Philippine basketball

Mark Barroca’s journey from Palaro runner to PBA Finals MVP

Levi Verora

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Mark Barroca's love for sports began as a short, skinny runner at Palarong Pambansa, culminating with PBA Philippine Cup Finals MVP honors

COFFEE KING. Mark Barroca basks in the glory as he celebrates his PBA Philippine Cup Finals MVP awarding after San Mig Coffee took the series 4-2 over Rain or Shine. Photo by Josh Albelda

MANILA, Philippines – Even before evolving into the ‘Coffee King’ of the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers, newly-minted PBA Philippine Cup Finals Most Valuable Player Mark Barroca had to weather huge struggles in his early life prior to claiming the elusive distinction.

Barroca dazzled in Wednesday’s Game 6, scoring 24 points, on 9-of-16 shooting, and added 5 assists and 2 steals to help the Mixers beat Rain or Shine, 93-87 and annex their first Philippine Cup crown in 4 years.

That crown capped a conference of breakthrough numbers in just his third season in the league: 13.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.27 APG, 2.03 SPG, and 0.43 BPG in this season so far – all career-highs in his early PBA career.

Hailed as one of the toughest point guards in the league, the 5-foot-9 playmaker proved he was an integral part of San Mig Coffee’s run at back-to-back PBA crowns.

Right after receiving his silverware, Barroca was mobbed by members of the press and fans who wished to have their moments with him.

But the royalty he is cherishing right now is nowhere near the hardships he had to undergo while growing up in the impoverished town of Recodo in the Zamboanga region. 

“Sobrang hirap namin dati. Di naman ako mayaman eh. May time na nafoforce akong kumita ng pera para sa pamilya ko,” Barroca told Rappler. (We were really less fortunate before. There was a point I had to earn money for my family.)

Barroca, the youngest of five children, had to earn money the hard way, participating in local basketball leagues to earn some change for his family. His parents at that time had no occupation.

A humble run in Palarong Pambansa

Like how many athletes from the provinces started, Barroca traced his early beginnings with stints at the Palarong Pambansa – the Department of Education’s national sports spectacle for elementary and high school athletes – hoping to find a break.

As a skinny, 5-foot-3 kid with dark-complexion, Barroca participated in the 2003-04 Games, where he would cop medals as a competitor for Region 9 (Zamboanga region). 

But it seems Barroca was not satisfied, and searched for his true love in the sports business.

“Track and field ako doon. Blessed lang siguro. Di ko naman in-expect na magiging ganito ako. Doon, runner ako, pero gusto ko lang naman mag-basketball,” he said. (I’m a track and field player before. Maybe I’m just blessed; I didn’t expect to be where I am right now. I was a runner there but I just wanted to play basketball.)

The 5th overall pick in the 2011 PBA Draft barely played the sport, but channeled his track and field skills to hasten how he adapted to his new home. 

“Namaximize ko lang yung track and field, like may konting skills nako katulad ng quickness, yung pivot. Eventually na-improve ko lang dahil sa mga coach na magagaling at mga PBA players, na-improve ko skills ko.” (I maximized by track and field skills when I entered basketball. Skills like quickness and pivot; eventually I improved when it comes to basketball with all the great coaches and PBA stars.) 

Mark Barroca shoots a jumper over an outstretched Gabe Norwood in Game 6. Photo by PBA Images

Big leap from Zambo to Manila

Barroca held this big dream, and fought hard with fortune to land himself in one of the premier college basketball squads in the country: Far Eastern University. 

The Tamaraws’ head coach during that time, Bert Flores, had a friend in Zamboanga who recommended Barroca to try-out. At that point, Flores was looking for a point guard to take over the spot vacated by skipper Jonas Villanueva.

“Nadiscover niya ako at naglaro kami basketball. First time ko lang maglaro ng basketball nun. Breaks lang talaga, napunta ako sa FEU, napunta ako sa magandang team,” recalled Barroca of Flores’ teammate who is responsible for pushing him to the collegiate spotlight. (Flores’ former teammate and friend in Zamboanga discovered me, and then we played basketball. That was my first time to play the sport. I’m glad to get a break and I landed in a great team in FEU.)

