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    Old coach recalls odd Onwubere journey from awkward kid to PBA starter

    Oct 24, 2020

    SIDNEY Onwubere is playing the best basketball of his PBA career at Rain or Shine — a far cry from his first few years where he was, at best, a third stringer bouncing around the pro league.

    On Thursday, Onwubere continued his consistent play in the PBA Philippine Cup when he topscored for the Elastopainters with 16 points in an 89-88 loss to Alaska at the Angeles University Foundation Sports Arena and Cultural Center.

    The one man proudest of Onwubere’s performance is Azlie Guro, his high school coach at Emilio Aguinaldo College-Immaculate Concepcion Academy.

    “Nagulat ako. Akala ko kasi mga after five o six games pa ‘yan bago mag-first five o magagamit hanggang dulo,” Guro told SPIN.ph on Friday. “Eh nakita ko kahapon, first five na, nasa dulo na, lagi siyang nasa dulo. Siyempre, kapag nasa dulo ka, ibig sabihin, may tiwala si coach sa'yo.”

    Guro was among Onwubere's first teachers, having helped mold a 6-foot-1 lanky player with limited basketball skills back in 2009.

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    “Summer ng 2009, alam na namin na mag-e-NCAA na kami. Pumunta si coach Nomar Isla, siya ang head coach namin nun, at may kasama siyang referee na tiga-Imus tapos kasama si Sidney," Guro recalled.

    "Nagpunta nga ng office ‘yun, sabi niya, graduate siya ng Grade 6. Pero talagang totally, sinabi ni coach Nomar tsaka ni Sidney, hindi pa talaga ganun ka-skilled. Sabi namin, 'Sige okay ‘yan, may three years pa siya at long-term program naman,'” said Guro.

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    Onwubere immediately plunged into the rigorous trainings of EAC-ICA in preparation for the school’s first season in the NCAA. The kid barely survived.

    “Kinabukasan, nag-training, hindi sanay sa conditioning, sa takbuhan. Meron pa ngang time nung linggong ‘yun na [may mga player na] talagang sumuka, umayaw, kasi mahirap. Hindi sanay. Tiniyaga na lang namin,” he said.

    Given his limited skills, the EAC-ICA coaching staff focused on developing Onwubere's basics his first year with the team. He proved to be a fast learner as he immediately became a key player for the Brigadiers in the first few years of the school in the NCAA.

    "Hindi pa ganun karunong,” Guro recalled. “Kailangan mo pang turuan ng pivot, low post.”

    It was actually in his second year of high school where his game really took off. By 2011, he was already the main man of the Brigadiers, leading the school to its only Final Four appearance. He was also part of the Mythical Five and named Defensive Player of the Year.

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    “Talagang skills development at conditioning [ang focus] dahil basic fundamentals, medyo off. ‘Yung laki at ‘yung passion, nandoon. Kinausap na lang namin. Nung second year high school, medyo nagagamit na siya. May minutes na at nasa rotation na.

    "Inayos din namin ‘yung pag-uugali at gina-guide namin. Magaling din ang coaching staff namin, sina coach Mark Montes, coach Ryan Bahalla. Talagang tumulong para ma-develop ‘yung bata,” said Guro.

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    “Noong 2011, lumabas na ‘yung galing. Kada-quarter, seven minutes, nine minutes, nakikita na namin na gumagaling na. Pinapunta pa nga namin siya sa big man skills camp kasama ng mga ibang player namin. Nandoon sina Japeth [Aguilar], sina Greg Slaughter. Nag-unti-unti na siyang tinitignan kung ano gagawin,” he added.

    College scouts soon began recruiting the Filipino with Nigerian roots. He chose to stay at EAC, where, even though he had a reputable high school credentials, he earned his way into the rotation of the Generals.

    “Ibang laban na kapag college. Back to basics uli. Kinausap ko uli siya na nung dati ka sa amin, 2009, talagang wala. Eh ngayon, panibago na. Palaki ka ng katawan, patibayan mo loob mo, back-to-zero ang mentality mo na puwede kang gamitin, puwedeng hindi ka gamitin dahil first year ka pa lang. Alam ko nabigyan na siya ng break, 2015 na,” said Guro.

    Onwubere won a Mythical Five spot during the 2017 season for EAC where he was part of an esteemed group that included CJ Perez and Javee Mocon. Guro credited Onwubere’s blue-collar work ethic in hastening his development.

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    “Aside from sa genes niya, masipag ‘yung bata. Although makulit, alam mo ‘yung kapag practice, practice talaga. Kapag natututo na okay na siya sa isang skills, start naman siya sa iba. Talagang nakikinig. Talagang masipag,” he added.

    In 2018, Onwubere was drafted eighth overall by Phoenix in the PBA. But just like in high school and college, nothing was handed to Onwubere that he didn't work hard for. He was traded to Rain or Shine in 2019 but averaged just 4.5 minutes a game in 20 appearances that season.

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    Guro, however, said Onwubere knew what he had to do. He had seen that path before.

    “Sabi ko nga, nung high school siya, first year, hindi nagagamit. Pagdating sa college, ganun din, first year [di nagamit]. Nung 2018, ako ‘yung naghatid sa kanya sa PBA draft, sabi namin, tiyagain natin. Hindi lahat mabibigyan agad ng playing time although magaling ka sa college. Still, back-to-zero ka agad.

    “Sabi namin, tiyagain mo lang, practice hard, ang basketball dadating ang tamang panahon. Lagi kong sinasabi, ‘Nung 2009, kung sumuko ka, wala ka ngayon. Nung 2013, nabangko ka, hindi ka ginagamit, [kung sumuko ka] wala ka ngayon,’” said Guro.

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    The patience and hard work is again paying off.

    Through four games, Onwubere is the second leading scorer of Rain or Shine with an average of 10.25 points, just behind Mocon. He is also tallying 4.25 rebounds, and has converted five triples, good for a share of third with Rey Nambatac.

    Until now, Guro continues to give encouraging words to his former player. One advice rings true above all else.

    Aim high but stay grounded.

    “Magkausap kami kanina. Sabi ko, ituloy mo lang. Hindi puwedeng makontento ka diyan. Tiyagain mo lang. Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga players ko, be humble, maging maayos ang ugali, at makinig pa rin kay coach," the veteran coach said.

    "Yung pressure, ‘yung challenge nandoon lalo. Kailangan, wag ka magyayabang, wag lalaki ulo, at iimprove mo ‘yung mga pagkukulang,” he added.

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      But more than his gains in the PBA, Guro, who is still the head coach of EAC-ICA until now, said he is proud of how the Cavite native made an effort to finish his studies even when he was already a professional basketball player. Onwubere earned a degree in BS Information Technology which he finished in 2019.

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      “Ang pinakamaganda sa kanya, naka-graduate siya. Pinangako niya sa akin ‘yun [na maga-graduate siya]. Nung nag-PBA siya, sabi niya papasok pa rin ako. Tapos pinakita niya ‘yung picture niya na naka-toga siya. Sabi ko, ‘Okay na Sid, mag-PBA ka na.’"

      ‘Yun naman goal ko as coach, makatapos ka ng pag-aaral at makapag-PBA ka. Eh ngayon, gumaganda pa ang career. Sabi ko ituloy mo na ‘yan,” he said.

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