By Joaquin Henson (The Philippine Star) | Updated December 27, 2016 - 12:00am
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Ben Mbala (left) with two-time Olympic cager Tony Genato.
MANILA, Philippines - La Salle’s Ben Mbala said yesterday if ever an invitation to join Gilas as a naturalized player comes his way, it would be an honor to play for the country that the Cameroonian calls his second home.
“I love the Philippines,” said the 6-7 Mbala who this season became La Salle’s first UAAP senior men’s basketball MVP in 17 years. “I can see myself settling down in the Philippines but right now, I’m not thinking of getting married or raising a family. My priorities are to win more championships for La Salle and earn a degree.”
Mbala, 21, is taking up Business Management. He was on the Dean’s List two terms back and almost made it again this past term. “I got an A in Economics Statistics but my GPA wasn’t high enough for the Dean’s List,” he said. “As a student athlete, I’m trying hard to be a good role model. You’ll notice when I play, I smile a lot. Coach Aldin (Ayo) always reminds me to keep my cool because opponents will try to get me out of my game and mess with my mind by roughing me up. But I just walk away from all that with a smile. They double team me, sometimes triple team me, they choke me, they hold me down. I try not to get frustrated when the referees don’t call the foul. It’s worse when I get banged up and I get called for the foul. I know if I mess up, it won’t be good for the team. I’d rather be on the court than on the bench.”
Next season, La Salle will miss Jeron Teng, Jason Perkins, Julian Sargent and Thomas Torres who’ve completed their years of UAAP eligibility but Mbala said the Archers will remain competitive. “I remember when we won the Filoil Flying V championship, Jason and Julian didn’t play and Jeron missed some key games because of injury,” he said. “Still, we were competitive. Of course, we’ll miss them all, especially Jeron. We’ll also miss Thomas who sets up our plays and is such a smart point guard. That means others must step up. We’ve got guys like Prince (Rivero), Abu (Tratter) and Kib (Montalbo). Aljun (Melecio) will only get better as he matures. Mark (Dyke) is adjusting to the college game and I expect him to contribute. He was a big man in high school and now, his role is different. Andrew (Langston) took a year off and it was a blessing. He played without pressure in the offseason and picked up his game. Then, we’ve got guys like Santi (Dodong Santillan) who’s a stretch four and Gabe (Capacio) who’s a deadshot shooter.”
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Mbala said there’s pressure on La Salle to repeat. “This early, they’re calling us the team to beat,” he said. “I know the other teams are beefing up so it will be a challenge for us to retain the title. But my goal is a three-peat. After I graduate, I hope to continue playing. Joining Gilas would be an option if I’m invited to play as a naturalized player.”
The other day, Mbala met two-time Olympic cager Tony Genato, a veteran of the Philippine team that took third place and the bronze medal at the FIBA World Championships in Rio de Janeiro in 1954. Genato, now 87, played at the 1952 Helsinki and 1954 Olympics. “Of course, it’s a dream to play in the Olympics,” he said. “I’ve been invited to train with the Cameroon national team but the schedule conflicts with my studies. Besides, basketball isn’t a priority sport in Cameroon where football is No. 1. NBA players from Cameroon don’t play for the national team because the game isn’t popular, there is little support and they’re not covered by insurance.”
Mbala said to move up to a higher level of play, he has to work on his mid-range game. “In the UAAP, I worked hard to get stronger so I could power from the low post,” he said. “My weight went up to 240 and it made me slower. I plan to go down to 220 or 225 for next season. I want to work on my dribble, mid-range shot and face-up game. I know I can’t just be a back-to-the-basket guy.”
Mbala said unpredictability is vital to get ahead in the UAAP. “In the beginning of the season, we were blowing away opponents but when the playoffs started, it was a different story,” he said. “We were scouted and our opponents were figuring out how to break our press. But we also scouted our opponents so we made our own adjustments in offense and defense. I learned a lot from Coach Aldin who’s like a father to us. His mayhem style is effective, it’s chaotic. We press, trap, dislocate and make it difficult for the other teams to advance the ball. Coach Aldin taught us to play as a team, we’re not a one-man wrecking crew. Neither Jeron nor I could do it alone.”
Mbala said he expected FEU to play in the finals instead of Ateneo. “FEU was tough, big and experienced with (Prince) Orizu and (Reymar) Jose,” he said. “It would’ve been more difficult to beat FEU in the finals. I really wanted to play Ateneo in the finals because they took something from us in the eliminations and were the only team to beat us the entire season. I thought FEU would beat Ateneo in the Final Four but Ateneo played with a lot of heart. Coach Tab (Baldwin) did a good job of bringing Ateneo to the finals and giving us a hard fight.”