MAJOR POINT: Finding Family Away From Home
Eric Menk on Nov 02, 2018 08:45 AM
Eric Menk (right) is now part of the Alab Pilipinas coaching staff together with fellow Filipino-Americans Danny Seigle (left) and head coach Jimmy Alapag.
I’ve been in the Philippines now for over 21 years. I can’t believe it has been that long, but I just checked my passport stamp the other day and sure enough my arrival stamp says August 2, 1997. So many things have happened since then that it puts me in this weird nostalgic state of mind thinking back to how I was back then. I had no idea what was in store for me when I decided to try my luck in professional basketball in the Philippines. I thought I knew. I thought I knew everything, but I really had no clue.
I was recruited by a Filipino agent living in the United States to come to the Philippines to play basketball. This made me feel pretty special. I had put together a solid playing resume in high school and college and had played a year professionally in Denmark. I thought I would come to the Philippines, play basketball for 11 years, retire, go back to Michigan and get into coaching. That was my plan. It was pretty simple to me. I never thought about the people I’d meet or the relationships I’d build during my stay in the Philippines. And even though I knew nobody in the Philippines, I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to go to the Philippines to play basketball.
There were a few things I underestimated when I came to the Philippines back in 1997. Being from Michigan, the heat was a often times painful adjustment to get used to. I had never lived in a big city before, so Manila and its traffic was also something to get used to. I don’t speak Tagalog, so getting around that can still be difficult at times. The style of play here in the Philippines is different than I was used to, so I had to get used to that. But, the biggest adjustment for me was that I knew absolutely no one when I came to the Philippines. I had no friends.
My mom is from Lawaan, Eastern Samar. She had only been back once since she had left the Philippines in the late 1960s. Most of my relatives on her side of the family still live in the province. So while, I have family in the Philippines, I don’t have any relatives in Metro Manila. So, here I was, on the other side of the planet with no family and no friends. Like most people, I like having friends. I had always had a close group of friends in high school and college. Playing a year in Denmark, not having my friends around was probably my biggest adjustment and I went through a rough period of homesickness there. Now that I was in the Philippines, I was in a different, but also similar situation.
In my early years here in the Philippines, I played for two great teams. My first team was Tanduay Rhum. My first coach was Alfrancis Chua and my first boss was Boss Bong Tan. Both of those guys took great care of me. After four years with them, I was then traded to Barangay Ginebra. My boss there was Boss Henry Cojuangco. He also took great care of me. I had many great teammates through the years, including my years on those two teams. My teammates were very welcoming of me and I enjoyed my time on the court with those guys.
However, when practice ended. My teammates would go back to their friends, family and responsibilities and I would go back to an empty condo unit.
Everyday I would have practice in the morning from 9-12. After practice, I’d eat and then go find a gym to workout in. By the time I was done with my workout at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I would then have to figure out what to do from 3 or 4 until the time I went to bed around 10 or 11. I thought a lot differently back then than I do now, so most of that time was wasted. I spent a lot of that time alone, bored, in front of the TV, just waiting for the day to end, so I could get up and do it again the next day.
Although I was living my dream of playing professional basketball, it was strange for me to be living that life day after day after day. My first couple of years here, I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know my way around Manila. I didn’t know anybody outside of my team. I was living in Quezon City in a non-walkable area. It was a grind. I often wondered how long I could continue to stay on that type of grind. It wasn’t until after 18 months of living that way that I started to meet other Filipino-Americans that were going through similar experiences.
In the late 1990s, the PBA landscape was much different than it is today. One thing that was a lot different, was there weren’t as many Fil-Ams as there are today. Having Fil-Am players playing in the PBA was still a new thing. There was a novelty about us. We were the new kids in school, in a way. Guys like Jeff Cariaso, Andy and Danny Seigle, Nic Belasco, Ali Peek, Noy Castillo, Rudy Hatfield and myself had played college basketball in the United States. The basketball fans here in the Philippines didn’t know who we were before we went high in the PBA Draft and then started playing in the PBA. Most of us were the only Fil-Americans on our teams. Upon meeting them, I found out that these guys were living the similar grind I had been going through.
It’s hard to explain, but after meeting some of the other Fil-American basketball players, my life instantly got better. It was so refreshing to hear about their experiences. Although, we were all different and from different areas of the US, we were basically going through the same thing at near the same stage of our lives. We were all out here on our own trying to make it in professional basketball in country that was new to us. I found comfort in learning that other people were struggling with similar things that I was struggling with. There is always pressure to win in professional sports. My new friends helped me deal with that pressure. Learning about other peoples experiences in similar situations, having an outlet and having fun with new friends off of the court, helped bring balance to my life. I related to those guys. I smiled and laughed more when I was around those guys.
Two guys in particular that helped me were Jeffrey Cariaso and Andy Seigle. Both of those guys are older than me and had been in the country and the PBA before I was. I looked to both of them for advice and valued their opinions. Jeff is from San Francisco was drafted in the PBA in 1995. By the time I had met Jeff in 1999, Jeff had won the PBA Rookie of the Year, had won multiple championships and was a multiple time PBA All-Star. Jeff was always a guy I respected for the way he handled himself on the court and off of it. Jeff was also a leader in the Fil-Am community here, organizing dinners and get togethers. Even today, it is nice to be able to message Jeff and he is still always willing to listen or give advice. Jeff will always shoot you straight. A friend like him is hard to find.
Andy was the number one overall pick in the 1997 PBA Draft. At 6 for 10 Andy was the first Fil-Am from my generation to have big expectations put on his shoulders the very first day he stepped on a PBA court. Dealing with that pressure must have been tough, but Andy was one of the most accommodating, giving people I have ever met. Whenever he was doing something, he would invite me. Random days out of the blue, he would invite me to his house to have dinner with his family. Andy would host dinners at his house for holidays, where families from different teams
would get together to celebrate. I was fortunate enough to eventually play with Andy at Ginebra, where we won three championships together. Having him in practice and as a friend made my life better in the Philippines.
Just as Jeff and Andy helped me, I also tried to help new Fil-Americans that came to the Philippines after me. Rudy Hatfield came to Tanduay a couple of years after I had been there and I tried to show him the ropes. We became very close friends. When Jimmy Alapag and Harvey Carey were new to the country in 2002 and 2003, respectively, I tried help where I could. I can’t say I ever really mentored anybody, but I always tried to listen, and share. Even if I can only help you laugh or smile more, I know that can help. Those guys have also become close friends of mine. I know they have also helped others that have come after them.
Since Alapag and Carey arrived, there have already been a couple generations of new Filipino American basketball players. I still see the younger Fil-Ams from different teams hanging out together. While I’ve heard that some people view that as Fil-Ams trying to separate themselves, I don’t believe that is true. Just like guys from the same province or same school are more likely to hang out together, young Fil-Ams are more likely to hang out together. It’s a natural thing to gravitate to things and people you relate to and have something in common with. It’s not the easiest thing to do, to go to a foreign country where you have no family and friends to start a new career. I know. I’ve been there.
A lot of things have changed for me since 1997, when I first came to this country. I am now married and have two small children of my own. My wife, kids and her family provide my support system now, as I do for them.
However, there was a time and a long time where I didn’t have that. My Fil-American friends were my family and support system. And while that wasn’t ideal, I was always taught to do the best with what you had. I’m thankful for what I had.
Eric Menk played in the PBA from 1999 to 2016. Menk is a four-time PBA champion, three-time PBA Finals MVP and one-time PBA MVP (2005). He currently writes for ABS-CBN Sports weekly. Menk also has his podcast Staying MAJOR as welll as his own YouTube channel .