Carl Tamayo fast proving to be Philippine basketball's next big thing

A rare bright spark in Gilas Pilipinas' recent ill-fated 2022 FIBA Asia Cup campaign, Carl Tamayo is emerging as potentially the next big thing in Philippine basketball. FIBA

Carl Tamayo has wasted no time putting the international experience he earned over the last month for the University of the Philippines.

Just days after coming home from his latest tour of duty for Gilas Pilipinas, the 6-foot-8 modern big put on the Fighting Maroons' preseason black in the 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup. The next five days after that, he played three more games in two tournaments.

There was no putting this unicorn -- or more pointedly, 'State U-nicorn' -- back in the stable.

"Habang bata ako, gusto kong maglaro lagi. Nung pandemic, walang laro, naghahanap ang lahat ng laro. Ngayong meron na lagi, iisipin mo pa ba yung pagod?" he quipped. "Masaya ako pag naglalaro ng basketball. Happiness ko ang basketball e."

All in all, Tamayo played nine games -- five for the national team and four for State U -- in four different tourneys from June 30 to July 27. And throughout, there was, indeed, no tell-tale sign of fatigue.

What was there, as what has always been there, was joy -- pure joy in putting his tantalizing talents on full display. There was the mobility and activity that, traditionally, aren't seen in bigs. There was the shooting range usually reserved for guards and wings. There was the fire and desire that never ever goes away. And there was the determination that the best is yet to come for him.

"Nae-excite ako tuwing may game. Yung learnings kasi, 'di natitigil, so instead na isipin ko yung pagod, yung opportunity to learn ang naiisip ko," he shared. "Bata pa naman ako para isipin yung pagod. Kaya gusto kong laro lang nang laro kasi maganda man o pangit yung laro, may matututunan."

In the preseason tournament, he has posted an 18.5 point, 12.5-rebound double-double on top of two assists, proving to be no match for his contemporaries in the collegiate scene. For Gilas, he had 12.5-point, 7.0-rebound averages in the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers third window and 12-marker, 3.3-board norms in the 2022 FIBA Asia Cup. Numbers that are categorical statements of his sizable contributions anywhere and everywhere he goes.

And as he showcases his skills -- and spirit to be better and better -- he has become a must-watch in each and every game he plays. A can't-miss center of attention from opponents to spectators. He has become an attraction himself.

Funny that not too long ago, he was the one in the crowd. Seven years back, a ticket to watch June Mar Fajardo was the clincher for Tamayo to travel from Cebu to Manila and try out for Goldwin Monteverde -- his recruiter and, now, longtime mentor.

"Nung una akong kinausap nina coach Gold, 'di dapat talaga ako sasama, pero sabi kasi nila, papanoorin daw nila ako ng PBA," he recalled. "E sobrang gusto kong manood ng PBA, gusto kong mapanood si June Mar Fajardo, kaya sumama na ako."

For Tamayo, Fajardo is the gold standard of bigs, a now-eight-time champion and six-time MVP, all while being such a nice guy whom fans of opposing teams can't even think of hating. Even more, not only are both of them Cebuanos, they also come from humble beginnings, be it basketball, or life itself.

"Nagsimula rin siyang hindi pa ganun karunong maglaro so sa kanya ko talaga ginagaya mga galaw ko," expounded Tamayo, whose first sport was actually billiards and was, in fact, a latecomer to basketball. "Siya ang iniidolo ko talaga."

Fast forward to a Rookie of the Year campaign for Adamson High School, a transfer and back-to-back championships in Nazareth School of National University, and a commitment to UP for UAAP Seniors. There, he was yet again hailed as top first-year player, all while helping the Fighting Maroons win their first championship since 1986.

Turns out, the likeness to Benjie Paras weren't necessarily farfetched. Paras, together with Eric Altamirano and Ronnie Magsanoc, decided to move from San Beda High School to State U for college before winning the school's first title. Tamayo, alongside fellow Bullpups Gerry Abadiano and Terrence Fortea, transferred from National U to State U and then connived with Malick Diouf, Zavier Lucero, Ricci Rivero, and JD Cagulangan to end the school's 36-year title drought.

Paras and Tamayo proved to be generational talents who'll forever be remembered as title-deliverers and drought-enders in Diliman. Just like before, though, the latter is shying away from comparisons and contrasts with the former.

"I respect tito Benjie. I appreciate yung comparisons sa akin sa kanya. For me, I have my own way of playing and he has his own way," he remarked, paying his respects to the first and only rookie MVP in PBA history. "So I'm just gonna be me. Yun lang lagi. I'm just gonna do whatever to help the team. Ganun naman ako e. It's always the team first for me."

One more thing he can do to continue paving a path separate from 'The Tower of Power,' though? Bringing back-to-back championships home to UP. Or more. The Fighting Maroons have just two trophies to show in the 84-year history of the men's basketball tournament, but are the favorites to add more to their case as they remain mostly-intact, while other playoff teams Ateneo de Manila University lost SJ Belangel, De La Salle University lost Justine Baltazar, and Far Eastern University lost RJ Abarrientos, among others.

That is, however, if Tamayo isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Belangel and Abarrientos -- his teammates in the most recent iteration of Gilas -- are all bound for overseas debuts. Add Thirdy Ravena, Ray Parks Jr., William Navarro, and Rhenz Abando, and 54.5% of that national team will be playing internationally. What about him?

"Actually, as of now, I'm just staying in the present. I'm happy with the team, my teammates, my coaches, our management," he explained. "Sa ngayon, wala pa sa isip ko yung international. 'Di natin alam, baka dumating. Basta ngayon, I'm just gonna stay in the present, trying to help UP every game."

Without a doubt, the 21-year-old is a tantalizing talent well worthy of looks -- and let's be real, official offers -- from overseas. Will he go through with it, though? And when will he, if he does? Perhaps not even he himself knows the answers to those questions. Not yet. For now, he's fully-focused on what's in front of him: two preseason tournaments as well as the looming UAAP Season 85.

For now, he can continue being an attraction himself. For now, he can continue being what June Mar Fajardo was for him once upon a time. For now, he can be the Carl Tamayo who inspires the next generation of UP Fighting Maroons, of Gilas Pilipinas, of Filipino basketball players.