SJ Belangel is ahead of his time
“Sanay na ako lumaban sa mas matanda o mas malaki, kaya nasasabi kong kahit ganoon lang age ko, kayang-kaya kong lumaban.”
SJ Belangel once dropped 99 points in a single game, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. As team captain, the point guard’s pass-first mentality has rallied the Ateneo Blue Eaglets and Batang Gilas squad as naturally as he gets buckets. Despite being an all-around threat and contender for UAAP Season 79 MVP, his social media accounts contain less selfies than messages thanking the Ateneo community. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: SJ’s a nice guy.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to youth; he hasn’t tasted the unbridled stardom that makes older players’ heads spin. But perhaps SJ seems mature beyond his years simply because he is.
Growing up fast
SJ’s dad never let him win. When he first got into basketball, Sammy Belangel pit the young boy against the collegiate players he was coaching in Bacolod. They were 18, 19 years old; SJ was nine. The older Belangel would bring his son to his own pick-up games, and refused to go easy on him.
“His friends let me win pero my dad, hindi…he wanted me to learn at a young age,” recalls SJ. “Hanggang ngayon, hindi ko pa rin siya matalo-talo.”
Sammy, himself a point guard, wanted his son to grow up quick. “Kahit alam mong may pustahan, sige lang kahit matalo. Shoot ka lang nang shoot!” he once told SJ at a street game.
And shoot he did. SJ joined the basketball team of Bacolod Tay Tung High School, where nerves weren’t much of an issue for him. “Sanay na ako lumaban sa mas matanda o mas malaki, kaya nasasabi kong kahit ganoon lang age ko, kayang-kaya kong lumaban,” he shares. “Nandoon ‘yung pride na kahit taga-province kami, go hard [laban sa mga taga-Maynila]. Ipapakita namin ‘yung pride namin as Bacolodnon.”
SJ’s maturity and leadership stood out to Coach Joe Silva, and he was soon on his way to play for the Ateneo Blue Eaglets. But upon arriving in Manila, the precocious talent faced a new set of challenges.
A series of struggles
First was the language barrier. SJ laughs when he remembers his first few practices; in heated moments, he would give instructions to his teammates in Ilonggo without realizing it. But the one that weighed on his mind was an issue with paperwork that had him serving residency while the Blue Eaglets went on to win the 2014 championship.
“‘Yun ang naging motivation ko noong Grade 9. Actually, hanggang ngayon. Sayang kasi nag-champion na noon, [if only I had played] I’d have a ring na sana,” says SJ. “Pero siguro God has plans for me kung bakit nangyari ‘yun. Siguro nagkaroon na rin ng chance for me to grow.”
While waiting for his turn, SJ bonded with fellow Ilonggos Sandro Soriano and Thirdy Ravena. He also became close to the Nieto brothers. “Si Kuya Mike as a leader, every time mag-practice, dapat ready na lahat, walang nag-aaway at walang isyu. Dapat as a team, together,” he says.
SJ thinks a lot about the responsibility of being a leader. His father always told him individual achievements mean less than the ability to win as a team and to make the community proud. When people ask SJ who inspires him to play, his mind goes to his mother Mayet, and his late grandmother Brenda, who passed away two years ago.
“Every game ko, she was always there. Kahit ang lala na ng sakit niya, sabi niya ‘gusto ko pa rin manood,’” SJ shares, adding that he hopes to be embody the same selflessness both on and off the court.
‘Strive to do extraordinary things’
Life has given SJ a lot to think about at a young age, so it isn’t surprising that he carries himself with a maturity beyond his years. Silva, as well as Batang Gilas head coach Michael Oliver have both commended SJ as a person that other players look up to.
Ateneo’s formation-heavy curriculum couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for the introspective SJ. The school’s emphasis on combining competence with compassion, he says, helps him as team captain.
“What you do sa school, ‘yun din ang gagawin mo outside. So how you handle your classmates, teachers, ganoon din madadala mo sa team,” explains the playmaker.
Ateneo, he says, also gave him the chance to meet a teacher whom he now considers to be one of his heroes. Em-J Pavia taught mathematics at the Ateneo High School, where he was SJ’s well-loved class moderator and the Ateneo Basketball League teammate of Sammy. When the 24-year-old mentor was shot and killed outside his home last July, a shockwave of grief tore through the Ateneo community—and through SJ.
“Kahit teacher siya, pinakita niyang equal kaming lahat,” recalls SJ, whose class kept no secrets from their young teacher. “‘Strive for more, strive to do extraordinary things, ‘yun ang palagi niyang sinasabi sa akin. Magis.”
As he edges closer to his dream of a successful collegiate and pro career, SJ continues to build his idea of leadership on the lessons he’s learned from the leaders in his life. His dad gave him the foundation. His teammates showed him the joy of having a second family. Em-J taught him that leaders serve. The rest, SJ will figure out himself.
After all, leaders are not born. They’re made.