FOR someone who bid his time before getting his big break, Lou Gatumbato may just be the perfect fit to be the head of the technical group for the Metro League.
After all, it took him six long years before finally getting a crack in the big leagues.
"Yung journey ko, nagdaan talaga ako sa slim chance of getting in," he shared.
Graduating from St. Benilde, Gatumbato took his act to the MBA with the Iloilo Megavoltz and honed his skills in the now-defunct PBL before throwing his name in the 2004 PBA Draft.
Unfortunately, luck did not smile his way that time, going undrafted that left him in limbo before going to Liga Pilipinas.
But in 2010, Air21 gave him his long-awaited chance as a practice player. He didn't waste that chance, leading to his eventual signing that made him the third oldest rookie to make his PBA debut.
"Ininvite lang ako to be a practice player, then all of a sudden, nagkaroon ako ng chance makipag-practice sa kanila. In a week’s time, na-kundisyon ako, napansin yung skills ko, at nabigyan ako ng chance. Nung sinabi ko kay Lord na bigyan lang ako ng chance makalaro, I promised I will grab the opportunity which is nangyari naman," he said.
Gatumbato was 31 years, seven months, and 13 days old when made his PBA debut for the Express in his side's 82-77 win over Barako Bull.
To date, only two other players were able to beat him for the feat: Manny Pacquiao, who played his first PBA game at 35 years, 10 months, and two days-old back in 2014, and Jeffrey Sanders, who entered at 32 years, two months, and 12 days-old in 2003, according to stats compiled by PBA chief statistician Fidel Mangonon III.
Though Gatumbato only spent two seasons in the league, averaging 3.3 points and 1.9 assists in his stops with Air21 and Barako Bull, his unconventional path of making it in the PBA is already an experience on its own -- one which he believes he can bank on as he takes the task of finding diamonds in the rough in the grassroots league.
"Dito sa M-League, nakikita mo yung potential ng mga player at nakikita mo na pwede rin silang magkaroon ng magandang future sa basketball," said the now-39-year-old official.
"It's all about developing and scouting talents that are out there na hindi nabigyan ng pagkakataon makalaro sa college o sa high school. Magandang liga ito to scout and look for other talents dahil sa palagay ko, marami dyan."
It's a weird twist of fate for the steady point guard as he now works closely with the game officials -- ones who he admitted were his biggest adversaries back in his playing days.
"Dati kasi nung naglalaro ako, kaaway ko yung referee. Ngayon, baliktad na. Kakampi ko na sila ngayon at nagtutulungan kami," said Gatumbato, whose current job entails him to work closely with PBA's supervisor of officials Boy Cruz for the league, which is managed by tournament director Bonnie Tan, finance officer Waiyip Chong, deputy tournament director Mangonon, and commissioner Glenn Capacio.
"Kung meron kaming mga nakikita na hindi okay na tawag, inaayos namin. Kumbaga, nasa side na nila ako ngayon. Wina-watch out namin yung mga players na feeling namin may gagawing hindi okay sa mga kalaban nila. Yun ang gusto naming ayusin, yung mapaganda ang mga tawagan para mapaayos ang liga."
It was a tough but welcome adjustment for Gatumbato, who's slowly realizing how little most of the players know about the game's rules with him now seeing the other side of the coin.
“It’s really an eye-opener, lalo na kung nanggaling ka sa pagiging player. Ang dami mong nare-realize at dami mong nakikita na ganito pala ang buhay ng referee and working sa technical side ng basketball. Mahirap din pala talaga pag ikaw ang referee,” he said.
“Na-realize ko lang rin na yung trabaho nila is talagang on decision-making. Kung ano ang nakita nila, yun ang tinatawag nila. Noong naglalaro ako, hindi ko maintindihan yun eh. But now, talagang makikita mo. Meron pang review at slow-mo na makakatulong sa atin sa officiating. Parang pag nakita mo yun, mas mapapakampi ka sa referees na tama yung tinatawag nila.”
Knowing how slim the margin of error is for the game officials, Gatumbato did acknowledge that it’s unavoidable that the referees will commit errant calls. But that’s where his job as the head of the technical group comes, with him explaining to the men in stripes the misjudgments they’ve committed during the game.
“Minsan kung may mali, sinasabihan natin sila para mag-adjust sila. Pinapaintindi natin sa mga referees na kailangan nilang ayusin ang tawag for the benefit of both teams,” he said.
Rookie as he may be in this new endeavor, Gatumbato still holds the same passion as he did when he was the one playing. And he hopes that just like his path to the PBA, all of his sacrifices will be worth it in the end.
“Hopefully, ma-overcome ko yung challenges at masanay ako sa bago nating role kasi itong M-League, hindi ito fly-by-night league. I believe we have a well-managed league and I think this will be a successful league,” he said.