IF the Letran Knights owe their resurgence to Raymond Almazan, the gangling slotman owes his comeback to his teammates.
It was his teammates who not only convinced him to return from a mysterious two-month disappearance in the first round of the NCAA eliminations but also unanimously agreed to put him back in the team when Letran coach Louie Alas put the issue to a vote.
“Hindi naman ako ang nag-decide na ibalik siya,” Alas revealed after practice on the eve of their do-or-die encounter against the San Beda Red Lions for the NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Alas understandably had second thoughts about welcoming Almazan back. The multi-titled mentor had previously given the enigmatic slotman from Bataan a reprieve prior to the start of Season 88, only to see him abandon the team after just two games.
“Kung three or four years ago siguro yun, tanggal na yun. Pero pag tumatanda pala, natutunan mo maging pasensiyoso,” said Alas. “So I let my players decide.”
Before the vote, Alas told the team that even if only one player disagreed, they would not accept him this time.
“(Kung ako lang nag-decide noon,) maiisip ko na makakatulong talaga yung bata, pero mas marami ang players ko sa akin eh. Naisip ko na baka mag-tampo sila na biglang kukunin ang playing time nila,” Alas said.
“But when I saw fourteen-to-zero (ang vote and the players) decided they want him back, nagulat ako sa resulta. Ibig sabihin gustong-gusto talaga nila bumalik siya.”
Once mired in eighth place after starting the season with a 1-3 record, the Knights’ fortunes suddenly turned around when the 23-year-old Almazan came back at the start of the second round.
Since his return, the Knights have won 11 of their last 13 games, including the 64-55 Game Two Finals victory last Saturday that forced the decider on Friday.
“Pinromise ko talaga yung commitment ko, kasi nawala yun,” the third-year center said. “Pinunan ko talaga pagkukulang ko by hard work sa practice.”
But Almazan played down notions he was the lone reason why the Knights are on the verge of their first title in seven years. “Hindi lang dahil sa akin, pero dahil sa buong team kasi lahat naman kami nagtrabaho at nagsakripisyo.”
Still, Almazan is grateful for his teammates for giving him a second — and third — chance.
“Sobrang thankful ko sa mga teammates ko. Kung sa ibang team yun, tanggal na ako nun,” he said. “Pero yung welfare pa rin ng team yung inisip nila. Hindi talaga sila nagbigay ng (masamang) motibo sa akin pagbalik ko.”
Jonathan Belorio, the Knights’ starting center, admitted he lost some of his minutes when Almazan returned, but he didn't mind.
“Nag-average ako noon ng thirty to thirty-five minutes, pero nung bumalik si Raymond, bumaba. Pero okay lang. Hindi ko naman inisip ang sarili ko basta ikagaganda ng team,” Belorio said.
Now Letran's prodigal son is on the verge of completing his transformation into a true Letran hero.
“Gusto ko na may mapatunayan ako sa lahat. Gusto ko may maipagmalaki rin akong banner at masabi ko sa mga tao na kasama ako sa championship ng 2012,” Almazan said, pointing to the 16 championships banners hanging in their gym’s ceiling.