Escobal was dumping jerseys inside a sports bag. Ekwe was picking up his stuff before taking his Finals MVP trophy from the overhead ledge.
Escobal and Ekwe arrived at the San Beda campus together without much fanfare in the summer of 2005. Last Monday, they left the Red Lions as three-time NCAA men’s basketball champions – again, together.
“I came here with Sam and I go out with Sam. It can’t get any better than that,” Escobal said.
Before Escobal and Ekwe donned nos.18 and 13, the Lions were nowhere near no.1.
San Beda was a mere 4-10 team in 2005 as it plodded through its 28th consecutive season without a crown.
In fact, the Lions had been so bad that the seven other NCAA teams had managed to make at least one semifinal appearance at the turn of the century between 2001 and 2005. San Beda never qualified for the Final Four in that stretch.
The Bedans had to reach out further to find the right players if they hoped to end the misery – literally this time. Escobal was a pickup from Stella Maris HS down south in Davao, while Ekwe came to the Mendiola school as a student from halfway around the world in Nigeria. They went through a mandatory residency period through 2005 before they debuted in 2006.
Right from the get-go, the two made an immediate impact. Escobal scored 15 points, shot three-of-six from three-point range, dished out three assists and played without a turnover and Ekwe had 13 points and 13 rebounds in a 30-point victory over Jose Rizal University in the 2006 season opener.
They would team up to lead the Lions to a 13-1 record in the eliminations and an astounding 14-game winning streak en route to the school’s first championship since 1978.
In 2007, it was more of the same. The Lions went 12-1 during the preliminaries and swept Letran in the finals to win back-to-back. Escobal and Ekwe were instrumental in one critical stretch during the tournament where the Lions beat Letran for the no.1 seed, Mapua in the semifinals and Letran again in Game One of the finals. Escobal averaged 14 points and 7 assists and Ekwe 12 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks in that critical stage.
“I never thought [the varsity experience] would be this good,” said Ekwe, who won Rookie of the Year in 2006 and would walk away with two league MVP awards. “But for me, as long as I believed that God was on my side, things would turn out great. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Only God does.”
“I think there’s a difference between dreaming it would happen and actually seeing it happen,” Escobal said. “The moment I said ‘yes’ to San Beda when they recruited me, I was thinking I wanted to win a championship every time. And it came true.”
While San Beda’s champion team has been loaded, the roles of Escobal and Ekwe cannot be overemphasized. Escobal is a durable playmaker, the typical pass-first, shoot-second point guard but who knows when to take the game over offensively when needed.
In Ekwe, local college basketball had never seen such an imposing presence in the middle. He came in initially as a defender, an intimidator and a rebounder. But in three seasons, even his shooting range and passing abilities have drastically improved, upgrades that were on full display this year.
Asked what he considered his most memorable moment in San Beda, Ekwe gave an are-you-serious look.
“The best experience? It came today.”
But Ekwe couldn’t continue talking about basketball without the friendship he built within the team.
“Definitely I’ll miss my teammates. They made my life here in the Philippines. God used them to make me into who I am right now,” Ekwe said.
“Especially that guy,” he pointed at Escobal. “We entered the team together… perfect ending because we came in as champions and we’re leaving as champions.”
Escobal recalled the first time he met the quiet Ekwe.
“I’m happy for him for what he’s been able to accomplish,” Escobal said. “When we were starting, I was the only guy he used talk to. We underwent residency together and we’ve become very close since.”
Just how close?
“I’m the only one who can scold him on the court. The other teammates can’t do that,” Escobal, taking pride, said.
“But that’s because he trusts me and I think I earned that trust and he believes in me. That’s why we work well together.”
And the Lions are walking away with another championship.– Dominic Menor, GMANews.TV”
It cannot be denied that these two young men, by their tireless efforts, have changed the course of history for the San Beda Red Lions. They stepped into the school they called home for three years, as travellers from far away, with no clue as to what awaits them. Little did they know that they will write destiny on the walls of San Beda.. destiny as champions.
