Heart of a champ: Montalbo recovers from hospitalization to lead La Salle
MANILA, Philippines – Moments after the DLSU Green Archers defeated their rivals from FEU, 95-90, on Sunday, September 10, La Salle head coach Aldin Ayo sat at the press room of the Mall of Asia Arena and was asked about his team captain, senior Kib Montalbo.
With TV cameras facing him and reporters anticipating an answer, the second-year DLSU coach brought his two hands together, twisted his fingers in different angles, and formed a heart. Laughs ensued, notably from Aljun Melecio, who was right beside him and couldn’t hide his glee at the scene despite covering his face. Unsurprisingly, the unpredictable nature of Ayo once again did its trick.
Make no mistake, however. It might have been a simple gesture, but it was one that carried a lot of weight depicting what Montalbo’s dedication meant to his head coach. After all, it’s no random thing that Kib is considered by teammates and adversaries to be the heart and soul of this Green Archers squad.
Leading up to La Salle’s season opener - one DLSU knew it would have to play handicapped due to the absence of reigning UAAP MVP Ben Mbala, who had national team duties for Cameroon - Montalbo’s availability was also in question. The Bacolod native was hospitalized because of an undisclosed illness, threatening to make the defending champions’ already incomplete line-up even thinner against an opponent which history has shown tends to get physical. How physical? All you have to do is type “La Salle FEU brawl” on YouTube to find out.
“Hindi ako makagalaw eh, kasi every 4 hours may lagnat ako. So I [didn’t] know [what was] wrong with my body,” Montalbo said about his ordeal.
(I wasn’t able to move, because every 4 hours I had a fever. So I didn’t know what was wrong with my body.”
“Some sort of allergy, pero hindi pa nalaman kung ano (but they didn’t know what it was),” he later explained further.
It was perfectly reasonable for the recuperating Montalbo to sit out the team’s first game of Season 80. Ultimately, there are 13 contests remaining in the elimination round. And while the match against the Tamaraws was personal - it always has been between both teams for what’s felt like decades - the end goal for La Salle is to defend its crown, the UAAP men’s basketball title, in December, not to win just an individual game 3 months prior.
But being a spectator on the sidelines? That wasn’t okay with Kib. Not when the team captain has to lead by example.
“As a leader of this team, kailangan nila ako kahit hindi ako makalaro (they need me even if I’m unable to suit up),” he said.
Montalbo was released from the hospital three days before the game on Sunday. And despite being dehydrated and given shots of dextrose in the days prior, immediately started to practice with the hope of seeing action against the Tamaraws. He felt weak and out of game shape, but regardless of the situation, his mindset was simple: there was no way he was going to be held back.
“Kasi sabi ng doctor, medyo questionable ako for today (Sunday), pero sabi ko, lalaro talaga ako kahit ano mang yari,” he said.
(The doctor said I was questionable for today, but I said that I was going to play no matter what.)
Before the game, Montalbo was informed by the coaching staff that he would be substituted out of the contest every two to 3 minutes. “How am I going to get my rhythm?” he asked himself, anxious. It turned out his significance to the game played too much of a vital role for minutes restriction to take precedent. From an outsider’s perspective, it may look like La Salle cruised to an easy win, but the outcome of the game could have unfolded differently had Montalbo not taken the court.
Melecio’s 29 points - a career-high and coming-out party for his role as the Archers’ new go-to-guy - was the driving force of La Salle’s victory, but no other player on the team’s points came at a more critical juncture than Montalbo’s.
It started at the 5:09 mark of the third period. On the prior possession, FEU gunner Wendell Comboy just hit a crazy-tough baseline jumper which trimmed the La Salle lead to 7, 51-44, the closest FEU had gotten since the first period. As expected, the often-frenetic Tamaraws crowd amped up the volume from their side of the stands, while the anxiety of “is this seriously happening again?” was evident on the faces of La Salle fans. The usual script between both teams - DLSU builds a big lead, only for FEU to rally back - was starting to take place for another time.
Montalbo would have none of it.
Coming off a screen set by Abu Tratter, Montalbo tricked Tamaraws big man Prince Orizu into dropping back in the paint, giving the La Salle sniper enough space to step back and fire from deep. Despite Ron Dennison’s contest, Montalbo was able to knock in the deep-ball and turn the momentum of the contest back to his team’s side.
A minute later, Montalbo used the same screen and same jab step at the same spot to trick Orizu again and get open for another step-back triple. This time it was Ken Tuffin who was too late to block the shot, and the ball hit nothing but the bottom of the net. 61-44, La Salle.
FEU answered with 3 points of their own, but Montalbo erased that quickly with a third 3-ball after Allen Trinidad made the costly mistake of leaving him open to let a deep ball fly from the left wing. Swish. And just like that, FEU’s rally was cut short.
(Think about this, man, he was dehydrated. He was coming from dextrose. He wasn’t 100%)
“Siguro nakatulong yung mindset na wala naman expectation sakanya, kasi galing sa hospital eh. Hindi mo matatawaran yung ugali nung bata na pag kailangan siya nang team, nanduon.”
(I guess it helped that there were no expectations out of him, because he had just come from the hospital. You can’t take his dedication for granted because when the team needs him, he’s there.)
FEU went on a last hurrah late in the fourth period, managing to cut the lead to 5, 90-85, with 24 seconds to go. La Salle was unable to hit the dagger on offense with Andrei Caracut missing his jumper. Orizu cleaned up the glass with a rebound, saw a teammate streaking down the court on a fasbreak opportunity, and threw the ball. But like a cornerback, the guy who just got out of the hospital managed to steal the ball mid-air on a great display of timing and athleticism, squashing any hopes the Tamaraws had of stealing the season opener.
The MOA Arena side covered in La Salle green stood to their feet, applauding the effort of the team captain who had clearly led by example. “Hard work and dedication lang sa (in) practice and I really want to play,” Montalbo said after his effort. Sometimes, it’s just that simple: mind over matter.
La Salle remains the favorite to repeat as UAAP champions, but it’s no secret the team faces challenges and questions on the road to a successful defense - arguably more than it did last year. Winning a title in the UAAP is hard enough; defending one is even more difficult, especially with the loss of a once-in-a-generation type of player in Jeron Teng, and veterans such as Thomas Torres, Jason Perkins, and Julian Sargent.
Mbala will return (maybe by this weekend), and with him the promise of an even better player who has the potential of becoming the first ever import with a legitimate long-distance threat. But Ayo and DLSU are aware they need other players to step up and help the Cameroonian big man. La Salle’s 3-headed monster at the perimeter of Melecio-Caracut-Montalbo (a combined 57 points against FEU) looks like the perfect complementary piece to Mbala. Together, the 4 have all the tools to lead another juggernaut team.
But Ayo also needs more than guys who can put the ball in the hoop. He needs a player or two to embody his philosophy of Mayhem - someone who isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body in order to dive for a loose ball; someone who can lead his teammates with actions; someone who’s willing to fight a main-event bout just 3 days after being released from the hospital.
With Kib Montalbo, that’s exactly what he has. – Rappler.com