JERWIN Gaco first became a household name when he played for La Salle in the UAAP following his transfer from Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
The story, however, could have been different had he attended a tryout for another UAAP school after his high school career.
Gaco said that during the time he was looking for a college team, he was told about a tryout at University of the East for its varsity team. Gaco was fresh from an exposure in the Palarong Pambansa where he was spotted by one of the scouts of UE.
The problem, however, was that he didn’t know where UE was. He lived in Rodriguez, now Montalban, Rizal at that time when he was invited to attend the Red Warriors tryout.
“From high school kasi, naglaro ako ng Palarong Pambansa. Then, ‘yung coach ko nung high school, dinala ako sa PUP kaya napunta ako sa PUP. Pero before that, pinapapunta ako sa UE noon. Kaso hindi ko alam kung saan ang UE,” said Gaco during a recent SPIN Sidelines episode.
“Hanggang Cubao lang ‘yung alam ko noon dati eh,” Gaco said with a smile. “Tiga-Montalban nga ako, probinsya. Walang nagsama sa akin sa UE para mag-tryout.”
Had he made the cut at UE’s UAAP team, Gaco would have possibly teamed up with the likes of Ronald Tubid, Paul Artadi, and even James Yap, who eventually became his teammate with the Purefoods franchise. The Red Warriors had a Final Four appearance in 2002 only to lose twice to Ateneo and eliminated by that infamous buzzer-beater by Jec Chia.
Gaco spent three fruitful years with PUP, with the state-run university pitting up against the likes of St. Francis, Philippine School of Business Administration, and Lyceum.
“Sa PUP, naglaro ako for three years. That time, ‘yung mga liga namin, hindi televised. Nung araw, wala pa namang Facebook Live. Wala pa namang internet. Hindi siya nakikita. Hindi siya kilala. Hanggang sa naka-graduate ako.
“Okay naman. Dun din ako nahasa. Malakas din mga kalaban namin. Nung napunta ako sa La Salle, advantage na. Hindi naman ako ‘yung rookie na galing high school,” Gaco said.
He then got a break when he attended a tryout with ICTSI, which carried the La Salle core in the Philippine Basketball League. Green Archers coach Franz Pumaren was left impressed with Gaco that the team recruited him to play in the UAAP.
“Nung nag-graduate na ako, nagtatryout ako sa mga PBL teams. Kaya napunta akong La Salle at that time kasi meron silang team na ICTSI that time sa La Salle for PBL. Nag-tryout ako doon for one week hanggang sa kinausap ako ni coach Franz at management. Tinanong pangalan ko, saan ako galing.
“That time, kapag fresh graduate ka from college, wala nang residency. That time naglaro ako ng three years sa PUP, may two years pa ako na playing years kaya nakapaglaro pa ako ng UAAP sa La Salle,” Gaco said.
Gaco went on to play for La Salle in 2003 and 2004. In his final year, Gaco helped the Green Archers win a UAAP crown, his first of many in the major leagues, although that title was relinquished to Far Eastern University due to two ineligible players who played for the Taft-based squad.
Gaco is grateful to La Salle and Pumaren for giving him the opportunity to play with a major college program with the Green Archers that became his ticket to a career in the PBA and in the MPBL.
“Kay coach Franz, sobrang laki ng pasasalamat ko. Dahil sa La Salle, nabigyan ako ng chance makapaglaro. Marami akong natutunan sa kanya. ‘Yung UAAP naman, sobrang laki ng impact para sa akin kasi iba ‘yung liga ‘yung UAAP.”
“Pag tinatanong ako, lalo na kapag kalaban namin Ateneo, grabe. Makikita mo ‘yung side dito, La Salle. ‘Yung side dito, Ateneo. Blue and green lang makikita mo sa Araneta. Tska iba. Kinilabutan ako nung first game kalaban namin Ateneo. Grabe ang tao. Iba talaga ‘yung crowd at suporta ng alumni,” said Gaco.
Watch the full Spin Sidelines episode with Gaco below.