LA Tenorio: Small wonderBy Jasmine W. Payo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
He knows how a single game can turn a life around.
LA Tenorio, unquestionably one of the country’s best point guards, had that game way back in sixth grade.
As a varsity player from Don Bosco Makati, Tenorio showed a nationwide audience he had the knack for the sport when he played for an exhibition match right before a pro league game. Tenacious even then, the young Tenorio exploded for 31 points, highlighted by an incredible, buzzer-beating shot he hurled from mid-court.
“I think it started with that game,” says Tenorio. “At that time, I was just playing in school and in our province in Batangas. After that, there were scouts who started watching my games. But I had no idea about recruitment.”
It seems uncanny now that Don Bosco’s opponent then was Ateneo, the team for whom Tenorio shone years later as a collegiate standout, and the match was an appetizer for the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the league where he flourished as a professional athlete and a national team star.
Now 28, Tenorio has long gone from an exhibition kid wonder to one of the country’s best athletes who has amazingly captured basketball crowns in every level and earned individual honors both in the local and international scenes.
“It’s hard to say that I’m satisfied now,” says Tenorio. “The way I describe it, I’m so blessed in my career. But I don’t want to be satisfied of course. I want more championships, especially for Ginebra. I want to win a championship for them.”
He almost did just that, recently, for the wildly popular PBA squad. As the Kings’ speedy point guard, Tenorio played a pivotal role in pulling Ginebra out of a 0-4 sinkhole and impressively towing the seventh-ranked team all the way to the Finals.
“He’s really the one who carried this team,” says Ginebra coach Alfrancis Chua. “He became the heart and soul of the team when we lost Mark [Caguioa to injury].”
Although Ginebra’s remarkable run fell short against the top-seeded Alaska in the Finals, Tenorio bagged the 2013 PBA Best Player of the Conference plum last May.
Clearly, the 5’8” spitfire didn’t miss a beat since capturing the Most Valuable Player award in the 2012 William Jones Cup in Taipei where the Smart Gilas Philippine Team surprisingly ruled for the first time in over a decade.
“It’s really a plus when you have an LA in the team,” says Chua.
An apt description, indeed, for this gifted athlete who brought a championship to virtually every team he suited up for.
From the Small Basketeers Philippines (SBP) crown with Don Bosco in grade school, Tenorio also copped titles in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) with San Beda in high school, the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) with Ateneo in college in 2002, the Philippine Basketball League (PBL) with Harbour Centre in 2006, the PBA with Alaska in 2010 and the Jones Cup with the national team in 2012.
His hardware collection also boasts of the PBA Finals Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player and a Mythical Team selection all in 2010, the 2006 PBL Finals MVP and three UAAP Mythical Team citations.
“LA just has that personality, those nerves of steel. He’s not afraid to take shots,” coach Tim Cone says of his former ward who played under him in Alaska. “Let LA have the ball in his hands. He’ll make something happen, whether it’s a shot or a pass or getting the foul or whatever.”
That came into full show last year in one of Asia’s most popular basketball events, the Jones Cup, where Tenorio pumped in 11 of his 20 points in the fourth period to power the Philippine Team to a thrilling 76-75 escape over the heavily favored United States in the Finals.
“Tenorio’s will go down as the most memorable gold-studded performance by a tiny member of the Philippine national basketball team in an international tournament,” sports analyst and Inquirer columnist Recah Trinidad writes glowingly of the game’s smallest player.
He adds: “Tenorio’s a bullpup against growling giants… underdog-small in the same way (that) his Pinoy grit would sizzle boundless in the do-or-die closing minutes of the Jones Cup title game in Taipei.”
But more than his scoring firepower, Tenorio thinks it’s his basketball smarts that has really carried him through. It’s an intelligence, coupled with impressive agility and court vision, that had many forgetting that he’s no taller than an average Filipino.
“I think a lot during games,” says Tenorio. “I know what’s going to happen. Or I try to think what’s going to happen. That’s how I play.”
