It’s a cliché, yet it has been an unwritten rule in basketball: “you can’t teach height”.
The June Mar Fajardos and Greg Slaughters in the PBA today could easily dominate a ball game given their immense size advantage.
With their long wing span, bigger frame and muscular physique, big men like Fajardo and Slaughter could easily inflict damage at any given time.
So the question that begs to be answered: Is there a place for small players, especially those standing under six feet to thrive in the PBA?
The answer is a resounding, yes!
More than once, Filipinos’ passion in the sport pushed young and aspiring, but lean and average-sized players to dare and play basketball, considered a “big man’s” game.
But come to think of it, PBA legend Johnny “Flying A” Abarrientos proved to everyone that undersized guards can thrive in the “big league”, being one of the shortest players in league history to win an MVP, while winning multiple championships, too, including the 1996 Grand Slam with Alaska.
Same with another pint-sized guard in Meralco’s Jimmy Alapag, who showed he can play ball not just in the Philippines, but also compete head on with the best players in the planet during the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Today, among the height-challenged players who dared to follow the foot steps of Abarrientos and Alapag is Mahindra’s young but heady playmaker LA Revilla.
The 5-foot-8 Revilla’s journey to the pro ranks, however, was met with a lot of challenges.
For one, aside from trying to outsmart taller defenders in the hardcourt all his basketball life, Revilla also had to wrestle with career-threatening health problems, which, in retrospect, toughened him up and prepared him for his thriving PBA career.
The boy from Bacolod
Revilla considered himself a raw talent, who as a boy, simply wanted to get better and better each day as he competed with players bigger than him.
“It (passion for basketball) got serious when I made it to high school varsity team (in Bacolod),” Revilla told FOX Sports.
Incidentally, former PBA champion coach Eric Altamirano was conducting a basketball clinic in his province. But it was a moment he will never forget because Altamirano was responsible for bringing him to Manila some 12 years ago.
You see, it was Altamirano who impressed on him the pure point guard mentality, a skill that he eventually acquired and developed.
At first, he admitted that leaving his hometown was a hard decision, but the opportunity for good education, along with playing in a good basketball program convinced him to make that leap of faith in Manila.
“It was not easy as I have to understand my new environment. I had to adapt to a new culture and lifestyle for me to be able to relate to others,” he said.
But thanks to Altamirano, Revilla, then a 14-year old skinny kid, found refuge, both literally and figuratively, in theliving proof that height isn’t might at all urban life.
In fact, the current NU Bulldogs head coach provided shelter and supported Revilla for 12 years in Manila.
From his fruitful stint with the fabled San Beda Red Cubs in the NCAA juniors division, to the roller-coaster ride he’d eventually experienced with the De La Salle Green Archers, Altamirano guided his “son” every step of the way.
“It is easier to say that he (Altamirao) wasn’t just a basketball mentor. He was also there to guide me to some of the most important choices I had to make in my life even until now,” shared Revilla.
For his part, the soft-spoken Altamirano was happy to see many of his high school recruits come and go with much success.
He admitted that training and guiding young players like Revilla was one of his lifelong mission, while ensuring he inspires the youth through good basketball foundation.
“Sobrang bait niyan (Revilla). He doesn’t say much, tahimik lang yan. You have to listen to him, but he’s very smart, intelligent, very giving siya, unselfish and very simple. Hindi yan magarbo sa sarili,” said Altamirano.
“We consider him as a son,” he said.
The trials of LA
Already promising in his rookie year for La Salle, Revilla’s voyage to basketball spotlight took a huge hit when not one, but two ailments hit him early in his college career.
He was diagnosed with diabetes and hyperthyroidism, a hormonal complication related to the thyroid gland, which forced him to sit out for two seasons in the UAAP.
Revilla said his condition runs in their family, and dealing with it head on was the only way to go.
He faced his regular check-ups like a true warrior, with the determination of getting back in the groove as soon as possible.
In those trying times, Revilla relished being allowed by the La Salle coaching staff to still connect with his passion for basketball, while finding simple joys with his circle of friends.
Altamirano, meanwhile, provided the spiritual back-up on his “son”.
“There were some doubts, but we just kept on encouraging him na may plano si God sa kanya, and yung mangyayari sa kanya, will be a testimony ng power ni God,” he said.
“It was a trying moment for LA, but I think those moments really helped him build his character and he became a stronger person,” added Altamirano.
And by the time he was medically cleared to play again, Revilla proved to be the missing link in La Salle’s title quest in 2013.
Armed with newfound hope, Revilla provided solid playmaking and the leadership role for the Green Archers despite the cloud of doubt cast on his UAAP comeback.
Revilla remembered that in trying times, “what doesn’t kill only you makes you stronger” as he looked at his health issue more as a stepping stone to achieving victory in life.
“Hardwork,” he shortly said. “If you have survived yesterday then why not today.”
“Goliaths” in the PBA
Challenges, though, continued to hound Revilla after helping La Salle capture the UAAP men’s basketball title in 2013.
Already foregoing his final year in La Salle, Revilla braved the PBA draft, though it seemed like earning a UAAP championship ring was not enough of an achievement to make it to the pro level.
The 26-year-old Revilla was selected 34th overall by GlobalPort in the PBA draft in 2013, but he was left to play cameo role during his rookie year due to a crowded Batang Pier backcourt.
Instead, he found himself going back to the PBA D-League via the Cagayan Valley Rising Suns, before finally trying it out with the KIA franchise in July 2014. Back then, KIA was preparing for its maiden season in 2015.
That second chance in the PBA kept him going on as he continued to defy the odds.
Today, Revilla is one of the fast-rising stars for the young franchise of playing coach Manny Pacquiao.
Along with new lead assistant coach Chris Gavina, the cat-quick Revilla, helped Mahindra earn the giant killer tag in the 2016 PBA Governors Cup after knocking down the league’s powerhouse squads like San Miguel, TNT, Alaska and Star on the way to booking the franchise’s first-ever playoff appearance.
“It gives me a relief to smile some times and just very optimistic of what’s to come,” he said.
“It’s gonna be harder and harder but it’s going to be worth it.”
The journey has just begun for Revilla, but there’s no question that his life serves to inspire the “undersized” that height isn’t might after all. – Jason Mercene
Follow this writer on Twitter: @JasonMercenePH