Arnold Van Opstal: the jet-setting hoopster
MANILA, Philippines – Arnold Van Opstal was in the middle of a 5-hour train ride from Berlin to Prague and started to get regret his decision. The wanderlust inside him was eager for another adventure during what had been a crazy period, but the isolation his personality desired made the prospect of making new friends in a new city daunting.
“On the way there, I’m already sort of regretting it, because as a person I’m a little introverted, so when it comes to social situations it would drain me if I’m with a lot of people,” he looked back at the memory inside a restaurant in The Fort on a warm Manila June summer afternoon.
“When I [got to] the hostel, I was getting cold feet. I was like, ‘Oh, why did I do this? It’s a stupid idea.’”
Van Opstal had originally travelled to Berlin with his brother who had a business meeting but then took a leap of faith that at first seemed exciting then threatened to become a mistake.
“But then,” he said, “they had a community dinner, so we had dinner together and you realize that all these people are also solo travellers and we got along.”
So well, in fact, that Van Opstal met a friend - Marcus - whom he caught up with once again when he went to Washington (where Marcus works) later on during a travel-around-the-world escapade which lasted 6 months.
So well, actually, that he met a friend in Katherine whom he later saw again in Munich for Oktoberfest, even crashing at her place.
“Just a friend?” I asked, eyebrows raised
Laughing back, “Yes, just a friend,” he assured.
“If I told you to go on a 6-month trip around the world, you come out of it different,” Van Opstal explained, remembering the journey he always desired to take, the type that others only dream of but can never materalize.
“I guess it’s the change of perspective. You go to different places, you see their point of view. It makes you a lot more open-minded, it makes you a lot more patient. Also, dealing with cultures. You understand how things work in different places, which is always very interesting.”
When the 6-foot-9 Van Opstal announced the end of his DLSU Green Archers career last July, the expectation right after was a move to the professional ranks of Philippine basketball. But with the 2015 PBA Draft just a month away and his injured achilles yet to fully recover, the Filipino-German big man put off declaring for another year, opening the window to months of different opportunities.
"Basketball isn’t my only passion," Van Opstal always says, but playing the game as a professional job is a dream unlike any other. In order to have a promising career, the mandate for him was to get better. He may have been talented and constantly on the scouting reports of La Salle’s UAAP foes, but he was far from finished product.
So he set out to train in the United States - a common decision made by many aspiring basketball players in the Philippines. Or, at least, that’s what he planned to do eventually. It was September 2015. He reached North Carolina - the place where he embarked on his mission for improvement - in April 2016. In between, he was either in a train, in an airbnb, in a hostel, in a random restaurant, or in a flight.
65 total flights, to be specific, all for the purpose of making another dream into a reality.
“Before I sell my soul to basketball, I want to make sure that I don’t look back and say, ‘I wish I did that, I wish I did this,’” Van Opstal remembered of the discussion he had with himself before he packed his bags and left the world he knew in the Philippines behind him - at least temporarily.
“I’ve always wanted to travel, that’s always been my dream, and the opportunity presented itself, and I had the time, and I had the resources (money from his endorsements), so I told myself, ‘Why not?’”
“They’re not all gone now,” he laughed about his savings, “but pretty much a lot of it has been depleted.”
Name the city or country, and Van Opstal - who holds an EU passport - has probably landed there: Japan, Iceland, Turkey, Spain, Germany, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and more.
His top 5 cities? Copenhagen, Prague (funny how that worked out), London, Reykjavik, and New York.
“It will change you as a person for sure,” said the basketball player, who now believes he’s “not so worried anymore,” and manages to “stay in the present.”
Tar Heel State
Manila's humid weather is cooled down by the AC inside Pound in The Fort on this summer afternoon as I sit across all 235 pounds of Van Opstal - the last 15 coming from intensified weight room sessions over the past few months.
His shoulders are nearly twice what they were before leaving the Philippines and his arms look much bulkier - products of hours and hours spent lifting with athletes at the University of North Carolina.
While in NC, Van Opstal stayed at a place called “Julian,” which he describes as a house with rented apartments. From the first week of April until the second week of May, the former Green Archer was snuck in by a friend even if he wasn’t a UNC student to use the university’s facilities. Four hours of basketball, every day, and an additional few hours inside the gym.
Van Opstal had his time to explore the world and cross something off his bucket list. But in the Tar Heel State, it was all business from the get-go.
“It was pretty chill,” he said about his lodging. “It’s farm life. There’s not much to do. It’s in the country. It’s not close to Charlotte at all. You’re like 3 hours away from Charlotte, but you’re very close to UNC.
“Mostly what I’d be doing is trying to gain weight and get my muscle mass up and try to learn. It was fun training with football players as well, because they make everything fun because it’s really high energy.”
Van Opstal also trained on the football field itself. His workout regimen focused on agility work: improving footwork with ladder drills, doing tire exercises, pushing heavy sleds, squats (150 kilos), deadlifts (220 kilos), and bench presses (130 kilos).
On the hardcourt, the goal was simple: “My main focus was my jump shot.
“I’d just be shooting, shooting, shooting. I just completely tore down my old jump shot.”
His new jumper, which he says looks totally different from what he used to do, is “more of a one motion” after listening to the advise of his shooting coach, David.
