I was still thinking of a post for today’s #FTSTBT entry when I got a notification on Facebook from Adrian Dy, a good friend and my former editor from GMAnews.tv and SlamPH.
It was July 6, 2013, Job De Leon and I co-wrote an article about Mac Tallo and Nico Elorde. When I first plotted the article, I thought I’d have to do two separate interviews on my own but then I realized it would be better to plot the entire article in one day. I brought it up with Job and he quickly jumped on the idea and even booked his own flight to Cebu.
The first draft of this article was at about 8,000 words. It was so long that we could have posted two separate articles but we really wanted to do something different so we had a brutal editing phase with our Managing Editor Odi De Guzman but the result was definitely worth all the effort.
(Mac Tallo currently plays for Racal Motors in the PBA D-League as he’s targeting to join the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft. Nico Elorde is with the Mahindra Floodbuster in the PBA.)
Nico Elorde and Mac Mac Tallo were never on the same team together in a UAAP game, and their paths rarely converged when their two sides went head-to-head. They are not Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. And yet, the duo are intertwined, even if all they had in common were a few shared practices. In the summer of 2011, Elorde transferred from La Salle to Ateneo, then a few days later, Tallo moved from Ateneo to La Salle.
They now find themselves in very different situations but are still working towards the same goal – basketball success.
From the Queen City of the South
As a high school sophomore, Mark Jayven “Mac Mac” Tallo received an invitation to join the RP Youth Under-16 team in 2008. It was a prestigious springboard for batchmates like Jeoff Javillonar, Gelo Alolino, Mike Tolomia and Kiefer Ravena, but his father, a PBA veteran, also named Mark, told him to bide his time.
“Ang layo-layo tapos nag-aaral pa ako. Kulang pa daw ako noon, parang hindi pa hinog,” said Tallo, who played high school ball for the Cebu Institute of Technology-University Wildkittens. “Sabi niya, ‘Marami pang darating na ganyan, mag-relax ka lang.'”
Tallo shined as his father predicted, leading the Wildkittens to their first CESAFI juniors title in 2009. Then, during his senior year, he singled out Ateneo from all his suitors, and the Eagles did what they could to ease his transition into their roster. They even flew him in to attend regular practices in Katipunan way ahead of his UAAP debut. But fast-forward to 2013, and his fellow RP Youth invitees are making waves in the UAAP and NCAA, while Tallo barely registers a blip on the nation’s basketball radar. Where did he go?
From the south of Manila
After graduating from De La Salle-Zobel, Nico Elorde had bunch of options. “Nag-try out ako sa UP, Ateneo, at La Salle, pero kinukuha rin ako ng NU, CSB, at San Beda,” Elorde recalls. “Pero pinili ko yung La Salle kasi galing rin akong Zobel, tapos nandun na sila Simon Atkins at Joshua Webb. Since prep ako, La Salle na ako eh.”
Elorde was supposed to be another name in the long list of great La Salle point guards. From guys like TY Tang and Jvee Casio, Elorde was supposed to parlay his success in high school to the point guard dominated play of the Green Archers.
But things did not work out for him and he quickly found his way apart from the only school he had ever attended. Why did he leave?
If you didn’t look twice you wouldn’t believe that the Aznar Coliseum, called “Azco” by the locals, was a building still in use. A far cry from the Moro Lorenzo or Enrique M. Razon sports complexes. One hoop hangs over a makeshift stage; the other, above a narrow storage room that intrudes on the aged parquet floor. Southwestern University’s seal, once painted in proud crimson and gold, lies faded at center court. This is the SWU Cobras’ nest, the home of Tallo’s third collegiate team in as many years.
Fresh from a morning jog, Tallo arrived in the gym just before the Cobras’ 8am practice. His daily routine consists of “tulog, aral, at basketball,” with weights training and twice-daily jogs whenever he’s not in class. On that Wednesday morning, he was completely locked in, coolly draining jumper after jumper while assistant coach Mike Reyes paced the court to run his squad’s drills. Afterwards, Tallo began to tell his story, and with the same looseness he showed on the floor, there was no holding back.
