MANILA, Philippines – Going under the knife to finally repair a longtime shoulder injury; logging in career-low averages of 1.29 points, 1.57 rebounds in 6.93 minutes per game, per pba-online.net; and parting with the only team he has played for in his 15 years of professional basketball.
Needless to say, 2013 was a tumultuous year for veteran center Danny Ildefonso as far as his PBA career is concerned.
His patience at weathering those storms is finally beginning to pay off, however.
It started quite fittingly on New Year’s Day when the unrestricted free agent inked a short-term one-conference contract with the Manny V. Pangilinan's team the Meralco Bolts.
Ildefonso's 15-year relationship with the San Miguel Corp. team Petron Blaze Boosters (formerly San Miguel Beermen) ended before the beginning of the PBA's 39th season when Petron did not resign him. In essence, Ildefonso going to Meralco signaled the end of an era.
He was given a new lease on life by his former team’s competition. And he was eager to repay their faith in him.
Four days later, he played a crucial role in turning the fate of the Bolts for the better as they arrested a four-game slide with a character win over the Air21 Express.
"Demolition Danny" played for 29 minutes and finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. It was reminiscent to the demolition jobs he did in his heyday when the 1998 first overall pick and Rookie of the Year helped the San Miguel Beermen dominate the league and win 6 championships spanning 1999 to 2005.
For the 8-time champion, his first game back felt like 1998 all over again.
“Parang 1998 lang 'to eh. Rookie lang yung feeling eh,” he said laughing. (This is just like 1998. It feels like I’m a rookie again.)
His comeback performance was so unexpected that he cried after the game.
“Kasi sinurprise ako ni God eh. ‘Di ko in-expect na ganoon lalaruin ko,” was his explanation for the tears. “Pero pinag-pray ko sa Kanya yung mga bagay na di ko kaya i-control Siya na bahala. Talagang God is good sa akin. ‘Di ko expected talaga ganoon lalaruin ko tsaka ganoon yung playing time ko. Kaya naiyak na ako sa tuwa.”
(God surprised me. I didn’t expect to play that way. I prayed to Him to take care of the things I cannot control. God is truly good to me. I really didn’t expect to play that way and to have that much playing time. That’s why I cried of happiness.)
Knowing he had only been to 4 practices with the Bolts prior to that game, the 37-year-old native of Urdaneta, Pangasinan said he didn’t think he would be given long minutes on the court.
“Nagulat ako actually, akala ko kaunti lang eh. Kasi sa practice ko di ko masyado alam yung mga plays kaya nanghuhula na lang ako,” he said, adding that it was like the minutes he had in the 2000s. (I was surprised. I thought I wouldn’t play long. In practice I still don’t know the plays and I’m still guessing.)
Photo by Jane Bracher/Rappler
A veteran’s role
In signing Ildefonso, Meralco knew they were getting more than just his size and skill as a player. They knew Danny I. could be the paperweight that kept all of the young guys in check by imparting his wisdom and experience.
Carrying over what he has been doing with Petron, particularly with the vastly improved June Mar Fajardo, Ildefonso says his role for Meralco is that of a ‘kuya’ or big brother.
“Sa akin basta ang role ko is to guide the younger big men, especially si Rabeh (Al-Hussaini),” explained the former National University standout. “As a kuya yun ang ginagawa ko, syempre unti-unti. And kung ano yung experience ko, i-share sa kanila.”
(My role is to guide the younger big men, especially Rabeh. As a big brother, that’s what I’m doing little by little. And sharing my experience with them.)
That role quickly came into play against Air21 and spelled the difference between Meralco losing and winning.
Despite the deadly sniping of Air21’s KG Canaleta that sent the game into overtime, it appeared that Ildefonso’s wealth of experience was exactly what Meralco has been missing so far in the PLDT myDSL Philippine Cup.
A two-time PBA MVP and an 8-time PBA All-Star, Danny I. stepped up as a leader each time he checked in the game. He kept his new team together especially in overtime where he was seen encouraging his teammates to relax and get one stop.
Turning back time and a classic match-up
Photo by KC Cruz/PBA Images
After missing a year of play due to his injury and with age catching up, Ildefonso had to rely on 4 days of conditioning and preparation to get through his first game.
He admits that his legs need to regain some of their old strength if they are to expected to play through similar minutes and games in the coming weeks, though.
“Di na sanay eh,” Ildefonso told reporters as he stood with ice packs soothing his feet. “Medyo kulang pa sa legs.” (I’m not used to it anymore. My legs need more work.)
What’s even more impressive about Ildefonso’s first outing is the fact that he went head-to-head against fellow veteran Asi Taulava in a classic match-up that seemed to complete Ildefonso’s attempt at turning back time.
Taulava, who also held his own in spite of playing 40 heavy minutes, gave credit to Ildefonso and commended his smarts and maturity.
“We pretty much know each other. He's definitely smarter, mature,” Taulava said. “And he was making big shots and he's a great passer. He's just very skillful, you can't take him for granted.”
He also reveled in matching up against a guy who is closer to his age group and had been in the PBA as long.
“It was fun. We've been around for so long. Just the both of us to still be in the league competing with these young guys, it's a great feeling,” Taulava said grinning at the thought.
“Danny I. came out tonight and he helped Meralco in more ways than one. Just playing smart, that's what they were missing. Danny I. filled that void for them.”
Looking ahead, Taulava said only "time will tell" how much help Ildefonso can be to Meralco. But he stressed he has no doubt about Ildefonso’s capability to adjust.
“It's a game of adjustments. Danny I. is smart enough, he's a veteran, and he can adjust to whatever is going on.”
Playing to inspire
In the twilight of his career, Ildefonso has definitely seen it all.
Asked if his return signals a resurgence in his career, he simply smiled and said he doesn’t see it that way.
If anything, he just wants to continue playing for the pure enjoyment of it as well as to inspire his sons who are already following in his footsteps, he says.
“Sana magtuloy tuloy kasi gusto ko pa rin maglaro, para mag-enjoy na rin,” he shared.
“Hindi lang ako may gusto eh, mga anak ko actually gusto ako maglaro. Gusto ko maging role model sa mga anak ko kasi basketball player na rin sila sa Ateneo. Yun gusto ko mangyari, para pag dumating sila sa sitwasyon na ganito, maalala nila ginagawa ko.”
(I hope this continues for me, so I can enjoy, too. My sons want to see me play as well. I want to be a role model for them because they’re basketball players also in Ateneo. I want to carry on so when they arrive in this same situation, they’ll remember what I did.)
Danny Ildefonso has already left his mark in the PBA. He has nothing left to prove anymore. He may or may not be as explosive as the "Demolition Danny" of old, but as he returns wearing a different jersey, we get one more chance to see Danny I. raise the roof. – Rappler.com