Barroca grew rapidly; it surprised him but he willingly accepted it as an asset. Coupled with his athletics skills, he finally held a basketball and began practicing the nation’s most popular sport.

“5-foot-3 lang ako, pagdating ko ng FEU biglang naging 5-foot-9. Di ko rin inasahan kasi wala naman akong tina-trabaho, tulog lang, basketball, tsaka weights. Nagulat ako tumangkad nako.” (I was just surprised that from 5-foot-3, I grew to 5-foot-9. I didn’t really work out on my height but just slept, play ball and do weight training.) 

And when Barroca got the spot, he would do everything to keep it. He played with impact for the Tamaraws in the UAAP, leading them to the Final Four in 2010. Game-fixing allegations however, would suddenly force him out of FEU.

Competing with Asia’s best 

But that issue did not stop Barroca from achieving his goals. He kept his eye on the ultimate prize, and went on to become part of Rajko Toroman’s Smart Gilas Pilipinas national basketball team in 2009. Mark Barroca immediately showcased what he was capable of doing of, scoring 36 points in an exhibition game against PBA’s Burger King.

Along with the best amateur athletes, Barroca went all over the globe, training in several camps in Serbia, Australia, United States, and Dubai while playing in prestigious tournaments like the Asian Games, FIBA Asia Champions Cup, FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup, Dubai International Basketball tournament, and the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China that culminated his 3-year stay with Smart Gilas.

“Sobrang blessed ako to be part of the team, kaunti lang ang nakakapunta sa mga ganoong lugar e.” (I’m very blessed to be part of that team. Only a few people have been in those places so it’s really an honor.) 

Play hard, don’t give up

Draft 5th overall by the Clickers, Barroca was shipped to B-Meg Llamados where he would stay for good. During his rookie season, the Smart Gilas court general did not spend a lot of time on the floor with guards like Roger Yap, Josh Urbiztondo, and Jonas Villanueva all leading the Llamados. But Barroca knew his break would eventually come and he is just patiently waiting for stardom. He also credits his defense, saying it is his best asset.

“Yung time na yun di ko iniisip yung ganon. Pag tungtong ko ng PBA isa lang inisip ko, pagpasok ko sa court magcocontribute ako. Kung di man sa opensa, sa depensa,” he said. (I’m not thinking about being a bench player when I first stepped in the PBA; instead, my mindset was to contribute whenever I get minutes, whether on offense or defense.)

“Yun naman ang key sa pagiging successful ko, yung depensa. Yun siguro ang nakita ng management sakin. Meron silang kulang na dinagdagan ko.” (I think that is the key to being successful. My defense is something the management might have noticed; they have some sort of waterloo I’ve be able to fill in.)

Tides would change however, when those three veteran point guards exited, paving the way for Barroca’s emergence as one of the top backcourt players in the league today.

Barroca claimed his first championship with the Denzel Bowles-powered B-Meg during the 2012 Commissioner’s Cup; and he was just getting started.

Averaging just 17 minutes in his rookie season, the ‘Coffee King’ evolved as the Mixers’ premier point guard, learning from the likes of Johnny Abarrientos and Olsen Racela, assitant coaches at the San Mig side who are both considered among the greatest backcourt generals in the PBA.

Barroca played close to 34 minutes in the recently-concluded Philippine Cup. With 3 PBA titles already across his name, the 27-year-old Zamboangueno has only one advice to upcoming Palarong Pambansa athletes and players who wish to follow his footsteps: play hard and put God first.

“Syempre, sa mga maglalaro, mga taga probinsya, excited yan. Minsan may struggles din. Maglaro lang sila ng maglaro. Play hard,” as he bade a message to Palarong Pambansa athletes competing from May 4 to 10 in Laguna. (Palaro athletes, especially those coming from the provinces are very excited; they also have their share of struggles but just keep playing and play hard.)

“One day, hopefully lagi ko pine-pray na mashe-share ko ang mga matututunan ko, at tularan nila ako. Put God first.” (I pray that one day, hopefully I can share what I’ve learned to younger players. And if they wish to emulate me, just put God first.) –

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