Nico Elorde arrived at the MOA Arena well before their 2pm call time that Wednesday. After dropping their first game against the NU Bulldogs, Elorde and the rest of the Blue Eagles were hoping to get their first win of the season against the FEU Tamaraws.
Elorde liked playing in Pasay because it was a short ride away from his family’s Paranaque home. Elorde’s opinion differs from most Ateneans who prefer the Smart-Araneta Coliseum, which is two LRT stops away from Katipunan. His opinion is unlike most Ateneans, because he wasn’t supposed to be one.
Nico Elorde bled green. He played for De La Salle-Zobel during his high school years. For college, he considered other options but he ended up sticking to La Salle, even if La Salle was already loaded with point guards.
“Naisip ko rin na maraming guwardiya,” Elorde explained. “Sila LA [Revilla], [Joel] Tolentino, Simon [Atkins], [Almond] Vosotros, at si Luigi [de la Paz] rin pinag-po-point rin. So pang-anim ako kaya tinanong ng mama ko kung anong plano ni coach Dindo [Pumaren] sa akin. Sabi ni Coach ako raw yung number one point guard niya, ako na raw yung first option. Naniwala naman ako.”
“Mac, alis na tayo diyan”
Tallo practiced with the Ateneo Blue Eagles at his father’s prodding in the summer of 2011, as coach Norman Black was reloading for the chance to win a fourth straight UAAP title. He dreamed that he and Ravena, already known as “The Phenom” in his juniors days, would share the backcourt in no time. But he was let down when in April, he sat out an Ateneo-La Salle exhibition match in Dubai. His disappointment didn’t go unnoticed by DLSU’s mentor. “Sabi sa akin ni coach Dindo, ‘Dito ka na lang sa amin, magagamit ka pa,’” Tallo revealed. “Sabi rin niya sa akin lumipat ako as soon as possible kasi malapit na ang UAAP at ‘di pa naman ako enrolled [sa Ateneo].”
The offer was tempting, but Tallo opted to wait a little longer. He suited up for the Eagles in the summer FilOil tourney, but played just a total of nine minutes spread over two games.
“Sabi ng dad ko, ‘Mac, alis na tayo diyan,’” said Tallo. “Sabi ko, ‘Wait lang, Pa. Baka mag-iba yung laro ko pag pumunta ako ng States, baka gamitin na ako ni Coach pagbalik.’” But even after returning from their Las Vegas training camp to face the Archers anew in their final FilOil elimination game, Tallo stayed glued to the bench.
Tallo felt betrayed. He insists that Black, in a meeting with both Tallos and team benefactor Manuel V. Pangilinan, promised playing time alongside Ravena, echoing a claim that his father made to the media in 2011. “Dapat sinabi niya lang muna,” seethed Tallo. “Kasi puwede rin naman akong mag-Team B, walang problema sa’kin ‘yon. Okay pa nga ‘yon kasi magma-mature ako, made-develop ako. Eh gusto niya akong palaruin, e di sayang din yung one [playing] year ko.
“‘Di ko naman inisip na magsa-start ako. Inisip ko lang na baka second five ako na, reliever ni [Emman] Monfort,” said Tallo. “Sinabi sa’kin ni coach Norman na ika-16th player ako. Doon ako nawalan ng pag-asa. Sabi ko aalis na lang ako dito. ‘Di ko matanggap ‘yon.”
“Magsisimula na naman ako sa wala”
As he entered the arena, Elorde took his phone out of his bag. He sent a text message just before the team heard mass. He attempted to put the phone in his pocket but it refused to go in. Some of his teammates saw what was happening and they told Elorde, through their laughter, that his shorts were on backward.
The embarrassed player didn’t think it was possible. He had worn those shorts countless of times. How could they not fit now? How could something he has done correctly all his life be wrong now?
