Excellent high school ballers are often targeted and scooped quickly by scouts and coaches from big universities looking to bolster their respective basketball programs. But what happens to equally talented yet lesser-known aspirants from far-flung areas?
Most of the time, they’re met with an unfortunate reality: without an influential connection to help them get a leg up, these hidden gems stay buried and are often left to play in small leagues in barrios and barangays without a chance to further hone their craft.
But here’s where the likes of Nolasco “Jun” Rivera come in.
He’s a novice scout who’s still searching for bigger fish to net, but he’s looking in smaller ponds in hopes of putting players in a better environment to thrive on.
It’s always a challenge entering an industry as a newcomer, and the fact that he’s based in Calgary doesn’t quite make his case to gain the trust of players and parents he wants to recruit any easier. But don’t ever think for a second that it’s going to slow him down.
“Malayo ako, but that doesn’t mean hindi ako gagalaw about my passion for hoops and for the country as well,” he told FOX Sports PH in an online interview.
Rivera’s been playing basketball for 30 years, but he said that he only started delving into the tactical and managerial side of the sport around four years ago when he chased a gig as an assistant coach in a community league over at Canada. Before this, he was actually a cop. A former PNP Special Action Force (SAF) Unit member from 1993 to 1998, he was even promoted as a criminal investigator before making the move to the Great White North with his wife in 2001.
He’s had his full-time job since 2008 — as a Bylaw Officer for the Calgary Parking Authority Enforcement Services — but an article tackling Matthew Manotoc — son of former Crispa Redmanizers head coach Tommy Manotoc — and the Espiritu Manotoc Basketball Management (EMBM) group’s foray into handling more than 80 PBA players inspired Rivera to reach out and embark on his own journey.
Manotoc initially tapped him to find Fil-foreigners in North America, but his focus slowly shifted elsewhere.
“Without him knowing, I found myself focusing in grassroots. Hindi naman siya nagalit. Sabi lang niya ‘eh kung may makita ako na Fil-foreigners, dalhin ko sa kanya,” the 48-year-old explained.
His desire to take the extra step of looking for homegrown talents stemmed from a personal observation he made: college programs have been engaging in a Fil-foreign arms race, leaving a lot of underprivileged locals to continue looking for an elusive opportunity to burst into the basketball scene.
“Deep inside of me nalulungkot din. I’m looking Fil-Foreigners, pero paano naman yung mga grassroots?” he lamented. “I don’t mind Fil-Ams or imports, but I think dumami sila and nakakalimutan na ang grassroots just to win. Now locals play in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere.”
This proved to enough for Rivera to get his plan rolling. On January this year, he created a Facebook group and connected with coaches, players and scouts — virtual strangers — from all over the country who shared a common purpose in order to start their grassroots recruiting pool.
“I tapped players, coaches, school officials kahit ‘di ko kilala. I found out na they have the same sentiments. I talked to coaches and managers at schools sa atin, they said same thing. They are more interested kung Fil-foreigners,” he revealed.
So far, they’ve helped four HS recruits find homes for their budding collegiate careers. He’s hoping that the group’s mere hustle and willpower (and the fact that they don’t charge and receive a single cent) are enough to help them attract more prospects.
“I’m hoping to find more kids and school that will support this campaign,” he said. “I don’t charge my clients or the school. It’s all for the passion and my belief sa batang Pinoy.”
In collaboration with EMBM’s Mr. Manotoc, Rivera named his program the ‘Grassroots Basketball Association in the Philippines.’ Their Facebook group expands their connections, helping them take a more personal yet widespread approach.
“No coach will send a player naman na mapapahiya sila eh,” Rivera quipped.
Meanwhile, scouting and convincing players to join their ranks involve the usual intricate processes.
“First, you have to sell the program to the coaches and gain their trust. Then you talk to the player, sell the program and gain their trust. It’s harder sa parents, which is understandable,” he expounded.
“It’s a cycle, it’s hard, but I enjoy it. And I don’t charge. I love it.”
Unlike most scouts from well-established college programs, Rivera scours small barangays and barrios in provinces. He stays true to his group’s advocacy of extending a lifeline to talented yet deprived players by kickstarting their road to success.
“Most big schools focus on Fil-foreigners or standouts talaga. But may mga small barrio or schools na may mga hidden kids na magaling pero walang contact ang bata, pamilya or coach. ‘Yon ang hinahanap kong chances,” he said.
