Jojo Lastimosa’s Student-Athlete Journey
Rebound Magazine 2010
Gabriel H. Mercado
Before an interview I would usually try to collect myself so as to establish rapport with my interviewee, but the fact I was to be face to face with one of the PBA’s 25 Greatest Players and an actual childhood idol threw all professional pretense out the window. Thank God therefore, that whilst the idol of countless basketball fanatics, Jojo Lastimosa was as gracious and inviting as an established superstar and busy Coach of a professional team could be. One morning after an Alaska Aces practice at Reyes Gym Mandaluyong, Jojo and I sat to talk about his youth, his years as a student-athlete, success at Cebu and advice for young players. While unloading a couple of bombshells along the way, namely an early decision to not join the National team and leaving Ateneo to go back to CDO.
Jojo most of the research about your early playing years only talk about Cebu. Could you please tell me about the time you were recruited into ADMU?
After high school I was recruited by ADMU by Fr. Raymond Holscher. Actually I still see him today, I’m still close to him. The reason why he was interested in me was he saw me play at Ateneo de Cagayan, where there used to be an ‘inter – Ateneo’ with Ateneo De Cagayan, Ateneo De Manila, Ateneo de Zamboanga, and Naga. It was 1979.
You had started playing in High School?
No I had been playing since I was 9 or 10 years old. I only made varsity when I was in 3rd year high school. I had been playing since I was in elementary, mga liga – liga, mga barangay – barangay. I was a dual – athlete, I played soccer and basketball in HS. I only focused on basketball in 3rd year. At 2nd year I started contemplating whether I’d focus on basketball or soccer.
Fr. Holscher saw me play in a game against ADMU. I was 5’10 maybe, and playing center – forward. Of course tinambakan kami ng ADMU. They were really strong at the time, they had Al Panlilio and Chot Reyes, pero walang naging PBA other than Chot of course (who became a Coach).
Anyway I don’t remember how I played but the thing is they noticed me, and Fr. Holscher said “I’m gonna come back for you next year and I’m gonna recruit you to play basketball in College.” Ako naman taga probinsya sabi ko, something like “Ok sir I’ll see you next year!”, not taking it all that seriously. And then true enough the following year, he actually came back and he told me “I have a ticket and a scholarship for you. Just take your entrance test at the Ateneo”.
What did your parents say?
All my parents wanted for me was to finish College. I am the youngest of five, three boys and two girls and all my siblings finished except me, and if I went to Ateneo it was going to be my first time away from my family. And so I boarded a plane, not knowing what to do during the summer of 1980 around April or May and I went to Ateneo. I was adventurous and I relished the idea. I remember going to Cebu when I was 4th year HS just to try out in one of the Universities, at that time the boat trip was free so I said why not, I’ll try out!
Tell me about life at ADMU?
It was a totally different, difficult experience. Although I had an allowance, I was too shy to get it so I would end up borrowing money from my dorm mates for food, even for my shoes. My parents would send me money but back then you had to go a bank, register and it would take a couple of days before you get it, so it was hard. I ended up being very resourceful. I had friends who helped me out. I befriended some of teammates like Coach Chot. He was older by two years but we were batchmates.
I would say my experience in ADMU was character building. I learned how to fend for myself, to survive and at the same time make something out of myself in the basketball scene. In my first year we were six wins and six losses. In my sophomore year we were also six and six so I played two years, two UAAP seasons.
What positions did you play at the time?
I played three, three – four, parang ganon.
You said HS was difficult, could you relate any particular incident?
Difficult because sometimes I had nothing in my pocket, I was wondering where I could find food. I ended up borrowing and I didn’t like that. I felt that even if I didn’t have shoes, I (wish I could just have) money for food. Plus I was also a student – athlete.
You mentioned you had an allowance, why didn’t you get it?
Probinsyano ako nahihiya ako e (laughs)! I couldn’t go to Fr. Holscher and ask him ‘Can I have my allowance because I was hungry na?’. Di ako sanay ng ganon!
You never did get your allowance?
I did! Whenever he brings it up I would say ‘Oo nga pala Fr. wala na po akong allowance..’, otherwise I wasn’t getting any. My parents of course would send me money from time to time. I would go home around December, there were no more games early in the year. The UAAP was only August to September. Overall we only had twelve games (per year). That was good and bad. Good because you were saved from wear and tear, bad because you weren’t going to improve.
Ok. When did you start feeling confidence about your game?