Choosing La Salle was an easy decision for Elorde. He chose La Salle all his life and chose La Salle again for college. But early into his senior’s career, he felt something was wrong. Like his backward shorts, it just did not feel right. “Pagdating ng season nagbago. Na-frustrate ako, pero kinausap ko si coach Dindo na bigyan lang ako ng chance,” he said. “Tinanong ko siya kung anong kailangan kong gawin para makapaglaro. Sabi niya sa akin, basta maging ready lang daw ako.” Like a good soldier, Elorde marched on, sometimes playing, most of the time not at all.
“Nung isang game ginamit ako ni coach Dindo for 20 seconds lang pero nilapitan ko pa rin siya after the game at sinabi ko, ‘Coach, thank you dahil ginamit niyo ako this game,’ tapos inulit niya lang sa akin na maging prepared lang daw ako palagi.”
Elorde thought he’d have more playing time in his second year with the Green Archers. However, his coaches recruited more point guards even if their team was already filled to the brim. “Siyempre napaisip rin ako nung narinig ko na nagre-recruit pa sila ng ibang point guards. Pero alam ko kasi na kaya ko namang makipagsabayan sa kanila,” Elorde shared. “Nung pagdating ng preseason, ginagamit na si Dan [Sara] over me. Tapos pagdating nung FilOil pinatawag kami after ng game. Si coach Tonichi [Yturri] pa yung kumausap sa amin, hindi si coach Dindo. Ilang araw na lang, aalis na papunta States, tapos sinabi nga na ‘di kami kasama.”
Elorde was one of five Archers who were not included in their summer training camp in Chicago and he struggled to accept the exclusion. “’Di ko matanggap na yung mga bago, sinama, kami hindi,” he said. “Parang panibago na naman. Magsisimula na naman ako sa wala. Sayang yung pinaghirapan ko ng isang taon sa La Salle kasi feeling ko hindi na-appreciate yung effort na binigay ko.”
From Ateneo to La Salle
“Siya yung nag-a-advise sa’kin sa kung anong gusto kong gawin,” said Tallo, gesturing to his father on the Azco practice floor. “Sa kanya ako nagsasabi ng, ‘Pa, hindi ko alam kung anong gagawin ko.'”
His thoughts trail off and he takes a long pause. It’s unclear still whether his reasons for fleeing are his own or internalized, but it’s apparent that it’s a decision he’d rather not dwell on.
After some prodding, Tallo finally acceded to his father’s urgings, ditching the Eagles’ FilOil quarterfinals game. He vacated his dorm, and escaped to Cebu without warning or farewell. “Kung magpapaalam ako, ‘di ako papayagan kasi nakapunta na ako ng States kasama nila. Sasabihin nila, ‘Hindi, wag nalang, dito ka nalang.’ So dumiretso nalang ako,” he said.
Tallo disclosed that while other UAAP schools, NU, Adamson, UST, and FEU, tried to lure him out of Cebu, he ultimately picked the Archers and revived contact with Pumaren. However, his transfer came a little too late as he did not meet the league deadline for final roster submissions. Pumaren never got a chance to coach Tallo, either; he and his entire staff resigned following a disappointing 5-9 season. With the coach who recruited him gone, Tallo realized he was in a precarious situation.
From La Salle to Ateneo
A distraught Elorde called his parents, who were then in the United States, and as fate would have it, the Ateneo Blue Eagles were in the same city for their yearly US training camp.
“Pinuntahan ng parents ko si coach Norman. Alam na agad ng Ateneo na hindi ako sinama ng La Salle,” Elorde said. “Tapos gusto naman nila ako, so sabi ni Coach Norman, pagbalik nila from the States, magpractice na ako kasama nila.
“Pagkatapos nun, kinausap ko si coach Dindo. Sabi ko, ‘Coach, lilipat na ako ng school.’ Sabi niya naman, ‘Itulog mo muna yan, huwag kang pabigla-bigla magdesisyon.’” Elorde was surprised that he was brushed off. “Buong pamilya ko nakapag-decide na eh. Kaya ‘di ko alam bakit inisip ni Coach Dindo na biglaan yung decision ko. Basta inasikaso ko na lahat pagkatapos kong makausap si coach Dindo, tapos nag-enroll na ako sa Ateneo para mag-residency.”
