MANILA, Philippines—Jericho Cruz’s dream of finally playing in the Philippine Basketball Association is within his reach after Blackwater Sports management is considering him to be one of the team’s direct hire recruits when it moves up to Asia’s first pay-for-play league when it opens its 40th season later this year.
Blackwater Sports, owned by Ever Bilena Cosmetics Inc. president Dioceldo Sy, is among the three teams that were accepted as new members of the PBA along with Kia of Columbia Motors Corp. and many-time PBA Developmental League titlist Northern Luzon Expressway.
No less than Blackwater owner Sy is thinking of forming a team built around Cruz, who still has one year of playing eligibility left with the Adamson Falcons in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines.
The sudden twist had Cruz, the Soaring Falcons’ star cager, already thinking of skipping his final year of eligibility for Adamson in the UAAP’s 77th season to grab the opportunity of being Blackwater’s direct hire or join the Annual PBA Rookie Draft this year.
“Right now, yes I’m thinking about it. Whatever opportunities arrive, I will take it. I am seriously thinking about it. If [the PBA] approves it (direct hire), I really hope so,” said Cruz, who already tapped the services of veteran agent Ed Ponceja.
Cruz, who suited up for the national basketball teams of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Philippines, played for two seasons with the Soaring Falcons in the UAAP.
PBA commissioner Chito Salud and the board of governors are still in discussion whether the three new teams will be allowed to get direct hires to form a competitive roster.
Cruz said he believes he too can play against the big boys of the PBA like former College of Saint Benilde star Carlo Lastimosa, who also decided to make the jump to the pro leagues despite being eligible to play for the Blazers in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“For me, I can play in the PBA and if ever I make it to the PBA, I can also adjust to their system. I have to work hard for every second and minute that I play inside. Carlo [Lastimosa] showed that he can do it with Barako Bull, then I can also do it in any PBA ballclub,” said Cruz, who now has a 1-month baby girl with girlfriend Mossah Maica.
The 22-year-old former Marianas High School standout knows how tough it is playing in the PBA that’s why he’s been working extra hard to improve every facet of his game.
“I’m working hard to improve my game, offense and in defense, so when the time comes that my team needs me, I can make my contribution. I’m working on improving my shooting and jump shots. I will accept all the challenge that they will give me,” added Cruz, who will make his final decision in May.
Cruz, who was drafted by Blackwater last year, is a member of the Philippine team that won the basketball gold medal in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar. He is playing his second conference in the D-League where he was part of the Elite’s roster that won the Foundation Cup last year.
In last season’s UAAP, Cruz averaged 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists with the Falcons, who finished seventh with a 4-10 record.
Cruz started his basketball career on Saipan where he helped the CNMI finish sixth in the 2008 International Basketball Federation-Oceania Youth tournament and in the process was voted as one of the Top 5 players.
He was then named to the All-Star team of the 2009 FIBA-Oceania tournament where he suited up for the CNMI seniors team.
Cruz then decided to try his luck in the Philippines where he initially played for Rizal Technological University in 2010, the same year when the Blue Thunder ruled the State Colleges and Universities Athletic Association.
He was also a member of RTU’s two-time runner up squad in the National Capital Region Athletic Association where the Blue Thunder lost to Olivares College and Colegio de Sta. Monica in 2010 and 2011. He was a member of the Mythical Team in 2011.
Cruz was spotted by then Adamson coach Leo Austria while playing in a tournament in Bacolod City. He averaged 10.1 points per game in his first tour of duty with the Falcons in the 2011 FilOil Flying V Preseason tournament then normed 12.3 markers per outing in his rookie year with Adamson in the 2012 UAAP season.
Cruz is thankful for Austria’s guidance in the three years he played under the soft-spoken mentor. “I wouldn’t be playing for Adamson without coach Leo. He helped me improve my game and guided me mentally with words of encouragement in order to motivate me and play hard for the team.”
Austria also has kind words for Cruz. “Jericho is a versatile player. But just like every player, he needs to practice hard to improve every aspect of his game. He is an explosive player who can do many things at a high level.”