Is AJ Edu the new hope of PH basketball?

Minutes before the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles exited their viewing room to start their regular Wednesday afternoon practice, a lone player was on the far end of the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center’s main court. He was tall, long, and lanky, shooting jumpers from 20 feet out with a somewhat awkward but easy stroke. He didn’t swish all of his shots, but he made enough for the token spectators to wonder.

“Who is this guy?”

“He looks as tall as Ikeh, but he has the face of a fifteen year old.”

Actually, he’s already sixteen, and he’s just a shade shorter than Ikeh Chibueze, Ateneo’s 6’10 starting center.

His name is Ariel John Edu — half-Filipino, half-Nigerian, born in Cyprus, and, yes, in case you were wondering, a Philippine passport holder.

The last time Edu was in the Philippines, he was barely a toddler. Now he is back — on the verge of manhood and with a wellspring of basketball possibilities at his fingertips.

After Josie Litang finished her studies in Surigao, she dreamt of going abroad to save up enough money and eventually earn a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) degree. She went to Cyprus in pursuit of this dream, but, as fate would have it, things didn’t turn out exactly the way she had planned. Josie met her future husband, Nigerian Ayotunde Edu, a 6’8 Math and Physics professor, got married, and gave birth to AJ on the very first day of the new millennium — January 1st, 2000.

One may say that’s an auspicious sign — a harbinger of AJ’s potential for a great future.

Despite AJ’s being born in Cyprus, the Edus had trouble securing outright Cypriot citizenship for their son, which eventually led them to get a Philippine passport at an early age. That, too, seems like a fortuitous development, since it makes AJ eligible to play for the Philippines as a natural-born individual (that’s FIBA’s technical term as opposed to a naturalized citizen).

Josie also didn’t exactly have to coax her eldest child to want to play for the Philippines. He chose it for himself.

“He really wants to play in the Philippines,” Josie says. “In fact, I think because of this trip, he might fall in love with the Philippines.”

Aside from basketball, the Edus are here to reconnect with family they haven’t seen in a decade and a half. The last time Josie’s parents laid their eyes on AJ was when the 6’9 teenager was a little more than a year old. Now, they have flown in from Surigao to see their daughter and their grandson, who holds the promise not just of their family but, perhaps, of a whole nation.

“It would be foolish to burden this kid with high expectations,” according to Gilas Pilipinas head coach Tab Baldwin.

“I think he projects pretty well and not just because of his size,” coach Tab adds. “But we have to keep in mind that he’s only 16.”

Only sixteen and already so tall, so long, so athletic, and so full of talent that online Gilas supporters have been pining for him to don the national colors since 2014.

Just how good is he?

“He was actually being recruited by Barcelona and Real Madrid,” says Josie. “Real Madrid even sent someone to our home to talk to us about moving AJ to Spain.”

Had those plans of moving AJ to Spain borne fruit, he would’ve joined only one other Asian to make it to the ACB Liga Endesa’s junior ranks. That other Asian is 6’7 Korean wunderkind Yang Jae-Min, born just six months ahead of AJ and already gaining fame among international basketball pundits. One writer has labeled Yang to be Korea’s next basketball phenom.

Saying the same for AJ wouldn’t be a stretch at all.

AJ has played in Cyprus and currently resides in Wales, where he has seen action for the Swansea Storm BC. Most recently, AJ played for the Bristol Flyers, gaining accolades in different age groups.

“When AJ plays with kids his age, it’s like he’s just having it easy,” says Josie. “That’s because he’s used to playing with adults, with grown-ups already.”

“In Cyprus, basketball is actually the top sport,” she adds. “That’s also why he developed early, because he played against adults even in Cyprus.”

In fact, AJ is so good at this age that both England and Cyprus have talked to the Edus about getting AJ to play for their respective national teams.

“Cyprus actually thinks AJ could be their version of Giannis Antetokounmpo,” says Josie with a slight chuckle. “England wants him, too, but we don’t have residency yet in the UK.”

A silence befalls Josie for a few seconds as he watches his son scrimmage with the Blue Eagles.

And then…

“But AJ really wants to play for the Philippines.”

Up close, AJ seems even taller than advertised. When standing right beside Ikeh, AJ’s faux crew cut gives him an extra inch, making it look like they’re the same size. His face, however, betrays his age and innocence. His body, too hasn’t filled up yet, though one cannot ignore those long limbs and that natural athleticism.

When asked about being here in Manila, though, all six feet and nine inches of him crumple back into childhood giddiness.

“Oh, man, I’m very excited,” AJ says with a smile.

The people around us are pretty excited, too, especially Batang Gilas coach Michael Oliver, whose wards certainly could have used Edu in the recently concluded FIBA Asia U18 Championship in Tehran, Iran.

“Yes, definitely nagamit sana namin si AJ,” says coach Oliver. “Tingnan mo naman ‘yan — ang laki pero ang galaw niya pang-guwardiya.”

For a few moments, coach Oliver seems to look into the nothingness, daydreaming about what-could-have-been.

“Pwede sanang isabay kay Kemark Cariño sa loob,” he says.

“Oo, pwede talaga,” chimes Batang Gilas manager Andrew Teh. “Pero nung naka-usap kami ni Josie, one day after the FIBA deadline na para sa line-up e.”

“We got in touch with sir Andrew after AJ’s exams in school,” says Josie. “One of our priorities is really academics, especially because of his father.”

“In fact, for the coming A-Levels, AJ wants to focus on maths and physics,” she adds.

So we have a 6’9, 16-year-old basketball whiz who, by all indications, is also a whiz in the classroom.

Let’s not forget, too, that AJ’s Filipino-ness goes beyond his lineage.

“He loves adobo!” exclaims Josie. “He doesn’t speak Filipino much, but he can understand the basics like ‘Hindi!’”

In one sequence against the much older and more experienced Blue Eagles, AJ crosses up two defenders on the baseline and attempts a strong finish at the basket. He misses the shot, but that doesn’t prevent nearly everyone watching from heaving oohs and ahhs. He grabs rebounds over Ikeh and reserve center Isaac Go on a couple of occasions and guards opposing wingmen like Shaggy Allmond and Jme Escaler. He doesn’t shy away from contact and has a penchant for protecting the rim.

It’s clear this early that there’s something special about this kid. He exudes a sense of wonder, a sense of possibility, and a sense of hope.

“He’s very talented and seems to be the kind of young man that his parents would be proud of: humble, soft-spoken and intelligent,” describes coach Tab. “Sounds like a true Filipino.” – By Enzo Flojo

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