With Calvin Oftana at the wheel, NLEX are in good hands for road ahead

Calvin Oftana may have had a slow start to his PBA career but was still labeled as "arguably our best player" by NLEX Road Warriors coach Yeng Guiao. PBA Media Bureau

Slow starts have defined Calvin Oftana's career.

Great expectations were thrust onto the shoulders of the third overall pick in the 2021 PBA Draft, but the pandemic, as well as injuries, had him going up and down and up and down during his rookie year.

He still put up promising per game counts of 10.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.7 assists for the NLEX Road Warriors, mind you, but he was nonetheless far from the game-changers draft classmates Mikey Williams and Jamie Malonzo instantly turned out to be for the TNT Tropang Giga and NorthPort Batang Pier, respectively.

Still, 6-foot-5 wings who can play inside-out as well as defend and rebound remain the most prized commodities in modern basketball. And Oftana was just that.

That's exactly why in the preseason press conference, NLEX coach Yeng Guiao exclaimed that "Calvin is arguably our best player."

That's high praise from a multi-titled mentor who has a well-earned reputation of getting the best out of his players -- whether they be top picks, non-first-rounders, or even undrafted. That's also high praise for a young talent who found himself fighting through a comical circumstance right before his pro debut.

Leading up to his first game in Asia's first pay-for-play league, Oftana's hyperacidity acted up, leading to his throat being a bit swollen. This was 2021, though, when COVID-19 was still on just about everybody's minds. And so, even though he tested negative, he was nonetheless held out of Road Warriors' practices as precaution.

He was good to go for their first game, and played pretty well for a rookie. Then in the last game of the All-Filipino Conference's eliminations, he broke a 24-year-old record formerly owned by Philippine basketball legend Allan Caidic. In just his 11th game in blue and orange, he dropped a career-high 34 points built on eight triples, doing Caidic -- who fired seven treys in one game during his first year -- one better.

"Yung laban talaga sa Meralco (Bolts), yun yung lagi kong maaalalang breakout game ko," he detailed, even as they lost, 101-104. "'Di ko nga alam na may record palang ganun. Pagtapos nalang, pabiro kong nasabi, 'Uy, nasa libro na ako ng PBA!' Pero malaking bagay talaga yun para sa career ko."

The Road Warriors didn't get far in the playoffs, though, as they fell once more to the Bolts in the quarterfinals. Come next conference, the record-breaking shooting stroke was gone. Well, because he fractured his left ring finger and got sidelined.

Now in the new season, however, the former San Beda University standout is back at full-strength, and back to making an all-around impact. Through six games, he has averaged 17.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.7 steals.

The slow start was over and done with. Here came Oftana.

This was the same story in his collegiate career, when he was a serviceable backup to the likes of Art Dela Cruz and Javee Mocon in his first three seasons before busting out in his fourth. And boy, did he bust out -- all the way to the MVP, in fact.

"'Di kagandahan yung first three years ko talaga. Siyempre, habang nandun pa sila, minimal minutes lang, pasundot-sundot," he recalled. "Pero kahit ganun, sinasabayan ko talaga si Mocs na maaga sa practice. 'Di ako tumigil sa trabaho."

Setting Mocon -- himself a four-time champion and two-time Mythical selection as a Red Lion -- as the standard, Oftana challenged himself by trying to be the first one in the gym. It should've been a cakewalk, considering the latter lived right in the school dorms while the former had a one-hour travel time before reaching campus. That didn't happen, though, as Mocon's work ethic proved to be a tall task, as he often arrived as early as 4:30 a.m.

Still, Oftana tried and tried until one morning, somehow, some way, he was there, and Mocon still wasn't. Meaningless as it may seem, it was the biggest win, at that point, for him. It proved he could compete. It proved he belonged.

"Pagtapos nang maunahan ko siya, nagtuloy-tuloy na ang kumpyansa ko," he expressed. "Tapos lahat ng yun, yung hard work, yung confidence, nadala ko na sa fourth year."

That breakout year in red and white became the jump-off point for bigger and bigger things for the Dumaguete native. After his top individual honor in the NCAA, he was invited to Gilas Pilipinas. And after wearing the flag, he was drafted top three in a class that may very well go down in history as one of the best.

Slow starts are nothing new for Oftana. That has been the theme of his career -- and his life. Way before he was even playing for San Beda, the long-limbed forward was a track-and-field star-turned-volleyball spiker. It was only when he had a growth spurt in high school that he was urged to join basketball varsity. One thing led to another and he ultimately found himself trying out for the Red Lions.

"Nung unang dating ko ng Maynila, tandang-tanda ko pa na natutulala na lang ako bigla. Parang gusto ko nalang umuwi, parang gusto ko nalang umayaw," he recalled of the days when he was just a teen from Negros Oriental, who traveled a little over 900km hours to the country's capital, just for a shot at a scholarship. "Pero inisip ko na lang, kapag uuwi ako, walang mangyayari sa buhay ko. Kaya nakipagsapalaran na lang ako sa Maynila."

Calvin has nine siblings, in all. His parents separated when he was still young before his mother remarried. Unfortunately, a couple of years later, his stepfather passed away and their family was left with almost nothing. His mother, as mothers are wont to do, made a way to make ends meet for them. It wasn't great, but it was good enough.

"Yung buhay namin sa probinsya, gulong ng palad," he remarked. "'Di ko nga alam paano kami napalaki nang maayos ng nanay ko. Basta sobrang sipag, sobrang madiskarte siya. At least makakain kami nang tatlong beses sa isang araw, ok na kami."

With experience like that, the now-26-year-old knows full well that bad things happen all the time. But hardworking people, patient people, persevering people, can and will power through. In that light, it's easy to see why Oftana is flourishing under the watchful eye -- and through the tongue-lashings -- of Guiao.

"Si coach Yeng, maghihigpit siya sayo dahil may gusto siyang makita sayo. Pag may ginawa kang mali, iko-correct ka niya sa paraan niya," he expressed. "Pero sa loob ng court lang yun. Ang hindi nakikita ng mga tao, sa labas ng court, parang pangalawang tatay na talaga namin siya."

That has been, more often than not, the case for Guiao and his players. The coach is fiery and intense as they come during contests, but it's that fire and desire that squeezes the competitive juices out of his players. And most -- if not all -- of them, love it.

"Ang pinakamalalang pagalit lang niya sa akin, yung first games lang since nawala si manong [Kiefer Ravena], sabi niya sa amin ni Jericho [Cruz] at Kevin [Alas], 'Nawala lang si Kiefer, dribble na kayo nang dribble!'" he shared, with a laugh. "Pero 'di pa ako nabi-bingo nang todo. Parang gusto ko nga ring i-try... Joke lang!"

Slow starts have been Calvin Oftana's thing. And maybe, just maybe, he'll be getting his jokingly-wished-for sweet nothings right from Yeng Guiao's mouth sooner than later.

If and when it comes, though, he'll be all right. He'll be patient. He'll keep persevering. He's way past the slow start to his PBA career.

Now, it's full steam ahead.