MANILA, Philippines - That Sunday was supposed to be a big day.
That Sunday, September 10, was supposed to be the day Rob Ricafort finally realized the dream of suiting up for collegiate basketball.
But a day before the season tipped off, Ricafort was deemed ineligible by the UAAP Board of Trustees (BOT) due to the age requirement. Per league rules, the student-athlete should not turn 25 within the whole season, first and second semester sports included.
‘I should be playing,’ Ricafort, who will turn 25 in January after the basketball tournament, thought to himself upon waking up. At that moment he could only post his State U jerseys on social media, and deliver well wishes to his brothers on what was supposed to be a milestone day - and win - in his life.
And what a win it was.
Sighs of relief and animated celebration blew out over the sea of Maroon when Paul Desiderio buried that decisive triple in the University of the Philippines’ opening victory. Atin ‘to, papasok ‘to was the captain’s promise - a promise that made the narrative all the more interesting to watch.
Perhaps unknown to some, though, was that the members of the UP basketball squad placed tapes on the shoulder part of their jerseys, with their teammate’s number 2 inscribed.
“I just reversed my thoughts like I gotta support my team. Even them, they were there for me,” Ricafort recalled thinking that day.“In the game, I didn’t tell them to [put tape on jerseys]. That in itself makes me feel like I’m part of the team. We’re family, you know?”
With the thoughts of the entire UP community praying for the win, Desiderio and the rest of the Fighting Maroons closed out the game in what could only be described as fairytale fashion.
When the #dontrobRob and #LetROBplay hashtags made it to the Twitter trends following the ineligibility news, most supported, but some were left in question.
The story was out there: this season will be the cager’s first and last year in the league. But what was the big deal?
Not many would understand, but the sport was more than just a sport. For Ricafort, this opportunity is a symbol of chance - of turning in a new chapter in his life.
In a conversation with Rappler, the 24-year-old shared stories of struggles and survival before finding a home in the UP system.
“Before UP, I took an LOA [Leave of Absence] because I had to go to drug rehabilitation,” he revealed. “I got dependent kasi on stuff. Noong time na ‘yun, sobrang gulo ng buhay ko. I felt like parang wala nang direction.” (I got dependent on stuff. At that time, my life was a mess. I felt like it had no direction.)
The first one he stayed in for 10 months was mostly keen on a practical, military-based approach of a program. The kind that would reprimand you for even attempting to look out the window. “Sobrang hirap talaga (it was really hard), mentally I was broken down,” was all he could muster about the experience.
When he got back, Ricafort had a hard time picking up from where he left off. Interaction was difficult and trust became deeper of the term that it already was.
“I didn’t know where to start to pick up my life. ‘Yung comfort zone ko (my comfort zone) before going to rehab is my friends that used to [do drugs with me]. In my head, I felt like I needed to reach out to them. Of course that’s not gonna lead to anything good.”
It led him back to another program, but this time, Ricafort went of his own will.
After reaching out to his family about the situation, he found himself in a home in Pampanga, where he stay put for 6 months. The program may be shorter but it drove him to turn over a new leaf.
“What it is is that it’s making you realize that you are an addict or an alcoholic,” he said of the program. “‘Yun ‘yung first step ng pag-change eh, accepting. At first kasi ‘di ko matanggap eh.” (That’s the first step of change, acceptance. At first I couldn’t accept it.)
“I was educated about what I was going through. And I have a support group outside of my family na nakakaintindi doon sa situation ko (that understands my situation). I felt at home there. It’s a very humbling experience.”
It always finds a way back
In 2015, Ricafort reconnected with his friend back in his De La Salle University days, Gab Banal, who’s also an athlete himself.
He got back on track and became part of a church support group (with Banal’s help) which has welcomed him from the get go. But as a kid who fell in love with the sport at the tender age of 5, days without basketball left him feeling empty as they quickly passed by.
That’s when Ricafort decided to pack up his bags, lace up his kicks, and take the next step in his basketball career.
