RAUL Soyud can't seem to believe how his life has changed these days.
After spending a good part of the past decade struggling to break out, everything suddenly fell into place for Soyud: One impressive PBA season with NLEX led to a Most Improved Player nomination, a contract extension, and just recently a call-up to join the Gilas Pilipinas pool for the Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers.
Such blessings are almost unbelievable for the 30-year old big man from Bacolod, who had to overcome one road block after another in pursuit of his basketball dream. He came close to quitting altogether not a few times, he admits. Fortunately, Soyud stayed the course and is reaping the fruits of his labor.
His fascinating story is all the inspiration you need on this day.
The kid grew up in Bago City, Negros Occidental playing with his cousins and uncles in a makeshift basketball court under a row of coconut trees near their home. That led him to an inter-barangay tournament where he was spotted by coaches of West Negros University, not exactly for his skills but for his height.
But after a week of intense training with the varsity team, Soyud gave up and decided to quit and go home altogether.
“Nakita nila ako sa inter-barangay na sinalihan ng high school team ko,” said Soyud in an interview on SPIN Sidelines. “Pinag-try out nila ako tapos nung nag-ensayo ako, umuwi na ako kasi hindi ko kaya.”
When asked what made him quit, Soyud said he was not used to the training regimen required of varsity players. All along, he said that playing for the school team only required him to play and nothing else.
“Hindi ganun kasistemado ‘yung pinanggalingan ko. Sa ilalim lang ng mga niyog, pustahan kasama ng mga tito at pinsan ko. Ginagawa ko lang noon, pinapatira lang ako ng mga tiyuhin ko kasi hindi naman ako marunong. Parang patatayuin lang ako [sa gitna] at sasabihin na, 'Diyan ka lang.'
“Grabe po kasi ang takbuhan,” Soyud added on what drove him to go home after he had had it with training. “Hindi po ako sanay kaya umuwi po ako sa amin. Hindi ko inakala na kapag pumasok ka ng first year, araw-araw ang ensayo tapos ganun ka-grabe. Sa barangay namin, kapag naglaro ka, wala ng warm-up, warm-up. Derecho laro na agad.”
Fortunately for Soyud, his coach saw enough potential to fetch him in Bago City and convince Soyud to come back to WNU so that he could also study for free. His parents agreed that it would be better for Soyud to return to school.
“Nung una po, nangayaw po ako sa university kasi hindi ako sanay sa ensayo. One week pa lang po akong nag-eensayo, umuwi na ako. Sabi ko sa magulang ko, ayaw ko na po, hindi ko na kaya ‘yung ganung ensayo.
"Nagpapasalamat ako sa coach ko, si Dennis Tumayan na sinundo pa po ako uli sa bahay po namin. Sabi niya, ‘Sa una lang ‘yan, tiisin mo lang ‘yan, masasanay ka rin.’ Dahil na rin sa sinabi ng magulang ko na hindi namin kayang paaralin ng college, kailangan po talaga magpursigeng makuha sa varsity para kahit papaano, makapasok sa kolehiyo”
Life was so tough for the Soyud family back then that he didn’t have enough money to buy a pair of basketball shoes. When he agreed to return to WNU, Soyud realized that the athletic scholarship would help his family financially - and give him a chance to give them a better life in the future.
That convinced him to return to school.
“Ni sapatos nga po, wala ako nung nagta-try out ako. Size 15 na po ‘yung size ng paa ko, ‘yung sapatos ko [size] 12. Nag-eensayo ako nang walang medyas para mapasok ko lang ‘yung sapatos ko [sa paa ko].
“Nung nandoon na ako, binilhan nila ako ng sapatos. Doon na rin nagsimula na magpursigeng matuto kasi sayang ‘yung opportunity na binigay. Second chance na eh. Umuwi na po ako, sinundo pa po ako ng coach ko.”
All the hours of training at West Negros U led to a golden opportunity as University of the Philippines recruited him sometime in 2010. However, he suffered an ACL injury in practice while he was undergoing residency.
Again, a dispirited Soyud felt basketball was perhaps not for him.
“Pagdating ko po doon, nag-ensayo ako tapos nung last day ng ensayo namin nung year na ‘yun, na-ACL ako. Na-tengga ako. Doon po nakapag-isip na parang hindi para sa akin ‘yung basketball kasi na-injured ako," recalled Soyud. “[Pero] sabi ko sa sarili ko, tutal nandito na ako, tatiyagain ko kung saan man ako dalhin ng kapalaran ng basketball.”
Soyud played two seasons with the Fighting Maroons, enough for him to get another break when Blackwater picked him in the PBA D-League. The same ballclub drafted him in 2014 where he was selected in the third round. But Soyud immediately got a reality check on draft day when he was left unsigned by the Elite.
The 6-6 big man toiled through tryouts at NLEX, Meralco, and GlobalPort. Eventually, the Road Warriors, coached at the time by fellow Negrense Boyet Fernandez, called him up and invited him to join the team, but only as a reserve.
