How Johnny A and SJ paved path to Korea for RJ Abarrientos

RJ Abarrientos chose to forego his two years of supposed eligibility remaining for the FEU Tamaraws to sign for Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus in the Korean Basketball League. UAAP Media Bureau

Gilas Pilipinas suffered back-to-back losses to Korea, in Korea. It was only friendlies, but the national team was hoping for a much-needed win after losing out on gold in the recent Southeast Asian Games.

The Filipinos came home licking their wounds after they were given a rude welcome -- on-court, that is -- by their longtime regional rivals.

Well, except one player.

For RJ Abarrientos, yes, Gilas lost, but the visit to Korea was a big win. There, he officially put pen to paper for his stint as Asian quota import in the Korean Basketball League. There, he formally became part of the Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus.

"Nag-decide akong maglaro na sa Korea kasi pakiramdam ko, pwede na akong maglaro ng pro," he said over the phone days after his return to Manila. "Marami na rin naman akong international experience from Gilas. Feeling ko, kaya ko nang makipagsabayan, makipag-compete sa Korea."

By turning pro to play as a reinforcement in Ulsan, Abarrientos forgoes his two years of supposed eligibility remaining for the FEU Tamaraws. He would've loved to stay, he and his alma mater had long been patient and persevering for his time in green and gold in the seniors, after all.

"Pinag-isipan ko nang mabuti, halos a month din. Hindi naging madali kasi andami kong kailangang i-let go," he shared. "Unang-una, FEU, yungschool at team ko since high school. Tas yung community saka management. Supportive silang lahat kahit anong mangyari kaya isa rin sila sa nagpalakas ng loob ko."

Of course, it was a difficult decision. He had to leave his home for the last five years. He had to move on from FEU even after a UAAP Season 82 campaign that had them enter the Final Four for the 8th straight season, but then get eliminated before the finals for the fifth time in a row.

Still, Korea was a call that had to be answered. It was a dream come true, not just for RJ personally, but for the Abarrientos family.

"Ako, gusto ko na rin talagang makatulong na sa family ko. Yun talaga ang unang pumasok sa isip ko. Let's just see pag ni-grab ko 'tongopportunity, tingnan natin magiging result," he remarked. "Tapos si tito, sobrang happy rin for me kasi hindi niya nagawa yung ganito dati."

The tito he's referring to is Johnny Abarrientos, the 5-foot-7 one-time court general who's part of the PBA's 40 Greatest Players, while also claiming 12 championships and an MVP award. When he was still slicing and dicing his way into the paint as the engine and fuel for the dynastic Alaska Milkmen in the '90s, he caught the attention of NBA scouts. It was even reported that he had a standing offer to be part of the Charlotte Hornets' preseason training camp.

Ultimately, 'The Flying A' didn't push through with trying out with an NBA team. But the fact remained, two decades and change before Thirdy Ravena blazed the trail for Filipino imports, Abarrientos could've been the first.

While the now-assistant coach for the Magnolia Hotshots has no regrets, especially as he still had one of the most legendary careers in his native land, he's nonetheless looking forward to seeing his nephew showcase his skills in a different country.

"Actually, before ako lumapit sa FEU coaches and management, masinsinan naging usapan namin. Tito talks kaming dalawa," recalled the nephew of his much-welcome heart-to-heart with his uncle. "Ang pinakatumatak sa akin, sabi niya, kung gusto mo maglaro sa FEU, go, kasi gusto mo. Pero kung gusto mo maglaro sa pro league sa Korea, tandaan mo, wala ka nang babalikang FEU. Kailangan mong mag-risk."

Those are much-needed words of wisdom for a young man who'll have to mature earlier than expected. RJ will be away from home, family, and friends for a long time for the first time in his life. In that light, it must feel good then that his legendary uncle has full faith he can do it. He's already been doing it for quite a while now, after all.

"Nakikita na niya yung result e, na eto na pala si RJ, eto na pamangkin ko. Dati, hindi siya naniniwala sa aking gusto kong magseryoso sa basketball e," detailed the next-generation Abarrientos. "So hinayaan lang niya ako. Pero yung ginawang ganun ni tito, nakatulong kasi lumakas loob ko. Dati pa man, nakapag-decide ako nang sarili ko lang."

And so, RJ is taking his talents to Korea. Putting his ball-handling and shot-making on full display. His tantalizing talents made it happen -- many of which were thanks to his Abarrientos genes -- but his good friend also had a hand in opening the door.

In early June, SJ Belangel inked his own contract as KBL reinforcement for the Daegu KOGAS Pegasus. Who knew he was opening the floodgates as just two weeks later, there was Abarrientos, and then there was College of St. Benilde standout Justin Gutang following suit?

"Actually, si SJ, walang idea, kahit nung magkasama kami sa Gilas. Yun ang totoong nangyari, kasi ako, personally, 'di ko naman na-feel na kailangang sabihin," answered Abarrientos, when asked if he was wooed by Belangel to come to Korea as well.

"Dahan-dahan lang, nakabwelo na ako to confess. Sobrang tuwang-tuwa niya.

"Meron na siyang kasamang Pilipino, tapos ako pa, e halos 'di na kami nagkakalayo sa paglalaro, saUAAP, sa Gilas. Sabi nga niya, 'Hanggang dito ba naman, magkasama tayo?!'"

The two have long been fierce foes ever since they being part of the Blue Eaglets and Baby Tamaraws in the high school cage wars. That continued last season, even as Belangel's Ateneo re-asserted their mastery over FEU, who counted Abarrientos as one of their top guns. Amidst all the competition, however, they also became good friends -- as well as teammates in Gilas.

Belangel was the starter, the steady hand who knew the ins and outs of Tab Baldwin's system. Abarrientos was the super substitute, the very definition of a sparkplug, changing the tempo and hopefully, the momentum in favor of the Filipinos, once he entered the court. With them at the wheel, the national team had anything and everything they needed out of a driver.

And with them in the KBL, Koreans are getting two of the best promising prospects the Philippines has to offer.

Before their season starts, though, both are hard at work, as they are set to wear the flag once more in another window of the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers. At the same time, Abarrientos will be busy in settling matters with family and friends. He leaves for Korea right after Gilas' games and will remain there until the end of the Ulsan Hyundai Mobis' season.

The Tamaraws will miss him, for sure. The Abarrientos family, even more so. But RJ Abarrientos is playing abroad, walking the way uncle Johnny didn't get to. Right beside him will be a good friend, and they're ready and raring to prove the Filipino players' worth in a new country.