“‘Da, survive nalang tayo”
Tallo accepted his role with La Salle’s development team, but he was unsure about playing under new head coach Gee Abanilla during the following FilOil Cup. “Nung ginamit niya ako sa FilOil, nagpakita ako ng magandang laro, kaya sabi niya, ‘Maglalaro ka na kasi maganda ang pinakita mo.’ Nabigyan din ako ng chance kasi na-injure rin si LA [Revilla], so nag-step up ako,” Tallo said.
He put up strong numbers in the FilOil tourney, leading his team in assists in just under 19 minutes per game. However, his confidence took a dive during the UAAP proper, when the Archers opened Season 75 versus the UP Fighting Maroons.
Moments like those linger in Tallo’s mind. It’s amazing how quickly he brings them into the conversation and makes you wonder how long he’s turned them inside-out in his consciousness. He remembers how many minutes he played, and how his poise rose and fell like the moon and the tide.
“Na-jitters ako. Doon na ako nasira. Parang nawala yung laro ko,” he said, after tallying zero points in nine minutes during that game. “Tapos nung first round, parang ayaw na sa akin ni Coach, parang hindi na niya ako pinapansin, parang walang-wala na.” Tallo logged a DNP during their next game against the UE Red Warriors, and his woes snowballed from there.
Tallo feared that first game caused him to fall out of favor with Abanilla, who gradually gave rookie Thomas Torres more and more playing time. By the second round, he found himself in the third group during practice together with Oda Tampus, another Archers guard whose minutes had also dwindled. “‘Da, survive nalang tayo,’” he told Tampus over and over again as they tried to work their way back into the rotation.
“Hindi ko namang hinihingi na first five ako, hinihingi ko lang, konting playing time. Actually nag-promise din sa akin si coach Gee, sabi niya 15 minutes per game,” said Tallo.
In his only UAAP stint, Tallo averaged 11 minutes in 10 outings, going scoreless in seven of them. The more he talks though, one gets the impression that Tallo isn’t obsessed with his numbers. Rather, he relishes the affirmation he gets, as he recalls their August 29, 2012 meeting against the UST Growling Tigers, when he limited Jeric Teng to six points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field.
“Dumipensa ako kay Teng, na-stop ko siya. Nasabi pa nga [ni coach Gee] yung pangalan ko. ‘Si Mac Tallo, kahit wala siyang score, 17 minutes, dinepensahan niya si Jeric lang,’” recalled Tallo, pride noticeable in his voice. He hoped the recognition would lead to more time on the floor, but he played only two more games before sitting out their final three matches, including their quarterfinals loss versus Ateneo. “Parang ‘di rin siya consistent sa pag-gamit sa’yo, yun din yung mahirap eh,” Tallo said of Abanilla.
Later that year Tallo and the Archers returned to Cebu to play the Adamson Falcons in the eliminations leg of the Philippine Collegiate Championship League. He had nothing to show to the home crowd as he sat out that game as well with an injury. The final straw came in January 2013, when DLSU announced Kib Montalbo, a celebrated point guard recruit hailing from Bacolod, would play for them in the following UAAP season.
“Kung tutuusin, ba’t pa sila kukuha ng point guard kung may kumpiyansa sila sa akin? Kung point guard lang, nandiyan na si Thomas, si LA, ako. Nandiyan pa si [Robert] Bolick.” asked Tallo. “Parang naiisip mo, parang ayaw niya sa amin. Ito ba yung papalit sa’kin? Sa tune-up games, exhibition games, pinalaro siya bigla, tapos ‘di pa niya alam yung [mga] play. Sabi ko, ba’t ganun? Noong practice, sinasabi ko, nakakatamad, ayoko na ng practice.”