“For those kids from provinces, talent walang problema for them. Wala lang contact at suporta,” he added.
TRACE College, a school playing in NCAA – South in Los Banos, Laguna, helped them land their first scholarships. Rivera lauded Nomar Isla, the Stallions’ head coach, for being the first to buy in on their idea of promoting grassroots.
“I told him (coach Nomar) to let me find locals for them to promote grassroots, and if they can offer scholarship sa deserving athletes,” he said.
Isla pushed for all four of Rivera’s players to be awarded full scholarship and free lodging. As a result, the Stallions will soon see four up-and-coming guards in the next years running the backcourt: AJ Alamer and Rovic Flores, two 17-year-old 6-foot guards picked up from Las Pinas; Robin Rosales, a high school graduate from US who resides in Batangas; and Jay Pormentera, a 19-year-old student from Davao del Norte.
Pormentera was their latest pickup. The Grade 12 student was discovered during a regional meet and was referred by a certain coach Rael Diaz from Davao Jones Academy.
“Since childhood, dream niya na makalaro sa Luzon. There was a bit challenge sa communication kasi Tagalog ako. But the coach and parents are supportive at ang mahalaga sa lahat, desidido ang bata. Now he’s on his way to play in NCAA – South,” he beamed.
But while Rivera’s grateful for the support that TRACE has given, he didn’t hide the fact that he’s shooting for bigger goals with more players and bigger schools.
“For now, TRACE is the only supporter of this campaign that I started. But I’m hoping more schools will jump in. Sana nga may iba pang schools who will open their doors,” he said.
That part about landing bigger schools is the most important bit. TRACE’s scholarship covers only the tuition and the dorm, but the athletes still don’t have free food and allowance — although he did say that the school’s working on it.
Claiming that Luzon’s living expenses discourage aspirants from trying their luck, Rivera theorized that there could be a surge of talents once a guarantee in financial stability is offered by colleges in the future.
“If I can find schools who will let me find grassroots and will offer full tuition, dorm, and even just food kahit walang allowance, I can bring more talents,” Rivera said.
“I have no problem selling the ideas sa province, there are so many prospects. Pero poor kids ito, at mahal ang food sa Luzon. They’re not even sure how they will survive, month to month or even day to day without guaranteed meals. So kahit gusto nila, they’d rather stay sa locale nila,” he continued.
Rivera’s program isn’t a one-and-done thing, and their work doesn’t end after they score a scholarship for a player. He’ll be following up every good start by setting these kids up for long-term success through helping them make secure decisions.
“My requirement for all my grassroots talents is to finish college first before heading to PBA, MPBL or NBL. It’s a risky business, you don’t know when you’ll stop playing. My priorities to them are religion, family, academics, and basketball,” he bared.
It’s a pretty clear and simple road map for the recruits once they enter college as he’s also looking at helping them build their brand and sharpening their skills to help them compete in any professional and/or semi-professional leagues here in the country.
Furthermore, he’s willing to assist if ever any of their prospects get picked up by larger hoops programs.
“We’re open if the kids will be discovered or recruited ng big schools. It’s their future naman. Basta on their 3rd year, we will put them in PBA D-League for exposure, extra income and for requirements for the PBA draft,” he explained.
Not one to veer off the course, Rivera is aware and vocal about his limitations as a scout. He’s a rookie in the business and has relatively smaller resources compared to others. But he’ll forge ahead, keeping in mind his dreams of finding “Visayas’ next Jojo Lastimosa, Pampanga’s next Ato Agustin or Manila’s next Nelson Asaytono” while settling for small victories in the meantime.
“I can’t go head-to-head against scouts ng big schools. But to score maski ilang players lang, masayang-masaya na ako. I can’t explain to you my feeling whenever I scored. It inspired me more to do it,” he opened.
He’s got loftier objectives, too. After taking a coaching course set by Canadian Basketball, the country’s basketball federation, he revealed his interest in pursuing a career in coaching here in the Philippines.
But for now, he’s taking it a step at a time.
“Only after 20 years or more mo lang matatanong ako kung tagumpay ba ako sa kanila. Only by then natin malalaman ano naabot nila at kung ano naibahagi nila sa lipunan,” Rivera said.
“Ganoon ako kaseryoso. I take pride in this campaign.”