He would join his kuya Jimmy [Alapag, his brother-in-law] in workouts, and would tag along with him to watch trainings in Meralco. He’d attend practice for a few months at Arellano University - then powered by backcourt duo Jio Jalalon and Kent Salado - yet still couldn’t sneak himself into the system.
'Maybe this is my chance'
But on one fateful day, while playing in a tune-up in the Pilipinas Commercial Basketball League (PCBL), Ricafort would cross paths with someone who would eventually take him under his wing.
“Maybe this is my chance to try to play college basketball again,” Ricafort thought to himself when he met head coach Bo Perasol, who then served as a consultant in the PCBL. “I was like ‘Coach, I heard na baka maging head coach daw kayo ng UP (you may be the new head coach of UP), is there a chance that maybe I could try out and play for you?’”
Perasol then asked about his age and university experiences from when Ricafort started playing for La Salle’s Team B to his serving residency at UST in 2013 before going LOA.
“When I was able to talk to him, parang that was a God given moment na nagkatagpo kami (it was like a God given moment that we crossed paths),” Perasol said of their first meeting.
“Lahat ng pinuntahan, hindi siya nabigyan ng chance (He wasn’t given a chance in the places he went to),” he added. “All he needed was a chance. Sabi ko lang, ‘you have to do whatever is required of you sa pag-aaral, and ‘yung requirement ko sa iyo sa court.’”
(I just told him, ‘you have to do whatever is required of you in school as well as my requirement from you on the court.)
When he got into UP after an arduous process, Ricafort did all the necessary adjustments in his residency year: he passed all his classes, made new friends, and consistently worked on his game on the hard court.
And with each training day and tournament that passed, the more Ricafort felt at home and at peace with the little brotherhood he has established with the Fighting Maroons.
“What’s amazing is [that] they know my story,” Ricafort shared. “I was having personal struggles in my head, but in the beginning they were already welcoming, accepting. Nakita ko sila how they treated each other eh, parang magkakapatid talaga eh (I saw how they treated each other, like a real family).”
“It’s painful, but it’s growth”
Ricafort was on his way home from training when he got a text from his mentor asking if she could call him. At that moment, he knew. He knew way before pressing the green button that it would be the dreaded news.
“Honestly, I was very heartbroken. I felt like all the times that I worked hard, all the sacrifices I had to make, [they went] down the drain. I started questioning: do I really deserve to play?”
“Nag-flashback lahat ng ginawa ko (I had a flashback of everything I did). Maybe this is what I get. Taking what I love to do away.”
Perasol likewise had a recollection of his own upon learning the reports of the ineligibility.
“Ang daming paghihirap (there were so many hardships) inside and outside the court,” Perasol said of his ward’s journey to the Diliman campus.
“I was so excited for him because I really wanted to give him a chance to play. Not for anything else but just as an individual that could someday get back to this and say that he was given the chance.”
Through it all though, Ricafort was thankful for all the people who didn’t leave his side: his family (including his sister LJ and kuya Jimmy), his girlfriend, teammates, and coaches.
This is growth right here, his loved ones would tell him. It’s painful, but it’s growth. And with the entire Maroon community rallying behind him, using the aforementioned hashtags as well as mentioning support for him on the social media platform, everything turned out to be a little bit better.
‘Keep trying, don’t lose hope’
Ricafort expressed his gratitude for all the love and support he has received despite the obstacles.
“Let’s not lose hope, I honestly believe that God is with me. Hopefully to soften the hearts of the [UAAP] board, to maybe reconsider the decision.”
“It’s one and done, it’s my first and last year. Maybe they could understand that it’s not about technicalities anymore.”
The years worth of searching and finding a place he can call ‘home’ led Ricafort to this very moment of fighting for the opportunity to play - not just for himself, but for the institution that has embraced him.
He may not have gotten that Sunday. But just like how Ricafort rose above the hurdles, he hopes to get to that ‘one day’ at the exact, perfect time.－Rappler.com