Tallo couldn’t see why Abanilla favored Montalbo, going as far as to call him “overrated.” Relax and think about it carefully, his teammates told him, maybe it was an experiment. But when Montalbo got more burn in the preseason, Tallo felt his days were numbered and his fate was sealed.
“‘Di na ako aalis eh, pero saan na ako ilalagay? Gusto nila si Montalbo tapos babalik pa [from injury] si LA. Wala na akong mapupuntahan so umuwi nalang ako.” The saying goes that two’s company, three’s a crowd and four’s a party. For Tallo, five meant there was no room for him on this planet. Right before Season 76, Tallo decided he was ready to head home.
“Sulit yung residency, sakto yung paglipat, lahat nasa ayos”
In their game against FEU, Elorde was the first small off the bench. He entered late in the first quarter, and scored his first basket with eight seconds left to give his team an 18-14 lead. With La Salle, Elorde would be lucky to play spot minutes. With Ateneo, he’s tasked to sometimes run the show.
“Si Emman graduating na pagkatapos si Juami [Tiongson] at Tallo na lang,” Elorde described Ateneo’s point guard rotation before he came in. “Mas open yun kesa sa panlima o pang-anim ako sa La Salle.”
Elorde sank a crucial three-point shot with a little over two minutes left in the game to give the Eagles a fighting chance. And then, with the game tied in the dying seconds, Elorde blocked a shot by RR Garcia to send things into overtime. It was a huge moment for Elorde, blocking the former UAAP MVP.
During his stint with La Salle, Elorde never saw big moments like this on the floor. But after he transferred, his confidence got a huge boost. “Sa Team B bumalik yung kumpiyansa ko,” he said. “Tiwala sa akin yung coaching staff kaya maganda yung nilaro ko.”
After his first year with Ateneo, Season 75, Elorde finally realized his dream of being a UAAP champion. “Ang sarap nung feeling na champion pero mas masarap yung feeling na may natulong ako kaya kami nag-champion,” he said. “Napatunayan ko sa sarili ko na kaya kong maglaro sa college level. Sulit yung residency ko, sakto yung paglipat, lahat nasa ayos.”
“Naabutan ko pa si Mac Mac sa Ateneo,” Elorde said. “Okay naman yung laro niya. Magaling siya mag-dribble.”
“Okay naman si Elorde. Naka-practice kaming magkasama ng tatlong araw bago ako umalis,” said Tallo.
“Paglipat ko dito si Tallo naka-lineup na. Kaya pag nagkakabantayan kami, pinapakita ko na kaya ko siya kasi next year kami naman yung magka-position,” Elorde challenged. “Nung umalis siya siyempre blessing yun kasi lumaki yung chance ko na makapaglaro. If ‘di siya umalis, baka siya muna yung maglalaro bago ako.”
“Akala ko nagpa-practice lang siya sa Ateneo. Hindi ko alam na lilipat na pala siya,” admits Tallo.
“Nagulat ako nung lumipat siya,” Elorde said about Tallo’s transfer out of DLSU. “Pero naiintindihan ko rin yung decision niya eh. Nandun ako sa situation niya dati. Alam ko kung gaano kahirap yung ginagawa mo lahat sa practice pero ‘di ka halos makalaro.”
“Sayang nga pero ‘di ko na lang iniisip,” remarked Tallo on how he might’ve been playing with Ateneo if he had waited. “Wala naman akong magagawa.”
“Ito na yung last card ko”
Tallo loved DLSU, and leaving wasn’t an easy choice. He has a girlfriend there too, whom he’ll be visiting in Manila this weekend to celebrate their anniversary. But unlike years past, he’ll have to settle with a living room view of the Ateneo-La Salle game.
His desire to play was much stronger than his love for the Archers. He was coming back home to a team, the SWU Cobras, lacking in the backcourt, and that reinvigorated Tallo. “He’ll be our starting point guard. He’ll be our main small man. That’s what we felt our weakness was, and mafi-fill up naman yun ni Tallo,” explained Reyes. For the first time in his collegiate career Tallo felt wanted, even needed.