“I would say that my form has improved quite significantly, but I’ve never used it in a game. I have to build my confidence, which I’m planning to do, but building my confidence comes through practice.”
When Van Opstal started to gain more confidence as a Green Archer, assistant coach Jun Limpot worked with him for hours to hone his post moves as the duo tried to mimic what they learned from watching NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon.
His improved game in the paint made him a force during DLSU’s 2013 run to the UAAP title, the same season where he was named the league’s Most Improved Player. But college basketball was a time when Van Opstal enjoyed a height advantage against most opponents on a gamely basis - something that certainly won’t be the case once he plays in the PBA or for the national team.
That was highlighted during those countless of hours scrimmaging at UNC against tougher competition unlike anything he had seen in the Philippines.
“I wasn’t even close to as good as any of those guys. Like if I had to play them one on one, it wouldn’t even be fair. I even think the girls could have beaten me,” he said laughingly, but his tone gave the impression of how much his eyes opened up to the need of more practice hours and repretition
“It puts things into perspective of what high level the States is. It’s such a high level, and, yeah, it just made me realize that without a mid-range game, I’m going to be nothing. I’m going to be an ordinary big.”
An improved jumper would certainly open up the game for Van Opstal. Already a threat near the rim, the danger of leaving him open from 15 or 16 feet out makes the big man a multi-talented weapon against the opposition, and a more sought-after prospect for PBA teams once his name is on the draft list.
The thing is, the PBA may have to wait for him a little while.
After spending 6 weeks of non-stop training in North Carolina, Van Opstal met up with former San Beda big man Ola Adeogun and the duo spent time in NC, New Jersey, and New York City, driving around and going on their own adventures.
Adeogun, a 4-time champion with the Red Lions in the NCAA, was also vacationing in the States. Together with Van Opstal, the two set out for pick-up games in Jersey and saw some of the world after both their college careers came to heartbreaking ends - Adeogun watching his Red Lions’ reign fall to the Letran Knights, and Van Opstal witnessing Mac Belo’s game winner prevent La Salle from a title repeat and a possible dynasty in 2014.
While it’s unclear what Adeogun’s plans are, Van Opstal’s are a bit more definite. Fist, he plans to gain another extra 20 pounds of muscle and get up to 255 pounds overall. He still has subjects to complete at DLSU before graduating with an International Studies degree. More travelling? He’s sick of being inside flights by now, and he says he loves the Philippines anyway.
Well, “except the traffic,” he adds.
“I’m just playing the waiting game,” he said about what’s next for his career. “I’m just going to weigh the pros and cons of everything, obviously, before jumping into anything, but playing for Gilas is definitely the priority right now.”
The national team is set to revive the cadets program where basketball stars out of college - think Kiefer Ravena, Kevin Ferrer, Jio Jalalon, Belo and company - will represent the national team for the upcoming home-and-away format of international games leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Being included in that means signing a 3-year deal, which Van Opstal doesn’t mind - even if it keeps him away from the PBA.
Why not? For starters, Tab Baldwin is the head coach, and the resume of the 57-year-old American-Kiwi tactician speaks for itself.
“He’s good at instilling confidence and it’s pretty fun being around a team like that, that he produces. Obviously, there’s also other things to consider, but that’s the best opportunity for me,” said Van Opstal.
“[It’s] international competition, the experience you get out of that, and basically it’s just more fun. I’m playing a game for a living. Who can complain? You just want to make that as fun as possible.”
Van Opstal has a year of eligibility left and could suit up for La Salle again this season, but the 24-year-old is adamant in his decision not to do so - even if a teammate he won a title with 3 years ago, Jeron Teng, tried convincing him otherwise before he went on his world tour.
“I think, for me, that window has already passed, and I’d already been on to the next chapter of my life, so it didn’t really make sense for me to return to this chapter,” he said.
But that’s not just it. Van Opstal has always been more mature than his age suggests, and the prospect of playing a senior’s role to the new blood of the Green Archers was too taxing a task, especially when you take into account the extracurriculars within a college team during a season that go unnoticed by the public’s eye.
“At that point, I didn’t really want to deal with 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds anymore. I was over that. I didn’t really have the patience to deal with, like, whatever drama goes on during the season.
“Every season there’s going to be something that happens, whether it be team-related or not team related. Like girl complications. That stuff you have to deal with as a senior, it has nothing to do with basketball itself.”
But there are aspects he is going to miss. The sounds made by the DLSU Animo Squad, for instance, or the singing of the La Salle hymn together with the green-dominant crowd inside the arena after every game - in victory or in defeat.
“The drums, the La Salle-Ateneo game. Definitely, that’s the highlight, because you have real school pride,” Van Opstal said.
But for now that’s history. The next level awaits the jet-setting hoopster who you’ll find spending his Saturday nights playing with his boxer dogs Alessa and Bailey instead of partying at a club. “I was never a Happy Thursday guy,” Van Opstal said, referring to the traditional end-of-week inuman tradition at DLSU. This is also the same guy who fell asleep at Hyve the night of the Green Archers’ championship victory.
The interest from the national team is there, and Van Opstal shares the sentiment. He has seen what the world has to offer, and after selling his soul to the game as he put it, he's now ready to show what he has to offer. – Rappler.com
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