Trash-talking as an icebreaker: How Mike Phillips is making friends while having an impact for La Salle Green Archers

Despite only arriving in Philippines in 2020, Mike Phililips' ability to converse fluently in Tagalog has been a source of surprise -- and subsequently friendships -- on and off the court. UAAP Media Bureau

Mike Phillips grew up in Florida in the U.S. and only went to the Philippines in 2020 after committing to De La Salle University.

He doesn't look like the typical Filipino -- as his 6-foot-8 height and long limbs will give away. When he jumps -- and boy, does he have springs for legs for his first , and second jump, and third jump, even -- he gets air not usually seen from the typical Filipino.

Simply put, he isn't the typical Filipino. But make no mistake, he is Filipino. Listen to him speak Tagalog to prove that. Oo nga. Seryoso. Many of his opponents already have.

"I think, karamihan, hindi. Nagugulat sila lagi," he answered, through chuckles, when asked whether or not his opponents know he can speak their tongue. "I hear them trash talk me in Tagalog. Then after I talk Tagalog back, it just becomes friendly. 'Uy, nagta-Tagalog ka pala!'"

Yes, not only does Phillips understand Tagalog full well, he can also converse in it fluently. He even pronounces words sans his American accent, for the most part. It's another aspect to how he has rapidly risen from little-known recruit to a fan favorite, not just in La Salle, but also all of the collegiate scene.

"It's always a funny experience. Once they realize I know Tagalog, they usually laugh. They say, 'Ah talaga?! I've been talking trash to you, bro! I didn't know maiintindihan mo pala,'" he shared. "Especially at the free throw line when we're all about to box each other out. It's like the start of friendship and connections there."

Just as he isn't the typical Filipino, he isn't like the Fil-foreigners that locals have been used to. With all due respect to the Fil-foreigners such as Jimmy Alapag and Gabe Norwood who have come before, they're not Tagalog-speakers. Of course, they understand most, if not all, the local language. Talking in it, though? Not necessarily their elite skill.

For the 20-year-old, though, speaking the language was a primary objective, as he saw it as his way of connecting right away with those around him.

"I learned Tagalog because I wanted to immerse in the culture. I wanted to get to know my teammates and the community I'm fighting for, so I had to talk to them in their language," he expressed. "Me, I was an outsider. I'm a foreigner and I'm coming into their team, so I wanted to show them we're on the same level. I wanted to show them I appreciate you, I appreciate your background."

With that, Phillips endeared himself to his teammates from the get-go, first with his words, and then his energy and effort. Posting per game counts of 8.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 assists, and 1.1 steals as a rookie, he turned on a non-stop motor en route to a spot on the UAAP 84 Mythical Team. He was key to the Green Archers' return to the Final Four for the first time since 2017.

He was a joy to play with because he gave his all on any and every possession. He was a joy to watch because he did his best on all plays -- whether it be trying to get the rebound over the likes of Ange Kouame of Ateneo de Manila University and Malick Diouf of the University of the Philippines or standing his ground against Far Eastern University's Emman Ojoula or Fighting Maroon Carl Tamayo.

And truth be told, opponents also can't help but smile when matched up opposite him. He talks their language. He gets their trash talk -- be it in English or Tagalog. He tells them his own sweet nothings -- be it in English or Tagalog.

Making friends isn't the ultimate goal for the La Salle workhorse, though. Far from it, actually. While he hopes to continue bringing positive energy to his team and opponents alike, he hopes to bring the championship back to Taft Ave. even more. That's why despite only heading into his sophomore season, he's determinedly and definitively taking the reins as the green and white's leader.

"As much as I can, tina-try kong gabayan yung mga bago," he shared. "I make it a point to point them in the right direction. Then remind them to keep their heads up when they make mistakes."

After all, that's what Justine Baltazar did for him from the very moment he donned the green and white up until the two played their last game as teammates last May. For Phillips, the 6-foot-7, one-time UAAP Seniors champion and three-time Mythical selection is the standard of a La Salle player and of a modern big.

"With 'Balti' (Baltazar) gone, I know I can't completely fill the hole he left, but I'll try to do as much as I can," he remarked. "He really showed us what it means to be a leader, so I'm just trying na gayahin yung mentor ko, si Justine Baltazar."

Slowly but surely, he's getting there, posting double-double per game counts of 13.8 points and 11.0 rebounds in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and 12.0 markers and 11.0 boards in the 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup, two tournaments where the Green Archers are legitimate championship contenders. And come the looming UAAP Season 85, he and his teammates also have a good shot at a title.

With his Tagalog, Mike Phillips can connect with his teammates, the first step in becoming the leader he hopes to be. More importantly, however, he's leading by example, letting his work do the talking for him for the most part.

Now that, is a language just about everybody understands.