JERICHO Cruz was thrilled to be given the opportunity to play in the PBA again following his trade to NLEX on Monday.
He's more excited over a reunion with coach Yeng Guiao.
“Nami-miss ko nga yung mga mura ni Coach Yeng, e,” he said with a laugh at the other end of the line, the joy and relief in his voice so obvious.
On a serious note, Cruz heaved a sigh of relief after the most distressing period of his pro career spanning more than two months finally came to an end a three-team trade among TnT, NLEX, and NorthPort with him as the centerpiece was approved by the PBA after a long delay.
Cruz, 28, said he missed playing from the moment TnT management decided to put him on the injured/reserved list, and later on relagated him to a restricted free agent and told not to attend team practices anymore.
The former Adamson standout admitted he was at a loss when the Katropa decided to put him in the freezer.
“Ang hirap kasi hindi ko alam kung bakit ako nawala, wala akong idea. Wala akong sagot,” said Cruz, looking back. “Parang ang hirap kasi walang nagsabi kung ano ang ginawa ko. I was left in the dark.”
Despite being in the doldrums, Cruz kept a positive outlook, turning to boxing and playground basketball to keep himself in shape.
There were also family and friends he was able to turn to whenever he felt a bit depressed, especially with several trade proposals involving him always getting aborted for one reason or another at the last minute.
“I spent time with my family and two kids, and doon sa village namin naglalaro, nagpapapawis kasama yung mga friends ko,” he said.
The waiting game came to an end when finally a deal was struck among TnT, NLEX and NorthPort signaled the new chapter in Cruz’s basketball career, under the same coach that gave him his biggest break in the PBA.
“Sobrang gaan ng loob ko at sobrang happy ko. Hindi ko ma-explain 'yung saya kasi alam naman natin na umangat yung career ko dahil kay coach Yeng,” he said of the veteran coach, who selected him in the first round (9th overall) of the 2014 draft.
“Kung saan man ako ngayon, dahil kay coach Yeng. Siya yung bumuhay ng career ko sa PBA, binigyan niya ako ng chance na makapagpakita.”
Despite the anguish, Cruz said he doesn’t abhor ill feelings against TnT, which acquired him from Rain or Shine in a 2018 trade involving Sidney Onwubere, Kris Rosales, and a 2018 first-round pick (which turned out to be Javee Mocon).
“Wala naman. Wala naman akong karapatan na magtanim [ng galit] or sumama yung loob ko kasi sila 'yung nagpapasahod sa akin, sila nagpapakain ng family ko,” he said. “I have nothing against Talk ‘N Text. Kung yun ang decision nila, I respect it.”
At NLEX, Cruz will also be reunited with former Shine teammate JR Quinahan, with whom he won a championship along with Guiao during the 2016 Commissioner’s Cup.
He knows expectations will be high on him in the wake of the controversy that surrounded his trade. But Cruz said coming back from such a long layoff won't be easy.
“Out ako for (more than) two months. Kumbaga yung game shape ko, yung rhythm ko, parang off pa,” he admitted.
Cruz is coming in with NLEX sporting a 0-5 (win-loss) record in the Commissioner’s Cup. But no matter what happens, he said this conference will serve as a stepping stone for a better finish in the Governors Cup where the team hopes to finally be at full strength.
“Yung conference na ito parang stepping stone namin sa third conference, kasi alam naman natin babalik na by that time si Kiefer (Ravena), si Kevin (Alas), and Kuya Larry [Fonacier]," he said.
"So magiging stepping stone namin ito para maging ready kami sa third conference,” he added.