AS he warmed up for an NCAA Season 85 elimination-round game against Jose Rizal University in 2009 when Arellano was in its first year in the league, Leonard “Bimbot” Anquilo heard a JRU fan mock him from the stands, saying he was a member of the opposition – but in a different capacity.
“Lalaro yung mascot ng Arellano,” Anquilo heard the fan on the lower box section of The Arena in San Juan.
The pint-sized Chiefs playmaker soon had the last laugh against the heckler on that fateful Wednesday afternoon. He did bring entertainment, but it was something the heckler, he's sure, didn't find funny at all.
Anquilo started for the Chiefs and wasted no time introducing himself by scoring the first basket of the game on a right-wing jumper. He dropped 17 points overall before fouling out. The Chiefs, though, lost a close 88-82 decision to the Heavy Bombers after giving the Season 84 finalists a worthy challenge.
But by then, Anquilo had won the respect of that JRU fan, who ended up asking for a photo with him after the game.
The “Little Chief” is used to the jokes and ridicule since he was deprived of the height that they say you need to at least be competitive in a big man's game.
Standing 5’1”, Anquilo is probably the shortest player to ever see action in the NCAA seniors’ division.
But he stood tall with his steady, fearless play and nimble feet that are as quick as how he can change anyone’s first impression.
“Simula nung maglaro ako ng basketball, na-immune na ako na inaasar ako na maliit at pangmalakihan lang ‘to,” Anquilo said in a recent video call with SPIN.ph. “Parang hindi na rin ako medyo nahirapan mag-adjust nung pumasok ako sa varsity.”
Born in Catarman, Northern Samar and raised in Quezon City, Anquilo inherited the height of his mom, who stands 4’8”, and not his dad, Bobit, who is 5’9”.
Bimbot naturally wanted to be taller.
“Nangangarap din akong tumangkad, pero syempre ganun talaga, ‘di na man ibibigay sa’yo lahat at isa pa, kuntento na man ako sa kung anong binigay sa akin ni Lord,” he said.
That didn’t stop Anquilo, the third of five siblings, from venturing in the sport for giants at 6 years old through the influence of his dad and older brother Bombit, who often beat Bimbot in 1-on-1 matchups.
“Lagi ako natatalo at inaasar-asar din niya ako. Eh naiba siya ng landas,” Bimbot said of his older brother, who soon got interested in computer games. “Ako pinagpatuloy ko, kasi gusto ko siyang higitan. Nasa isip ko, ‘susunod na yayaain mo ako mag 1-on-1, tatalunin na kita.’”
What he lacked in height he made up for with his desire to improve and win - a quality evident early on in street games.
“Kada maglalaro ako, kahit nga ice tubig (ang pusta), ayaw ko natatalo,” he said.
It was in the streets where he was first discovered by former St. Jude grade school coach Willy dela Torre while he was in Grade 6.
Realizing his son had the potential for varsity ball, Bimbot’s dad, who was then working at Arellano, told him to instead attend his school’s open tryouts for the juniors’ team.
On the day of tryouts in Legarda campus, Bimbot realized he was one of over 100 aspirants from all six Arellano branches trying out for spots on the Braves, initially leaving him with cold feet.
“Umatras pa ako. Sabi ko, ‘Pa, ayaw ko na ituloy kasi ang dami,’” Anquilo said. His dad replied, “Subukan mo lang. walang mawawala, nandito ka na, nag-bihis ka na.”
Anquilo gave in to his father’s request and played good enough to be among the 50 who made the first cut and returned the next day, then part of the 20-man pool, before making it to the final 15-man lineup under coach Junjie Ablan.
“The first time I saw him sa tryout nung high school, nakitaan ko na na merong something special sa kanya,” Ablan said.
“Matapang kasi maglaro si Bimbot. Hindi siya na-i-intimidate sa mga kalaban niya kahit maliit siya. Tsaka every time maglaro siya, yung energy na nabibigay niya nagra-rub off sa mga teammates niya.”
“He plays with a big heart,” Ablan added.
Little Chief shows big heart
Anquilo was quick to repay his coach’s faith, standing toe-to-toe against then juniors star LA Revilla and La Salle in his baptism of fire in the Fr. Martin’s Cup Summer League.
“Kaya hindi ko makalimutan si LA Revilla,” Anquilo said. “Siya yung unang-una kong nakabantayan sa organized basketball. Dun ko naisip na ang sarap maglaro ng organized na hindi kagaya sa kalye na gagawin mo yung gusto mo. Tapos (naisip ko kay LA), ang talino nito. Gusto ko maging ganito rin.”
From there on, Anquilo embraced the spotlight as he then orchestrated the Braves' run to their first-ever NCRAA juniors championship on the way to being named MVP.
As a high school senior, Anquilo was already good enough to be elevated to the men's team – allowed as per NCRAA rules - due to the Chiefs' lack of guards.
