MPBL: Jai Reyes is both backcourt threat and a front-office decision-maker

Bob Guerrero on Oct 11, 2019 06:09 PM
 MPBL: Jai Reyes wears two hats for Nueva Ecija
"During the trading period I was sleeping at 2:00 am every night at the earliest. Napapanaginipan ko na nga mga trade." - Jai Reyes

All MPBL players have their hoops idols like LeBron James and Michael Jordan. But Jai Reyes admires legendary player and general manager Jerry West.

"Wherever he goes he finds a way to build a contender," says the 32-year old about the man who concocted several champion teams in Los Angeles and Golden State.

"He builds a franchise for the long-term. He keeps the coming year in mind but there is always a long-term plan," adds the former Ateneo Blue Eagle.

It's understandable that Reyes holds West in such high regard. For the past three weeks Reyes has been working as the Nueva Ecija Rice Vanguards Head of Basketball Operations, all while simultaneously sharing point guard duties with Levi de la Cruz.

We have heard of player-coaches. MPBL has seen one, at least in an interim capacity, with Muntinlupa's Dave Moralde this season.

But a Player-Head of Basketball Ops is a new concept.

"It's a funny story how I got this job," says Reyes while sipping a post-practice cup of Vietnamese coffee in a banh mi restaurant near the City Club in Makati. That is where the Rice Vanguards have just held practice.

Reyes had just bid adieu to the Bataan Risers, his third MPBL team. The Risers were certainly dealing with some issues. Jai has played in Vietnam and Thailand, and he became an OFW again, taking a one-week gig with Brunei outfit YTE, for a pocket tournament in the oil-rich sultanate. YTE won the title, and upon his return he worked on finding a new MPBL team. Then a friend told him about someone he knew who was taking over an MPBL franchise. That led to a meeting in Alabang Town Center between Reyes and Nueva Ecija's Bong Cuevas.

"I told him how I see franchises run in the States, and how football teams are run in Europe," says Reyes. "Its a whole new ballgame. Not just sports, there is a whole business aspect around it." Cuevas seemed to be impressed enough to offer him both the managerial post and the roster slot. "It was a surprise to me. But on the spot I said yes. It's one of my dream jobs to run a team," recalls the former Blue Eagle.

Reyes is very busy, but the worst is over now that the trading deadline has passed. During the window former Bataan teammate Vince Tolentino was roped into the squad. Reyes also helped engineer a complex three-team trade that brought Tonino Gonzaga over from QC and also snared Arvin Tolentino from Batangas. RR De Leon is another pickup from Muntinlupa. Nueva Ecija shipped Kim Reyes and Chris Pamulaklakin to the Cagers in exchange. James Martinez, a crafty guard from UE, is also on board after transferring from Imus.

"During the trading period I was sleeping at 2:00 am every night at the earliest. Napapanaginipan ko na nga mga trade. In one particular day so many things can change. A manager or owner can change his mind," reveals the 5'7" guard. "A couple of times I was late for practice, had low energy. Now I want to focus on getting back in shape," he adds.

And then there is the toughest part of the job: pink-slipping your own teammates.

"Trading teammates is the hardest part. When I have to tell players that they are no longer in new line-up, it's difficult," laments Reyes. Jai hopes to forge a bond with his teammates, but he knows the situation is unusual.

"I hope I have a good relationship with them. Being Head of Basketball Operations they kinda give way to you, which is hard in practice, because you have to push each other. When I'm playing I just wanna be a player, not Head of Basketball Ops, because playing is fun, it's my outlet."

The executive also needed a new coach, and he corralled old friend Charles Tiu for the job. "Charles can tell me, 'upo ka,' if I'm playing lousy," adds Reyes. Assisting Tiu will be another Xavierian, former DLSU standout TY Tang. Tang and Tiu are also coaching together for the College of St. Benilde in the NCAA, only with the Blazers it's Tang who is the head coach with Tiu acting as the sous chef. Tiu, Reyes and Tang have already won silverware together in the PBA D-League with Go For Gold.

Reyes says it seems his job also encompasses that of General Manager, so there are a multitude of other tasks, like finding a court to practice in, arranging for meals for players and staff, hiring an additional utility man, and even making sure there is enough tape for the players' ankles before training.

The guard also helped design the team's clever new logo, which features rice stalks, a nod to the province's role as rice granary for the country.

Reyes seems driven to take the franchise to new heights. It's been a rocky road for the Novo Ecijanos this season. The team began as Nueva Ecija MiGuard, then morphed into Nueva Ecija ForestLake. It is hoped they settle as the Rice Vanguards for the forseeable future.

"In the Philippines the relationship between sports teams and sponsors is so straightforward. Sponsors give money, they get a logo on jersey, that's it. There's not much connection to community and fans," explains Reyes. "Ang daling kampihan ang community versus a brand. In the MPBL there is an opportunity to pattern the league after the NBA. Build connections to fans. Bacoor and San Juan have done a good job of doing this."

"Our long-term plan is to build for the future. Our focus is to be relevant in the community in Nueva Ecija. I wanna build a solid relationship with the fans, let them know na 'team niyo kami, We represent you,'" says Reyes earnestly.

Reyes hopes to visit Palayan City, their partner LGU soon, to inspect their new arena, which according to him has not yet been named. He says it's small but "very nice." Reyes says Cuevas is planning to form a team in another lower league, and some players in the Rice Vanguards with limited playing time may go there.

To help cement the relationship between fans and the team, Cuevas bused in 350 of his fellow Novo Ecijanos to last week's game against Rizal Xentro Mall in Manila. The traveling support made the San Andres arena feel like home, boosting the team to a stylish 84-71 victory. Reyes scored 11 points, 7 in the third quarter.

"You could feel that they are hungry for a team to represent them," marveled Reyes. The fans were again bused in all the way to Bacoor for their game on Thursday. This time it was an even bigger rout, an 89-50 demolition of winless SOCCSKSARGEN. The new signings delivered. Gonzaga hit half of his six three-point attempts en route to 14 points. Arvin Tolentino chipped in four points in 16 minutes, while James Martinez did his part with six markers.

And how about the new signing in the white Karate Kid headband? Reyes was good for 13 points, all in the first half, including a pair of treys in the second quarter. He was sparingly fielded in the second half.

"I had to do some work, get some contracts ready, JOKE," he reports via text message. Reyes did, however, pick up the player of the game award.

It's no laughing matter for Reyes when he puts on his executive game face. "We are gonna try and save this season. Am treating this season as if it's 2-0. We want to make a run for the 8th seed in the playoffs. We are around 11th place now. Only six games behind, with 15 games left."

And Reyes could care less who steps up in this last push. "As a player of course you want to get stats and look good . Now I'm not even thinking of my stats. As long as manalo ang team, I dont care anymore how it happens. If I need to sit down, I'll sit down."

The perspective may have changed for Jai Reyes, but the winning mentality hasn't.

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