Bong Dela Cruz: The Pain Must End

Paolo Mariano on Nov 28, 2015 11:23 AM
Bong Dela Cruz: The Pain Must End
“It’s not yet over. Ipapakita namin na kaya naming bumawi at ‘yung willingness na manalo,”

Kevin Ferrer looked dazed as he sat on the steel railing behind the bench. Karim Abdul wrapped his head with a white towel to cover his bursting tears.

The University of Santo Tomas (UST) just lost to the Ateneo de Manila University in Game 2 of the 2012 UAAP Finals. The Growling Tigers couldn’t help but watch the Blue Eagles celebrate at center court of the Araneta Coliseum. UST had a chance to send the game into overtime but Clark Bautista’s wayward pass to Jeric Fortuna was stolen by Juami Tiongson, allowing Ateneo to capture its fifth straight title.

The following year, the Growling Tigers also saw their title hopes vanish. Almond Vosotros made a game-clinching baseline jumper with 19 seconds left in overtime of Game 3 to give De La Salle University the crown.

Ferrer and Abdul, along with Ed Daquioag, Louie Vigil, and Jan Sheriff, endured those pair of heartbreaks. Two precious chances at a title, twice squandered.

Now, with their backs against the wall against Far Eastern University (FEU), the five graduating seniors don’t want to experience a third one. 

There’s also another guy from the UST lair who shares the same sentiment: head coach Bong Dela Cruz.

As assistant coach to then-top tactician Pido Jarencio, Dela Cruz was also present in the Growling Tigers’ back-to-back bridesmaid finishes. He and his veteran core have since moved on from the setbacks. The stinging losses, however, still serve as motivation for them to bring back the crown to the historic walls of España.

“Gusto namin bumawi. We want to change our history,” said Dela Cruz. “Third time na namin ‘to (sa finals). Hindi na puwedeng maulit ‘yung sakit.”

Dela Cruz starred for UST High School in the late 80s, playing alongside Marlou Aquino, EJ Feihl, and Giovanni Pineda. He also played for the RP Youth Team, backing up Johnny Abarrientos and Olsen Racela. In college, he moved to Adamson University together with Aquino and Feihl and teamed up with Kenneth Duremdes. They advanced to the finals in their final year in 1992 but got swept by FEU.

He tried his luck in the PBA but a major knee injury derailed his dream.

“Mula nun, kinalimutan ko na playing career ko,” said Dela Cruz with a laugh.

A few years later, he made the rounds in the coaching circuit. He first coached at little-known Philippine Cultural High School in Tondo in 2000. He mentored grade school kids. He then transferred to La Consolacion College, winning several WNCAA championships along the way.

He also toiled as an assistant coach in now-defunct commercial leagues like the Philippine Basketball League, National Basketball Conference, and Liga Pilipinas. There, he got reunited with Alvin Grey, his former Adamson teammate and then-member of the UST coaching staff.

“Ni-refer ako niya ko kay Coach Pido and nakuha naman ako. The rest is history,” said Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz joined the Growling Tigers in 2012. At that time, he mainly served as a skills coach, helping the likes of Bautista, Daquioag, and Kim Lo. In only his first year, he already experienced the difficulties of steering a team to the Last Dance, only to falter in the end. It was one hell of a Baptism of Fire.

In 2013, his role got more significant. Even though Estong Ballesteros was the top assistant coach, Jarencio usually sought Dela Cruz for suggestions during games. It wasn’t a knock on Ballesteros but more of a testament to Dela Cruz’s aptitude.

Last year, he was named as Jarencio’s replacement. After only two years, he became the head coach of the second winningest team in UAAP history. He beat out two well-known names for the job in Ballesteros and former UST gunner Gerard Francisco.

“Hindi ko alam kung anong nakita nila sa’kin. Basta sabi lang ng officials, mag-apply ako kung available ako. Matagal na rin naman akong coach. Siguro nakita lang nila na maayos ako magtrabaho,” said Dela Cruz.

His first year as head coach, however, was turbulent. UST fans foamed at the mouth and called for his banishment as the Growling Tigers crumbled to an embarrassing sixth place finish despite having an almost intact roster.

But now, he has proven everyone wrong.

Dela Cruz is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of sorts. Off the court, he’s approachable and mild-mannered. Even coming from a loss, he manages to smile when talking to reporters. On the court, he’s tough and demanding. He doesn’t hide his anger and frustrations. He grabs his players by their jerseys and berates them with the passion of an army drillmaster. In their Final Four game against National University, he forcefully pinned his arm across Kent Lao’s chest, demonstrating him how to play tough defense.  

“Lalambut-lambot e. Hindi puwede malamya, Final Four na ‘to e. Pero siyempre, as a form of motivation ko lang din ‘yun,” explained Dela Cruz after the game.

Yes, he can be an assertive motivator too. He’s the one who decided to call his team a “family” this season. While others deem it as a cheesy gimmick, his players have genuinely bought into it. In interviews, they rarely call themselves a team. They’re a family and Dela Cruz is the strict yet reasonable patriarch.

When UST lost to Ateneo in the second round, he plastered a tape over the “HEART” on his yellow t-shirt, which originally read “NO HEART, NO CHANCE”—the team’s battle-cry.

“Nawala ‘yung puso namin, kaya ko tinakpan,” said Dela Cruz.

Today, Dela Cruz and longtime UST assistant coach Cenen Duenas are the only ones left from the 2012 and 2013 coaching staff. They know the ache and the anguish of seeing the title disappear like an airplane jetting off a runway.

“Composure sa endgame ang naging problema namin nun. We need to learn from that. Mahalaga ang mental toughness,” said Dela Cruz. “In Game 1 (against FEU), we were in the game, we were leading by one, then we collapsed. We have to be physically fit and mentally prepared.”   

He has paid his dues. He may not be as esteemed as his fellow tacticians, but he sure can coach. He wants nothing more but to repay UST by giving the team the coveted championship.

“It’s not yet over. Ipapakita namin na kaya naming bumawi at ‘yung willingness na manalo,” said Dela Cruz.

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