From his battle with injury, Paul Lee rises to Finals MVP

MANILA, Philippines – Paul Lee wore street clothes during games for most of this season, helplessly watching from the sidelines with a nagging left knee injury. And when he did finally don a jersey and take the court, it was clear he was far from the “Lethal Weapon” or the “Angas ng Tondo” player he used to be.

Then there was the perpetual frustration when it came to championships, as Lee's Rain or Shine team had either fallen short, or Lee was unable to participate and help when his team did win a title. 

By the time he appeared in the 2016 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals, the 27-year-old was raring and more than ready for the moment he’d long been waiting for. (READ: Rain or Shine ends title drought with Game 6 win over Alaska)

Sobrang tamis ng championship na ito, unang-una natapos ko yung series (This championship is very sweet, first of all I finished the series),” he exclaimed, expressing gratitude – and at the same time relief – that his health finally held on for the entire 6-game series. 

The last time Rain or Shine had won a title - 4 years ago in the 2012 Governors' Cup - Lee re-injured his shoulder early in the conference and sat out the rest of the way as his teammates marched on to the franchise’s first championship. 

Natapos ko, nag-champion kami, nakuha ko yung Finals MVP, wala nang mas sasarap pa. Ito na talaga yung pinakahihiling ko,” he repeatedly said after the game. “Sobrang tuwa na natapos ko. Lagi na lang kasi ako nai-injury pag playoffs na. Wala nang mas tatamis pa dito.

(I finished it, we’re champions, I got Finals MVP, nothing could be better. This is what I’ve been hoping for. I’m very happy I finished it. I keep getting injured in the playoffs. Nothing is sweeter than this.) 

This title and his classic lethal performance did not come easy. Before the colorful balloons dropped from the Big Dome’s ceiling, and before all of the adulation, the 6-foot-1 combo guard first had to weather another recurring injury.

Lee first injured his left knee in the Philippine Cup, reportedly partially tearing his lateral meniscus. He aggravated it in that conference’s semifinals, then hurt it once more in a collision with Tropang TNT's Ryan Reyes in the Commissioner’s Cup in what has been a frustrating season for the young star.

Long road back 

Sobra yung struggle ko kasi ‘di ko alam kung ano mangyayari sa akin. Kasi ang hirap tuhod yung na-injure sa akin,” shared Lee, who had to learn to pace himself and be patient with rehabilitation and strengthening. “Babalik ako, tapos hindi pa pala magaling. Madidisgrasya ulit. Nagtiyaga lang ako.” 

(I struggled because I did not know what would happen to me. It was hard that it was my knee that got injured. I’d come back and it wasn’t completely healed yet. I’d injure it again. I just pressed on.) 

Coming back was a slow, tentative process for Lee. In his first 4 games back the former Rookie of the Year scored around two to 3 points playing limited minutes. He had a mini surge of 12- and 6-point games to end the eliminations but he was back to 3-point outputs in the quarterfinals. 

Nung una hindi talaga madali. Yung pressure sa akin grabe lalo na nung bumalik ako. Siyempre expectations sa akin ni coach, ng management, ng buong Rain or Shine, mataas,” Lee bared. “Every time na papasok ako sa court alam nila magde-deliver ako, pero ilang games ako 3 points. Nagtiis lang talaga ako.”

(At first it really wasn’t easy. The pressure was huge for me when I came back. The expectations of coach, management, the entire Rain or Shine, were high. Every time I entered the court they know I would deliver, but a number of games I had just 3 points or so. I gritted my teeth.) 

He admitted, too, that he was not immune from criticism and comments on social media – all of which were part of the inner battles he had to win.

Nagkaduda rin ako sa sarili ko. Minsan pag matutulog na ako parang [nag-iisip ako] ‘anong nangyari sayo?’ Siyempre may nababasa ka, yung sinasabi sayo, ‘ano nangyari sayo wala na yung dating laro mo.’ 

Masakit din sa akin na may ganun. Pero wala namang tutulong sayo kung ‘di sarili mo lang, mga teammates mo, si coach Yeng (Guiao), kaya malaking pasasalamat ko sa kanila.” 

(I doubted myself. Sometimes when I was about to sleep I wonder what’s happening to me. Then I read about what others say about me, ‘what’s happening to you, you no longer play like before.’ It hurt to read those. But nobody can help you except yourself, your teammates, coach Yeng, so I’m very grateful to them.)

FINALS MVP. Paul Lee howls after accepting his Finals MVP award. File Photo by Josh Albelda/ Rappler

FINALS MVP. Paul Lee howls after accepting his Finals MVP award.

File Photo by Josh Albelda/ Rappler

For all the skepticism Lee had to stomach from people around him and even from inside his own mind, he found solace in knowing coach Yeng Guiao had full faith in him no matter what. 

“So many doubted Paul then, if he’d ever come back, if he’d ever play the same again,” Guiao said in Filipino. “But me, I never had doubts. He is an exceptional talent, he is really clutch.” 

Lee went through the motions of those first few games. As he bided his time and healed, Lee kept busy and took on the task of mentoring rookie Maverick Ahanmisi. He said his injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed Ahanmisi and Jericho Cruz to blossom. 

“He’s been mentoring me all season,” Ahanmisi shared. “If anybody says I’m starting to play well, it’s because of that man right there. You could just see his passion coming from an injury. In practice every day you see him working hard and it really drives me also as a rookie coming in.”

In the semifinals against San Miguel Beer, Lee’s play began picking up.

He put up 8 points in the first game, 6 in the second, and in the third he tallied his then conference-high 15 points. He went 3-of-4 from distance, 5-of-6 total from the field, and was two-for-two from the line. He never had a single-digit output since. (READ: Lee is lethal as Rain or Shine ousts San Miguel) 

Perhaps the most decisive indicator that the real Paul Lee was back came in Game 2 of the finals, when he buried the game-winning jumper in the dying seconds to escape and take a 2-0 lead over Alaska. It was the cherry on top of an all-around performance of 17 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and two steals. 

When the game’s on the line,” Guiao said, “I have no doubt that with the ball in Paul’s hand, he will not necessarily automatically win the game for you, but he will make the right decisions and he will give you a chance of winning it. 

This conference Lee averaged 15.7 points on 41% shooting from downtown, plus 2.2 assists, and 2.3 rebounds on his way to his first ever Finals MVP plum, and what he considers to be the “sweetest thing to happen to me in the PBA.” 

Ibang klase yung nangyari sa akin (It’s amazing what happened to me). Perfect comeback,” he said.  “Wala na akong hihilingin pa (I can’t ask for anything more).” 

This title and award serve as his fitting reward after years of waiting and wondering. It is the rain to end a 4-year title drought and 4 bridesmaid finishes since. 

Lee had been waiting for this championship since his amateur days. He was part of the UE Red Warriors team that went 14-0 in UAAP Season 70, only to be swept by the DLSU Green Archers in the finals. Lee also came in second in the now-defunct Philippine Basketball League, losing to Calvin Abueva’s team.

But Lee’s moment came at just the right time. Standing at Araneta’s centercourt – his teammates tapping his shoulder, rubbing his head, hugging him, applauding him – he raised his hands into the air and howled.

Ito yung time namin,” he said as the celebrations quieted down and the arena’s lights turned dim. “Kailangan mo lang talaga maghintay. Hindi lahat mapapanalo mo.” (This is our time. You just need to wait. You can’t win it all.) –