HE wasn't even a PBA player, yet Edward Aquino was once one of the most recognizable figures in Philippine basketball. Never mind if at times it was for the wrong reasons.
His name was inevitably brought up amid heated debate over controversial calls during his time in the PBA. Aquino consequently never escaped the wrath of players, coaches, and even fans not just on the court but also online.
It was the nature of the job, but that doesn't mean Aquino was immune from all the insult.
“Sa totoo lang, masakit sa akin,” Aquino said when asked by SPIN.ph how he felt when his decisions were questioned and doubted by teams and fans alike - and his credibility attacked.
Still, Aquino, now 42 and out of the PBA, said he won’t change anything in his life, grateful to the profession that may be thankless yet brought him equal parts joy and heartache.
Unknown to many, Aquino was once on the other side of the fence, being a former varsity player who, like any other cager, had dreams of making it big in the pro ranks.
The 6-foot-3 Aquino played for Philippine Christian University starting in 1993, back when the school was not yet a member of the NCAA.
Back then, the PCU team was still called the Saints and his coaches included Olympian Ramon Lucindo and former PBA players Jojo Villapando and Ricky Cui. Aquino and PCU competed in the old CAACUP league where rivals included the University of Manila, led by Don Camaso and Joel Dualan.
When the Saints became the Dolphins, Aquino became part of the first-ever PCU team to play in the NCAA in 1996, although the school went winless in its rookie season.
Aquino never got to finish his studies at PCU since he became a single parent at a young age and was forced to work. The opportunity to become a referee came quite by accident, after he left his job as a waiter in a hotel.
“Umalis ako kasi meron sa akin pinapaamin na hindi naman ako ang gumawa. Sabi ko, may prinsipyo ako, kaya umalis ako. Bakit ako aamin sa isang bagay na hindi ko ginawa?” said Aquino.
Jobless, Aquino stumbled on an article in the sports section of the tabloid Tempo announcing that the old Philippine Basketball League (PBL) was in search of prospective referees.
“Aksidente, sa diyaryo, sa Tempo, nakita ko sa baba (ng pahina) na ang PBL, hiring sila ng referee. Natanggap ako, dun na nagsimula lahat,” he said.
Although he had little technical knowledge about the job, Aquino said being a former player made the transition easy. That and the guidance of mentors led by the late Vic Maglaya, the official who hired him to officiate in the PBL.
“Ang advantage ko lang, naglaro ako ng basketball. Madaling i-adapt ‘yung basketball sa akin kasi siyempre, alam mo ‘yung travelling, alam mo ‘yung foul, hindi mo lang alam ‘yung technicalities. ‘Yun ang inalam ko,” said Aquino.
Once he became a referee, Aquino became a student of the game, learning from veterans led by Maglaya.
“Sabi nga ng the late na Vic Maglaya, una, malaki ka, second advantage mo, naglaro ka ng basketball. Ang kulang mo na lang, knowledge of the rules. ‘Yun ang in-emphasize ko kasi once alam mo na lahat, hindi na mahirap para sa akin,” said Aquino.
Aquino said he once had a chance at becoming a Fiba international referee (IR), but decided to move to the PBA in 2008 - a decision he doesn't regret.
“Muntik pa ako mag-IR. Nag-apply ako ng IR, nung practicum na namin, nag-tune up din ako sa PBA, pinili ko ‘yung PBA. ‘Yung PBA kasi, once in a lifetime na ipatawag ka, hindi ko rin naisip na puwede rin mag-IR sa Fiba, pinakawalan ko. Lahat naman tayo nangarap pero sabi ko, choice ko mag-PBA, hindi ko pinag-isipan,” said Aquino.
Being a referee may not be a glamorous job, but it was a fulfillment of a dream for Aquino.
“Sabi ko, hindi ako naging player ng PBA pero na-continue ko pa rin na nasa sports ako at officiating in line sa basketball,” said Aquino.
‘Iniyakan ko na ‘yan’
Aquino, colleagues conceded, became one of the best referees in the PBA where he reached Class A status. But the veteran ref admitted he wasn't immune to the harsh words from coaches and players or the bashing from fans.
