JAYSON Montes arrived so early at the Gatorade Hoops Center along Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong City that he walked in ahead of most of the PBA staff.
"Nauna pa ako sa mga nagaayos ng tarp," he said with a chuckle.
Coming in early for the PBA Draft Combine was part of the plan of the Opol, Misamis Oriental-born dribbler who wanted to beat the Wednesday morning traffic as he came all the way from Trece Martires in Cavite.
But it was also by design.
Being the oldest applicant in the 2022 PBA Rookie Draft, the 5-foot-9 guard also knew that he needs more time to prepare to give it his 100-percent or even more just to make a splash in this field filled with collegiate studs.
"Inagahan ko na iwas traffic, iwas hassle para pagdating dito, proper mindset tapos enjoy," he said.
It wasn't long before Montes realized what he was up against as he tried to keep up with the younger, more celebrated players in the Draft Combine.
"Iba yung level," he sighed. "Akala mo na kundisyon ang katawan mo pero pagdating mo dito, iba na compared sa kanila, sa height, sa build. Pero syempre yung mentality natin, motivation natin, we'll never give up until the end."
It's easy to brand Montes as a nuisance candidate. But during draft season, anyone can dream - Montes included.
It's been more than a decade since he last played college basketball with Emilio Aguinaldo College-Cavite, graduating in 2011 after tournament stints in the UCAA, NCRAA and the Fr. Martin's Cup.
Montes left the country in 2013 for Saudi Arabia where he worked as a waiter.
"Pagka-graduate, yun ang best opportunity na dumating sa akin so ginrab ko lang," he said.
He returned to the country in 2020, marrying his girlfriend at the height of the pandemic and later celebrating the birth of his baby daughter Kianna Gail.
It's this life-changing milestone that pushed Montes to decide to shoot his shot.
"This is my childhood dream. Galing akong Saudi as an OFW. So tinry ko yung draft. Inspired ako sa family ko at sa anak ko. Nung dumating siya sa life namin, siya ang motivation ko," he said.
He's relishing every minute he spends with fellow aspirants, knowing full well that this in all likelihood is as far as he gets.
But he also dares to dream.
"Yung process mismo, yung experience dito na kasama ko sila at sila napapanood mo lang sa TV dati, para nakakalaro mo sila mapa-teammate man o kalaban, it's a good experience na sa akin. Sa basketball career ko, this is the highest level, this stage na naabutan ko."
Montes, who idolizes Mark Caguioa way before he sported a bald head, knows that chances may not favor him come draft day on Sunday, but all he wants to take away from this experience is to be an inspiration especially for those who are still doubting whether it's worth trying.
"At my age of 34, sinubukan ko magpa-draft. So never give up on your dreams," he said. "Stay motivated all day, you never give up in life. Whatever happens, never give up."