I was an offensive guy. I was a scorer. I didn’t have any jumpshot going to College. I was athletic because I could really jump. Puro saksak, puro drive, rebound, run. In my first few games of the UAAP season I was still trying to find my niche. But at the 2nd half of the season that’s when I started establishing myself as one of the main guys.
It carried over into my second year. I was the only one selected to the ASEAN Boys Championship, with the National Team 18 and under. I was handpicked along with Samboy Lim, Jerry Gonzales, those guys. But the problem was the practice was at Letran. I did not know how to commute from Katipunan to Letran. So I begged off. I said ‘Coach wala akong way and means para pumunta dun sa Letran’.
Man, what an amazing story! You couldn’t find a way?
(Laughs) I had no clue kung saan yung Letran. My area was just Katipunan and Cubao, Ali Mall. Yun lang. I only tell this story to friends and young athletes from Ateneo. I tell them they’re fortunate these days because you have the support of the community, an allowance, you get your free meals, a tutor, and you get all the shoes that you need, all the other stuff. Before? You get no support from whoever.
Why was it that way? Would you say you were pioneering at the time? Or were there others before you who went through what you did?
No because alam ko noong nirecruit sila Padim Israel and Francis Arnaiz from way back, they had support. These guys won during the time when they were playing San Beda in the NCAA. They had a really good game because they recruited and the support was there. But all of a sudden the support died down. (They only) started to recruit again and I was the only one other than the Chuatico brothers, who came in during my 2nd year.
That is amazing. Ok could we now talk about your playing for University of San Jose Recoletos in Cebu?
Ah I became really known there. That’s where I won my MVP. At Ateneo I was just under the radar. Nobody really knew me. After my first semester, 2nd year at Ateneo my grades weren’t that good. I had the option to be under probation and stay but I had to bring my grades up. So I made a decision. I said ‘You know what? It’s hard being here. Of course I want to study at Ateneo. But if I can’t eat here, and I’m always hungry there’s no way for me to succeed in this situation.’ I took up Business Management.
I was 16 years old and I had a full load in my first year, even without eating ha (laughs) and I was a student – athlete. No tutor, no food, no support, and that was just my first year. Then in the second year I told myself this is too much. Hirap ako mag-aral, minsan hindi ako kumakain ng tama. For me this was not fun. So when I saw I was going to go under probation I said I’m leaving. I’m going home to Cagayan de Oro to explore my future there.
So I took a vacation for one sem and then went to Cebu to visit my brother Danny, he was playing in a commercial team for the University of Southwestern. I was seen by Coach Alcoseba, who was coaching San Jose Recoletos. But before that I didn’t know where to go yet but I was already recruited by Mama’s Love. I was 18-19 years old, it was 1984.
Over there I was happy. I had board and lodging, free food and a monthly salary of P800. At the same time my brother was there and I was just an overnight trip away from home.
(Going back to Cebu) was the biggest step basketball – wise that I took. I was playing for San Juan Recoletos and Mama’s Love at the same time. Mama’s Love had PBA veterans so I was way behind in the lineup. But in SJR I was a fresh face, that’s where I made my name. I made back to back MVPs, I won the Nationals MVP and if I wasn’t thrown out in the Battle of Champions against other schools in Baguio I would have been MVP there.
Back at Ateneo we only had one season after which you’re on your own. At Cebu it was all basketball day in day out, and you go up against really good competition. There’s no way for you not to improve. Cebu players had a reputation for being tough and mean. Their brand of basketball was rough and physical.
Seeing how you’ve managed to observe how recruitment evolved, what can you say to the young players who find themselves in the same place as you were back in the 80s?
Times have definitely changed. Colleges with bigger programs are the ones that get the best players. If I’m a good player I always want to go to Ateneo, La Salle. The small schools have a difficult time getting good players, or maybe chance upon someone ok then try to develop him. Sometimes players stay for a year or two then when they see they’re not getting playing time they transfer, such as my nephew Carlo. He was recruited to Ateneo from Xavier, but he was only 16 and Ateneo’s lineup was really deep, so he went to CSB.
If you ask me what does a player need to do, I’d say he should ask himself ‘am I good enough to play at Ateneo, or DLSU and at the same time study’. Especially Ateneo. If you cannot answer that with a ‘yes’, then it’s better to go somewhere else. But if you really want to go for the academics then La Salle or Ateneo will be the best option for you.