Not surprisingly, Tenorio quickly endeared himself to the legion of Ginebra fans. And soon, LA – or Lewis Alfred – has earned a growing list of monikers that fans and sportscasters alike hope would encapsulate his leadership and explosive form, from The Gin-eral, to Lieutenant, to Teniente, to Showtime.
“He really plays different, especially when it’s a crucial game,” says Chua. “Another good thing is that his teammates respect him a lot.”
Tenorio takes it all in stride. “I guess I’ve absorbed Ginebra’s never-say-die attitude,” he says of the injured elbow that didn’t stop him from playing his best and leading the Kings. “I was no longer thinking of my injury or what’s hurting me. I was just thinking of ways to help the team win.”
Of course, there’s still the harsh sting of losing occasionally despite his personal best.
“I’ll feel (it) maybe for a couple of days,” Tenorio says after Ginebra got swept by Alaska, 3-0, in the Finals series late last month. “But at the end of the day, I’m still proud of what our team has achieved. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
He’s proud, too, of his former team Alaska despite their bitter parting months earlier. After the game, Tenorio gallantly congratulated Alaska team owner Wilfred Uytengsu, who had admitted to shipping his starting point guard out for prioritizing national duties.
According to some reports, Tenorio had allegedly violated a team directive for him to forego his stint with the Philippine Team in the 2012 Jones Cup. Still, the August trade caught the star guard by surprise, as he has just won his first international MVP award.
Says Uytengsu: “It was very tough letting LA go. He is a great player but I wanted to make sure that as a developing team, we (had) everyone’s attention (focused on) Team Alaska.
“We’ve given to the national team so many times, that (LA’s) position about the national team being a priority didn’t fit with us.”
He adds: “It was a win-win trade. LA went on to the Finals and won Best Player. And he’s the perfect gentleman. He came up to me in the stands and congratulated me. LA is a real stand-up guy.”
Tenorio, too, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Wala na sa akin yun (It’s no longer an issue),” says Tenorio. “I’m happy for them. I also have friends in Alaska whom I’m really close to.”
Tenorio holds no grudges, even back in his UAAP days when he played at a time when traditional rivals Ateneo and La Salle were both at the top of their games. Yet he was able to deal coolly with the scrutiny that topnotch players get, from the constructive to the downright mean.
“Parang bawal magkamali (It’s like you’re not allowed to make a mistake) during an Ateneo-La Salle game. The rivalry is there, you really feel it,” he adds. “I just feel challenged every time may hindi magandang sinasabi sa akin (they say something bad about me).”
As a rookie, Tenorio quickly made his presence felt when he unloaded 30 points in the deciding Game 3 of the 2001 UAAP Finals. Although the Green Archers captured the crown, he had a chance to get back at their fierce foes the following year.
Armed with just a year of collegiate experience, Tenorio played a key role in powering the Blue Eagles to their first UAAP crown in 14 years. Spicing up the feat was the fact that the win was against arch-rival La Salle’s Green Archers, who saw their four-year reign come to an end even with a squad bannered by the equally passionate Marc Cardona.
“On court, trabaho lang talaga (we’re all business). But outside, I’m friends with Macmac (Cardona),” says Tenorio.
It was also in college where Tenorio met his wife, Chesca Bugia, the sister of his former Ateneo teammate Paolo Bugia. They married in 2010 and have a 1-year-old son, Santi.
“I make sure I spend time with my baby even if I have a busy schedule,” says Tenorio, who is back training with the national team for the 2013 Fiba Asia Championship in August.
For the first time in 40 years, Manila will host the event that would choose the top three countries that would represent Asia in the 2014 Fiba Basketball World Cup in Spain. For decades, the Philippines hasn’t gotten past the regional contest with powerhouses like China, Korea and Iran always getting in the way of the country’s bid. But this is exactly what’s pumping up Tenorio.
“To make it to the top three, that’s what I want right now,” he says. “If I get that, that’s really something for me. It’s a different achievement when you’re carrying the flag. So as long as I’m playing basketball, I’m not going to stop at getting better. I want to achieve everything that I possibly can. I won’t stop.”
For sure, there will be no stopping Tenorio. This is, after all, the kid who grew up knowing how powerful a single shot and a single game can be. •