“Umiyak na ako d'yan. Iniyakan ko na ‘yan,” Aquino admitted.
What kept him going, Aquino said, was the desire to have his daughter finish her studies.
“Ang purpose ko naman kaya ako nag-referee para mapa-graduate ‘yung anak ko,” said Aquino.
But Aquino was only human, and nearly quit his job back in 2013. Drained after officiating for 10 straight days in the semifinals of one conference, he also faced accusations of receiving pay-offs.
“Ang sinasabi sa akin, tumatanggap daw ako,” Aquino recalled.
Aquino had a change of heart only after PBA officials led by then commissioner Chito Salud, technical head Perry Martinez, and the late Ramil Cruz stepped in.
“Nung 2013 ‘yun na ‘yung gusto ko na mag-quit. Pero kinausap ako ni Com Salud, Sir Perry, si coach Ramil na isa sa mga nagtuturo sa akin. Sabi nila, bakit ako bibitaw sa hindi totoo. Pag bumitaw ako, parang inamin ko (daw).
"Diyan ka lang kasi wala ka namang ginagawang masama. Bayaan mo sila kung ano gusto nilang sabihin sa 'yo, basta tayo, wala tayong ginagawa,” said Aquino.
Aquino swore he never received any pay-off nor favor in relation to his job as a referee, saying he doesn’t want to feed his family through dirty money.
“Ako, ang pinapakain ko sa pamilya ko, hindi kung saan man, ang pinapakain ko sa pamilya ko, hindi galing sa pagnanakaw... Wala akong tinatanggap. Basta ako, pinalaki ako ng magulang ko na maging derecho ako,” said Aquino.
”Lahat naman tayo ang mabibigay natin sa anak natin is ‘yung education. Hindi naman ako naka-graduate, third-year college lang ako, hindi ko tinuloy. Akala ko kasi basketball para sa akin, hindi naman pala,” said Aquino.
Today, Aquino is proud to say that his daughter has finished her Human Resource Management course at Assumption College.
“Dugo’t pawis at ‘yung mga mura ng mga nanonood sa amin, ‘yun ang pinapakain ko sa pamilya ko kasi alam ko malinis ang trabahong ginagalawan ko,” said Aquino.
“Ngayon, naka-graduate na siya. ‘Yung achievement ko, nagawa ko na. ‘Yung pangako ko na mapag-aral ko siya, tiniis ko lahat dahil gusto ko makapagtapos ang anak ko sa magandang eskwela."
Life after PBA
After his eight-year PBA career, Aquino went back to calling games in the UAAP and the NCAA. He has since become part of the technical group of a new referee organization called the League of Champions Referees Association (Locra).
Aquino said the new group was formed in order to give other referees a break, beginning in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League (PCCL).
“Mix ito ng may edad na referee at ‘yung mga bata from different groups. Hindi sila nabigyan ng break doon, dito binibigyan namin sila ng break. Eto, iba’t ibang pool ito. Inopen namin sa lahat ng interesado,” said Aquino.
Aquino said he finds fulfillment in helping up-and-coming referees, very much willing to share the knowledge he learned from a long list of mentors that also included Romy Guevarra, Romy Fernandez, Rolly Umampo, Edward Mercado, and Boy Quilinguen.
“Sabi nga ng mga matatandang referees, listen. Kung ano ‘yung maganda, kunin mo. ‘Yung mga nagturo sa akin, tinitignan ko ‘yung mga puwede kong i-adapt na ituturo ko,” said Aquino.
Although he is no longer connected with the PBA, Aquino said he wants to help young referees make it to the big league.
Aquino has some valuable advice for aspiring referees.
“Makinig, mag-aral ng rules ng basketball, at ilagay sa puso at sa isip ang ginagawa mo. Kapag wala ‘yun, kahit anong gawin mong pagre-referee, kapag wala sa puso at sa isip mo ‘yung ginagawa mo, hindi ka makakarating sa pupuntahan mo,” said Aquino.
“At kapag binigyan ka ng chance, sunggaban nila, yakapin nila ng mahigpit na mahigpit na parang unan sa pagtulog. Wag mo na bibitawan kasi kapag ‘yan, nawala, baka hindi mo na mabalikan,” he ended.