 76-74 thrilling victory over the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

But of all Belo's great moments Saturday, I will remember most – and proudly share to anyone – a quiet, almost unnoticeable instance off the court and away from the bright arena lights.

Inside the press room, FEU head coach Nash Racela tried to satisfy reporters' clamor for a soundbite worthy of Belo's feat. He came up with this: "Siya lang yung naka-shoot nung huling tira (It was Mac Belo who made the last shot) but it was a team effort.”

“So many other guys are not mentioned enough, like (Ron) Dennison who really defended, as well as Monbert Arong and Francis Tamsi. It was really a team effort that’s why we’re back in the Finals,” he added. 

As Racela said it, Belo earnestly nodded his head several times in agreement. 

The response that was expected from the coach was to laud his player for getting to the right place and time and making the big shot; to put the spotlight on him. But not Racela, whose entire coaching philosophy is centered on full, no-nonsense teamwork. 

Belo's silent gesture epitomizes what FEU is all about and, more importantly, his character.

"Yung defensive stop namin sa huli yung nagpapanalo talaga sa amin (It was really our defensive stop in the end that gave us the win),” the graduating veteran refused to take credit for his heartbreaker.

"Pag shoot ni Mike (Tolomia), na-putback ko lang (After Mike attempted the shot, I just put it right back)."

Racela shared the credit among his players. To Roger Pogoy – who was responsible for the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:07 left, 74-all – and to Mike Tolomia, who unselfishly gave up passes all game long, then secured the rebound from Ateneo's fastbreak miss and took it strong to the hoop in the dying seconds. Tolomia was not even initially called for a post-game interview until Racela asked for him.

"Beside me right now are the two players that hit big shots in the endgame. But I wanted Mike to be here because he was the one who kept on giving up the ball earlier," Racela said. 

Belo would not have had the opportunity to win the game had Pogoy not made the triple or made the critical defensive stop on Ateneo’s fastbreak; nor would Belo have reached 15 points and 9 rebounds if not for hardworking teammates who hustled, defended, stretched the floor, and did their part.

“They were trapping Mike but he wasn’t selfish. He became a facilitator and that’s how they freed up Roger, Russel (Escoto) and Mac. For us that’s teamwork. That’s team play,” Racela added.

Guess what? Belo was again nodding his head. And so were Pogoy and Tolomia.

Throughout the post-game interview – and all through the last couple of seasons for that matter – FEU always spoke of involving everyone on the team, of each person giving up passes, of every player putting in the work. That resulted in a versatile, unpredictable team with superstar-caliber guys playing selfless team ball, together with every player on the bench granted trust and a voice to lead. 

So much so that despite winning 11 elimination round games and being the second seed, no Tamaraw made it to the Mythical Team.

Racela admitted discussing that with his team a day before the Final Four. During that talk, he made his team focus on a tarpaulin that hung inside their gym. 

It bore a quote made popular by former US President Harry S. Truman and legendary American basketball coach John Wooden: "It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit."

Tamaraws basketball. Horns up!! A photo posted by @scwtnash on Nov 20, 2015 at 2:45am PST

Belo has long embraced this philosophy which was further solidified during his time with national team Sinag Pilipinas. 

He's one of the rare collegiate stars without an ounce of arrogance in his system; who stayed the same even after the first time he was branded a hero a year ago – in the same venue, with the same stakes. 

Belo buried the game-winning corner triple against Ateneo's rival DLSU Gree Archers during their Final Four match in Season 77. FEU was likewise the second seed and, with the game tied in the closing seconds, Belo put on his cape and propelled his team to its first Finals appearance in 3 years.

The Tamaraws' ring had been on the opposite side of the court then at the Smart Araneta Coliseum when Belo first broke hearts that bled green. This year, he shattered hearts of blue. 

It would be hard to hate Belo for being the breaker of hearts. 

How could you hate a star who shines bright in silence; in long hours sweating on the court after practice; in humility and in a quiet and reserved character; in knowing his limitations – and realizing he can shatter that, too; in always lifting up those around him no matter what; and in finding joy in the happiness of others.

"Sobrang saya, (I was very happy)” he tried to describe how he felt the moment he made the shot. “Kasi nakabalik kami ulit sa Finals then pag makikita mo yung mga teammates mo na sobrang saya din, and then yung FEU community, yun yung sobrang sarap sa feeling." 

(We are back in the Finals and then when you see your teammates very happy as well, and then the FEU community, that’s the best feeling.) 

Belo, soft-spoken and unassuming, is living proof that an ordinary kid can do extraordinary things. 

Because in a day and age when everyone is trying to get ahead, where everyone is looking to one-up each other; in a time when nobody bothers to look beside or behind them for the next person who helped them up, there is much to admire and respect in a 22-year old college star on the rise who – with his whole life ahead of him and the world within his reach – understands the meaning of selflessness. –