It may be far off in other people’s minds how Pong and Sam get along. Mostly, they see these two players shouting at each other in court. I don’t blame you guys, because the shouting can be audible even in a jampacked Araneta Coliseum. It’s hard to believe but, they really are similar in more ways than one. They are both homebodies. Rarely do you see them malling or hanging out at parties. They are both diligent student-athletes. They are due to graduate on time this March. They are two of my closest friends in the team. Coz very seldom could you engage with interesting and intelligent discussion with men in their twentysomethings. But with these two, you can go on and on and on. Though far away from home, both love their families dearly. But on top of all these similarities, I think what really brought them together is the fact that they are very intense competitors- hence all the shouting. They simply hate to lose.
The dunking priest
Ekwe came to the Philippines for a Catholic education, and to secure it, used his basketball skills as tuition fee. Translation? A dunking priest! That was perhaps the most peculiar story about a foreign basketball player who ever set foot on Philippine soil. The story just spread like fire. In several interviews, he had to clarify his position that he never said that he came to the Philippines to become a priest. He said that if it was his calling to become a priest, it wasn’t for him to decide. But God.
Nevertheless, he instantly became a media favorite, an almost permanent fixture in sports pages. People just can’t get enough of Sam Ekwe.
The Bedista bomb
I remember one of the earliest newspaper articles written about Pong. He was referred to as the “rich kid from Davao”. During that time, he was perhaps the hottest commodity in the recruiting wars. At least five schools were wooing the Escobal family to send Pong to join their lineups. But it was San Beda who drew the lucky straw when the Escobals gave their sweet yes to former Red Lions head coach Nash Racela. Nash drew up a basketball roadmap that will land Pong a place in the PBA. And during draft day, who welcomed Pong on board to the Talk n Text fold? Yup, you guessed right. Now Talk n Text Assistant Coach Nash Racela.
Rich kids from Davao do have dreams. And for this one, it became reality.
When I first saw Pong, he did not seem to me like a basketball player. I first saw him in church after hearing mass. I remembered saying to myself, “Yan na ba ung Escobal? Di naman mukhang magaling.” Later on, I found out this was his disguise. Even during his playing days in Davao where the feared Escobal brothers (with his older brother Jowell) used to kick ass, he got everyone fooled. Sizing him up until he steps on the court would mean, losing… losing really bad…
San Beda fans look forward
Come to think of it, it is actually painful to think that Sam and Pong are hanging up their red jerseys after this season. It is hard to imagine this team without Ekwe and Escobal. Hmmm, living without Ekwe’s rimrattlers, both dunks and.. freethrows, his power rebounds, block parties and now-patented fall-away jumpers.. And Escobal’s no look passes, stops and pops, his steady freethrows at endgames and his buzzer beater threes. Looking forward to Season 85 is indeed bittersweet for every Bedan fan who will sorely miss the deadliest two man game that ruled the NCAA for three years.
What’s next for Pong and Sam?
Escobal faces the new challenge as back-up point at the Talk n Text franchise. His was a slow start, but he will surge in no time. He may not be the most athletic guard out there, but he sure is the smartest. This will push him up the ranks and perhaps follow the footsteps of his court idol, Olsen Racela. I hope for nothing but the best for Pong Escobal.
Ekwe always keeps us guessing, as much as he made all his opponents did on the hardcourt. Buzz about his naturalization has been going on for months. Shall we see Ekwe donning our national colors? Or perhaps playing in the PBA? As Sam would always say, it is not his decision to make, but God’s. Then we wait for divine providence. But this I know for sure, we all haven’t seen the last of Sam Ekwe. Not… Just…Yet…
To Sam and Pong, red jerseys 13 and 18 will never look the same on anyone else’s back. We will all miss Ekwe and Escobal, San Beda’s Awesome Twosome.