“Sinabihan ako ni coach Boyet na ‘To, dito ka na lang muna. Kahit mag-reserve ka, tiyagain mo.’ That time, ang dating big man ng NLEX. Sila Kuya Asi (Taulava), kuya Enrico (Villanueva), Rob Reyes, ang dami.
"[Pero] okay lang ako basta nandito na ako.”
At NLEX, Soyud was either a third-stringer, a reserve, or a practice player. There was even a point where Soyud was already being groomed to play for NLEX, not for the Road Warriors but for its corporate team, in the inter-company tournament MVP Olympics of the Manny V. Pangilinan group.
“Laging practice player, reserve, tapos bandang huli, almost maging company player na ako ng NLEX. Kasama ko na sila boss [Ronald] Dulatre [NLEX team representative] tuwing Sabado,” Soyud recalled.
A coaching change at NLEX turned out to be the chance Soyud was waiting for in his PBA career when Yeng Guiao took over in 2016.
Guiao gave the gangling big man a break — not because he was impressed with Soyud but only because he didn't have a lot of options.
"Wala tayong masyadong malalaki," Guiao remembered telling his coaches, "pagtiyagaan na natin [itong si Soyud]."
Still, Guiao's arrival represented a glimmer of hope for the humble big man.
“Nung nagpalit ng coach, pagdating po ni coach Yeng, sinabihan ako ni boss Ronald (Dulatre) na i-try ko po at baka makuha. Nag-try out po uli ako.”
In typical Guiao style, the NLEX coach was tough on Soyud, not hesitating to curse him out during practice and games. Soyud admitted he got affected by Guiao’s outspoken ways, but also realized that the coach was only after his improvement.
“Nung 2016, doon na nag-start na nala-lineup na ako. Doon na ako nag-umpisa na nakakalaro. Pero sobrang nag-aadjust ako dahil hindi naman ako regular sa lineup. Nung una po, sobrang hirap. Hindi ko po halos naranasan na maglaro ng matagal. Nangangapa pa ako. Nung mga unang game, pinapagalitan ako ni coach Yeng, dinidibdib ko pa po kung bakit ganun.
“Nung pangalawang season ko, sabi ko sa sarili ko, pinapagalitan ako ni coach, ginagamit pa rin ako. Dapat unti-unti akong matuto at mag-improve para hindi siya magsawa ng kakasalita sa akin at galit. Pinupursige ko lang na hindi ko man lang makuha ng agad-agad, paunti-unti hanggang sa maka-adjust ako.”
Soyud got his long-awaited break in the PBA's pandemic season, after the Road Warriors were left scraping the bottom of the barrel after grudgingly trading starting slotman Poy Erram to sister team TnT Tropang Giga.
Of all the NLEX big men, it was Soyud who made the most of the opportunity. He averaged 10 points and 6.8 rebounds while playing all 11 games with the Road Warriors during the Philippine Cup bubble campaign.
Soyud said he made a deliberate effort to prepare for the bubble season after the Erram trade. He primarily worked on his strength being an undersized big man at 6-foot-6.
“Nung na-trade po si Poy, nalungkot kami kasi gumaganda na ‘yung takbo ng team. Nung nangyari ‘yun, sabi ni coach Yeng, dapat ‘yung mga big men, mag-step up kasi malaking bagay ‘yung mawawala. Tinatak ko sa isip ko na lalo ko pang sipagan. Kung hindi ko man mabigay ‘yung ganung numero ni Poy, may maitutulong ako sa team,” he said.
After a solid 2020 outing, Soyud reaped the fruits of his labor. NLEX signed him to an extension. It was also during the contract signing when he learned that Gilas program director Tab Baldwin wanted to invite him to take part in the national team’s training bubble in Calamba, Laguna for the Fiba Asia qualifiers.
Soyud said he is forever grateful to NLEX for never giving up on him.
“Sobrang blessed po kasi pina-sign uli ako ng management. Halos dito na po ako natuto. Sobrang blessed na dito na uli ako makakawork.
“Tuwang tuwa po ako,” Soyud said on the Gilas call-up. “Hindi ko inakala na makakapunta ako. Lahat ng players naman yata sa Pilipinas, pinangarap na kahit ma-invite lang sa pool na ‘yun. Sobrang blessed talaga ‘yung year na ‘to na pagpasok. Daming blessings agad.”
Amid all the blessings, Soyud said he won't change. He'll continue to play with a chip on his shoulder. He doesn't even hold high hopes about the Gilas bubble, but, in typical Soyud fashion, vowed to contribute in any way he can.
“Ako po, iga-grab ko ‘yung opportunity na masama po sa bubble na matuto sa mga mas magaling sa akin. Makakuha ng experience para kung hindi man makuha, magamit sa team namin. The usual lang na ginagawa ko," he said.
"Hindi naman ako kasing talented ng ibang players na kasama doon. Sipag lang siguro at hardwork… ‘Yun lang naman ang role ko sa team, kung ano ang maitutulong pa para hindi naman masayang ‘yung opportunity na binigay nila sa akin.”
WATCH the SPIN Sidelines episode with Raul Soyud: