NEGROS Occidental has always been a frequent destination for PBA when it comes to out-of-town games, with Bacolod and Victorias City even serving as hosts for All-Star festivities in the past.
Yet seeing his hardcourt heroes in the flesh in his home province has been a case of so close yet so far for Jeff Manday.
"Kahit palagi dito naglalaro ang PBA, di ako nakakapanood kasi ang layo ng bahay namin at wala pa akong pamasahe at pambili ng ticket dahil sa sobrang hirap ng buhay," said the Bacolod native.
Now, Manday has a chance to be with guys who he was only watching on television before as he vies to make it to the league by way of the PBA Rookie Draft.
Truth be told, basketball wasn't Manday's first sport.
"Naging marathoner ako nung high school," he recalled. "Simula pa noong bata pa ako, mabilis talaga ako kaya naging atleta din ako sa track and field."
His speed only helped him when he transitioned to basketball back in third year high school, and a year after, he was already zooming past defenders going coast-to-coast on the hardcourt.
"Sumali na ako ng mga interschool league at kinukuha na ako ng mga ibang eskwelahan para lumaro," he said.
Hardships in life, however, were just too big not to notice and Manday was close to resigning to the fact that he may no longer progress in college.
But an invitation from Colegio de San Agustin in Bacolod to join its basketball team opened doors for him. When the school saw action in NOPSSCEA, team managers in Colegio de Sta. Ana de Victorias offered him a spot in their team, with the caveat that his brother will also be taken in as a package.
"Kinausap nila ako and good offer naman kasi kulang din kami financially. Grabe rin ang suporta ng school kaya nag-decide ako to grab the opportunity, lalo na nung sinabi ko na kung pwede makapaglaro din ang kapatid ko at nag-agree din sila," he said.
It only taught him to never to give up on his dreams no matter how tough his struggles were.
And that move paid dividents as the Titans secured a three-peat in NOPSSCEA from 2017 to 2019, with Manday winning MVP honors in all three seasons.
CSAV also captured back-to-back titles in PRISAA during his time there, and the biggest achievement came in the 2019 Unigames when it stunned fancied Enderun College in the finals.
With Manday making his mark in the Negros Island, it was only a matter of time before a number of coaches noticed. Coach Yong Garcia did and took him to Marinerong Pilipino for the 2020 PBA D-League Aspirants' Cup.
Manday tallied eight points, two rebounds, and an assist in 20 minutes against lowly Karate Kid-CEU, but was sparingly used in the game against ADG Dong-Mapua, logging only six minutes where he had three points and one assist.
The 6-foot guard felt like he was only slowly getting his groove with the Skippers, learning from fancied peers like Jamie Malonzo and brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano. That was until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the G-League to stop operations.
Unfortunate as his fortunes were, Manday, as the case before, isn't giving up.
After all, he has yet to rub elbows against his longtime idol Jayson Castro.
"Alam ko na matagal na siya sa PBA at madami na rin siyang experiences at gusto kong matuto mula sa kanya," he said. "Gusto ko rin matuto ng iba pang skills sa basketball at kung paano niya na-achieve yung mga yun."
"Bukod sa basketball, gusto ko ring matuto ng mga life experiences sa kanya at kung paano ko mahaharap ang bagong journey ko dahil ako ay baguhan pa lamang."
Manday has kept himself in tip-top shape during the pandemic while also helping his family earn a living by selling fruits and seafood in Bacolod.
"Kahit na anong pwede pang ibenta para lang magka-pera para sa pamilya," he said.
It really is the core for all of it all for Manday: his desire to give his family a better life.
"Palaging nanonood ang pamilya ko sa bawat laro ko, maski liga man o sa eskwelahan. Nakita nila kung ano ang aking kakayahan at mga skills sa basketball kaya sila po ang nag-udyok sa akin para sumali ng PBA Draft," the 25-year-old said.
Realistically speaking, only a few aspirants year-in and year-out make it to the PBA.
But to Manday, whatever his luck may be, he's just glad to be part of this process, taking in every lesson he could take as he remains optimistic for what the future holds.
"Kahit na anong mangyari, babaunin ko ang mga matututunan ko mula sa experience na ito. Naniniwala kasi ako na pag para sa yo ang isang bagay, kahit anong mga hindrances ay ibibigay nito sa iyo," he said.
"Hinding hindi ako magsisisi kasi alam kong ginawa ko ang lahat ng makakaya ko. At alam ko na if one door closes, other door opens. Kapag hindi ito ang para sa akin, alam kong may mas nakakabuti na nakalaan para sa akin."