HARD to believe it now, but Ben Mbala almost went to Ateneo.
Trying his luck in Manila after a stellar run in Cebu with Southwestern University, the 6-foot-8 forward was intent on playing in Katipunan.
"I told you, Ateneo was my first choice. I'm going to be honest," he told The Prospects Pod.
His main reason? The Blue Eagles' need to shore up their frontline.
"Lots of their bigs are graduating and I was looking for a team where I can have a lot of stability and get playing time," he said.
Ateneo, then coached by Bo Perasol heading to UAAP Season 76 in 2013, just lost a lot of ceiling following the graduation of centers Greg Slaughter and Justin Chua.
Mbala even impressed people in Ateneo when he went to visit.
"I talked to one person in Ateneo, I went to this one office across the library and spoke for like five to 10 minutes, and then I went to the gym. They told me to dunk, I wasn’t stretching I just made a two-hand dunk and they were like 'Woah! Yeah!' And then I left," he said.
So firm was Mbala on his decision that he already imagined himself wearing the blue-and-white.
And for him, it made no sense going to La Salle and competing for minutes given the Green Archers' already intact frontcourt.
"Going to La Salle, they have (Arnold) Van Opstal, Norbert Torres, Yutien Andrada and they were intact. They got (Jason) Perkins and all that. To me, I gotta go over them and compete to have playing time. So I was like, I am going to Ateneo."
It's just that things didn't pan out the way he initially thought it would.
Yayoy Alcoseba, his SWU coach who Mbala also considered as a father figure, overruled him and felt that it was better for the Cameroonian high-flyer to go to Taft.
"Coach Yayoy, one day he called me to go to La Salle and I was like, 'What do you mean? I want to go to Ateneo.' But he told me, 'You go to La Salle, it’s going to be better for you because of the condition and I know people there.' And I was just a young kid then."
Mbala did go to La Salle but had to sit on the sidelines until 2016 before he was finally able to spread his wings.
It was worth the wait for Mbala, winning two MVP awards while leading the Green Archers to the UAAP Season 79 crown in his first year as they only lost one game through that campaign.
Mbala said having to prove himself against the La Salle bigs made him better as a player.
"At the end of the day, I feel like going over there with all those players kind of made me improve because when you go there, admission is tough. You can’t just lay and I am going to wait for my turn," he said.
"That year in La Salle, we win in the UAAP and all that, but during practice, we were almost fighting like real fight. It was so intense, so physical. And at the end of the year when we were champions, you realize that you survive as a team and be a champion. That’s when I started learning that it’s not supposed to be easy."