THE 2010 PBA Rookie Draft didn't have exactly one of the most exciting batches in history, but it ended up as one of the most talked about in years, all because of a strange decision made by Air21 Express on the No. 1 pick overall.
Air21 that year owned the top three selections in a top-heavy draft pool led by top prospect Rabeh Al-Hussaini, the Ateneo slotman who was coming off an MVP season while leading the Blue Eagles to another UAAP championship.
Almost everybody at the Market! Market! mall in Taguig City expected to hear Al-Hussaini's name ahead of everybody else, and for good reason. The 6-7 Fil-Kuwaiti was both big and nimble with a good touch from the perimeter - qualities rare for a big man.
Instead, the crowd got the surprise of their lives when Air21 officials instead called the name of Noy Baclao, Al-Hussaini's less-heralded frontline partner at Ateneo.
No one was as surprised as Baclao.
"I thought I was going to be No. 2," the soft-spoken pride of Bacolod told reporters as soon as the draft ceremonies were over.
Allan Gregorio, then the team manager of Air21, immediately moved to clear the air over the controversial draft decision, saying it was a 'ploy' meant "to give Baclao added confidence in his game [so he'll try to] play like a true No. 1 pick ... and bring the best out of Al-Hussaini [so he'll aspire to] prove to everyone [that] he deserves to be No. 1."
But what prompted Air21 to make the strange move?
Former members of the Air21 team bared Al-Hussaini was already going around and acting like he was already the No. 1 pick overall days before the draft, so they decided that the incoming rookie needed to be "taught a lesson in humility."
Sought for confirmation, Yeng Guiao, then the Air21 coach, acknowledged there was such a decision from management. Guiao said he even talked to Al-Hussaini about it before the draft so he knew what to expect.
"It didn't really matter. I mean, it was all a matter of bragging rights on who would be picked No. 1 and No. 2," said the veteran coach. "The effect on the team was the same anyway. Pareho pa rin silang mapupunta sa amin."
The warning hardly appeased Al-Hussaini, who made his displeasure known on Draft Day.
"Of course, I’m not happy. Disappointed,” Al-Hussaini told reporters, branding the Air21 move as an "insult." But he also made it clear that he was taking the snub "as a challenge."
Asked about the decision a decade later, Guiao insisted the draft snub hardly made a difference, pointing out that Al-Hussaini ended up averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 37 games with Air21 to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Al-Hussaini's career, however, went downhill after that impressive freshman season, from the time he, Baclao and No. 3 pick Rey Guevarra were traded by Air21 to San Miguel the following year for Danny Seigle, Dondon Hontiveros,Paul Artadi and Dorian Pena.
The enigmatic big man didn't stay long at San Miguel, which traded him to Powerade in the deal that made Marcio Lassiter a Beerman. He hardly warmed his seat at GlobalPort (which acquired the Coca-Cola franchise) before he was shipped to TNT in a multi-team deal that enabled GlobalPort to land Japeth Aguilar.
Ironically, Al-Hussaini and Baclao both figured in a multi-player 2013 trade that also involved Mac Cardona, who joined Air21. The former college teammates ended up swapping places, with Al-Hussaini joining Meralco and Baclao moving to TNT.
After going AWOL (absent without leave) at Meralco, an unexplained stint in Kuwait, and a couple more seasons with the Bolts, NLEX (where he reunited with Guiao) and Blackwater, Al-Hussaini's PBA career looked over at the age of 31. But this is one thing where we'll be happy to be proven wrong.
Baclao had an unspectacular but steadier career, finding his niche at Alaska where he spent four solid seasons before he was left unsigned after suffering an ACL injury late last year. He was recently signed by Meralco, where he was reunited with college coach Norman Black.
Asked if the 2010 draft snub could've altered the career path of the two players, Guiao acknowledged that Al-Hussaini "never lived up to his full potential" but doubted if being made No. 1 pick could've changed anything.
"I don't think it would've mattered," Guiao said. "I doubt if it could've changed anything."