“Pagbalik mo [at] wala kang napakita, anong sasabihin ng mga tao? ‘Kaya ka pala bumalik dito eh kasi wala ka na,’” Tallo said.
With his coach behind him, he attacked the pressure and is now slowly coming into his own. Tallo joined Southwestern U in a pocket tournament against University of Visayas Lancers, Mapua Cardinals, and FEU Tamaraws, where he played a huge role in steering his team to a runner-up finish. Tallo made big plays in the entire tournament, including two crucial assists in the endgame of a highly physical battle for second-place against their bitter UV rivals.
“Yung mga UV fans, tumahimik na,” he said, with equal parts of accomplishment and relief.
Reyes, who runs the Cobras’ day-to-day operations, said Tallo has been very coachable under his watch. He was especially pleased with Tallo’s performance against the Tamaraws, where he battled Terrence Romeo toe-to-toe until the latter felled them with a step-back trey at the last second, 79-78. “Kung anong gusto naming magawa, yun ang nagawa niya,” he said. “We’re telling him to be better dahil ang mangyayari, he will make all the decisions inside the court para sa amin.” In time, Reyes believes that Tallo, with his skills, height and build, has a future in the PBA.
Tallo knows he still has a shot at making the pros. But on his way up, he wants to leave his mark. He hopes to take the Cobras to the next level by dueling Manila teams in the FilOil Cup, and just maybe, win the PCCL title. “Binibigyan ako ni coach Mike ng opportunity. Ito na yung last card ko para mapakita sa lahat na mali yung pag-intindi nila sa laro ko sa Manila,” he said.
Despite two tumultuous years in Manila, Tallo says he bears no ill feelings towards his former teams and added he’s already since apologized. What’s done is done, and he has to keep his mind in the present. Cebu is his home. These are his Cobras. This is where he’ll find redemption. For better or worse, he’s determined to do things his way.
“Every time naririnig ko yung mga sinasabi nila tungkol sa akin, china-challenge ko yung sarili ko,” he said. “Ah ganon pala ah, tingnan natin. Babawiin niyo rin yan.”
“Yung maling desisyon, puwedeng bawiin”
With Ateneo down by two points late in overtime, Elorde looked to attack. He dribbled downcourt and threw a careless pass that was easily caught by Romeo, forcing Elorde to commit his fifth and final foul. The turnover and the ensuing free throws converted by Romeo sealed the win for the Tamaraws.
An apologetic Nico Elorde emerged out of the dugout. The point guard, with his shorts now facing the correct direction, was saying sorry to anybody who’d hear it.
“Von, sorry. Sa akin yun,” Elorde told teammate Von Pessumal. “Kalimutan mo na yun,” Pessumal replied, while giving Elorde a low five. “Bawi na lang tayong lahat sa susunod.”
Sandy Arespacochaga, Ateneo’s top assistant coach, tried to console the grieving point guard after the game. “We didn’t offer him anything. He just asked if he could transfer and we told him he could be part of the Team B,” the coach said. “We didn’t know Tallo was leaving and we were going to prioritize Tallo because we recruited him and he was with the team a bit longer. I think it ended up being better for us because you all see how good Nico has been playing.”
Nico Elorde played 26 minutes in the game, scoring nine points. He added six rebounds, an assist, and a block, but it wasn’t enough. The Blue Eagles lost in overtime to the FEU Tamaraws. His team is now 0-2, but there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. His teammates were all down from the loss but there’s no other team he’d rather be a part of.
“Nangyayari talaga yung mga ganito,” Elorde said as he walked out of the arena. “Pero positive pa rin dapat. Kahit alam kong crucial yung turnover ko kanina, iniisip ko na lang na yung maling desisyon, puwedeng bawiin. Iniisip ko na lang na sobrang swerte pa rin ako na nabigyan ako ng isa pang opportunity sa UAAP.”