And Bimbot showed he also belongs in college ball, capping his performance with the winning layup that clinched the Chiefs’ back-to-back championships in the NCRAA men’s division.
Anquilo brought the same fearlessness when Arellano joined the NCAA in 2009, starting at times and providing a spark as the Sixth Man in two years helping the Chiefs contend for a Final Four spot.
Anquilo was supposed to play a third year, but the team was left in disarray after Leo Isaac replaced Ablan as head coach. Bimbot had an offer to transfer to Lyceum, even practicing with the Pirates twice, but he would have had to repeat third-year college to play while he was already a graduating HRM student in Arellano, so he decided to forego his final playing year.
After college, Anquilo worked as a staff in a law firm that fielded a commercial team, for which he suited up along with some Arellano teammates. While playing for the company team, he also frequented commercial leagues where he ran circles around the competition, winning eight MVP awards by his count.
After a year in the company, Bimbot was reunited with former teammate turned coach Tylon Darjuan, who helped him get his first assistant coaching job at their alma mater in 2015 - his career coming full circle by becoming part of the Braves’ coaching staff also led by Ablan.
Anquilo’s coaching stint, though, took a quick pause after he joined the team in the first round of the NCAA juniors’ division. He took a detour to Dubai for a job opportunity at a construction company that also featured a commercial team.
Seven months later, Emirati authorities caught Anquilo without a working visa. He admitted being close to getting imprisoned, until his employer found a way to offer himself instead and take Anquilo’s place.
“Inisip ko na hindi ako para dito, kaya nag-decide ako na bumalik na lang ng Pilipinas. Natakot din ako eh," Anquilo said.
Darjuan and Ablan welcomed Anquilo back with open arms to the Braves staff, where he has been a part of since late 2017.
However, at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak last year, when practices came to a halt, Anquilo also stopped receiving his salary from the school, prompting him to think of other ways to feed his wife Jennifer and 2-year-old daughter Bimbim.
So last December, Anquilo used his personal motorcycle to become a freelance delivery service rider for two top online platforms, a sideline that he still does even after his Arellano salary started coming in again late last year.
Little giants in PBA
Although he’s enjoying his time coaching the juniors’ team, Anquilo regrets that he hesitated to take a shot at playing in the top-tier amateur level or the PBA.
“Nanghinayang din ako, lalo na yung nakikita ko na yung mga kasabayan ko na nasa PBA,” Anquilo admitted as he rattled off the name of Emman Monfort as a prime example.
“Nagbabantayan lang kami,” Anquilo said of the 5-foot-6 point guard who managed to play seven years in the PBA. “Hindi naman kami halos nagkakalayo ng height. Parang naisip ko, si Monfort nga, nakarating ng PBA, siguro kaya ko rin kung pinagpatuloy ko.”
"May lugar din pala ang maliliit sa PBA,” he continued.
Anquilo, though, did have two chances at the amateurs, a tryout for Fern-C in the defunct PBL and later on an offer to be a practice player for the Bacoor Strikers in the MPBL.
He declined both opportunities as they ran in conflict with Braves practices, forcing him to prioritize his assistant coaching job.
“Lalo na yung pumasok yung Maharlika [MPBL]. Makikita mo yung mga players na hindi mo naman kilala o never mo narinig yung pangalan, pero makikita mo sila na nandun,” Anquilo said. “Sabi ko, sayang, sana pala nagtuloy-tuloy ako, baka umabot din ako dito. Kahit dun lang.”
Ablan believes Anquilo would’ve had a shot had he continued to take his playing career seriously.
“I think if nag-tuloy-tuloy siya, baka until now, naglalaro pa siya sa MPBL or maybe sa PBA,” the Braves coach said.
Now 32, Anquilo is casually giving himself three more years for a chance to experience some MPBL action.
If it doesn’t pan out, he is already content sharing his knowledge with high school aspirants.
Like what he saw in him as a player, Ablan is even seeing potential in Anquilo to become a head coach someday. In fact, he’s already grooming him by assigning him to lead the juniors’ Team B.
“I know magiging magaling na coach din siya in the future kasi nakikitaan ko siya ng leadership nung time na player pa siya,” Ablan said.
Bimbot is also starting to believe that this might be his true calling.
“Siguro ito yung purpose ko na magbigay ng inspirasyon sa mga taong tulad ko na kulang sa height na may kakayahang maglaro ng basketball,” Anquilo said. “Ang motto ko kasi pagdating sa basketball, height is just a number and I believe that the real essence of playing basketball is how the player plays the game.”
“Hindi naging hadlang sa akin ang height ko para matutunan kong maglaro,” he added. “Ginamit ko ‘tong motivation para mas hasain ko yung skills at knowledge ko pagdating sa basketball. So ngayon masaya na man ako kasi naisha-share ko sa mga batang tinuturuan ko kung anong mga natutunan ko.”
So when the time comes, they, too, can turn their own hecklers into believers.