Career and self-growth

Five heroes, five stories of excellence

These five PBA basketball superstars—June Mar Fajardo, Gabe Norwood, Robert Bolick, CJ Perez, and Asi Taula—were not always the hotshots they are now. It took guts, persistence, perseverance, and resilience to get to the top. Here are their stories of triumph.

By Jacky Oiga

Playing sports professionally is a dream career for many. That is why a lot of people look up to athletes. And here in the Philippines, where basketball reigns supreme, ballers are a big source of inspiration for aspiring sports stars.

Basketball athletes, however, can also inspire other people and not just young and aspiring athletes. Because when it comes to work ethics, they are some of the most hardworking, determined, confident, and resilient people.

FWD picked five Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) players whose stories inspire Filipinos to get out of their comfort zones and go after their dreams. These athletes have overcome hardships and defied all odds to become the basketball superstars they are today. 


The Superlative

Standing more than two meters tall, June Mar Fajardo used his towering height to his advantage. Because here in the Philippines, tall men “must be basketball players,” or so they say. But it was June Mar's sheer determination to learn and his hunger to succeed in the game that led him to be one of the best basketball players of his time. Height was indeed a factor but hard work always trumps any physical advantage.

The 29-year-old center grew up in Pinamungajan, Cebu. His passion for basketball started in barangay tournaments, then eventually playing for the University of Cebu Webmasters in college. His undeniable talent for the sport led him to the professional league and he was drafted to the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) in 2012 playing initially for the Petron Blazers.

He now plays center for San Miguel Beermen and for the Philippine national team, Gilas Pilipinas. Playing for Team Philippines proves that June Mar is a world-class act and destined to play against the best.

His journey to greatness didn't come easy despite his obvious advantage. Like any great athlete, he continues to learn and improve in every game. June Mar goes the extra mile to be the best that he can be. In fact, he has broken several records in the PBA including the most number of rebounds in a game. He is also the player that holds the record for the most number of Most Valuable Player trophies—five. 

June Mar is a “monster” of a player that is why he has been called “The Kraken” on the hard court. He was even given the title “Future of Philippine Basketball” by local sports analysts.

He not only attributes his successful career to his work but also to his family who supported him since the beginning.


The Resilient

Playing professionally was always the goal for Gabe Norwood, no matter where it may be. He started college basketball in the United States but his talent led him to the Philippines. That talent for the game didn't go unnoticed and Gabe was the overall first pick in the 2008 PBA draft. 

Playing ball is an important part of his life and has always been. His father, Brian Norwood, is currently the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for Navy Midshipmen football team. His brother, Jordan was a former National Football League (NFL) player and played for the Denver Broncos.

Sports run deep in Gabe's blood and it shows in his current hardcourt work. Known as one of the best defensive players in the league, Gabe is considered as the backbone of his team, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. Working as a shooting guard/small forward, his defense tactics against opponents always give his team an advantage. Rival players have to get past his formidable blocks just to get a basket.

But his tough wall plays are just part of his job because this 34-year-old athlete is also known for his sportsmanship and resilient professionalism. He has also represented the Philippines, playing for national team, Gilas Pilipinas. He has participated in the FIBA Asia Championship and FIBA World Cup.


The Comeback Kid

There is no better story than a tale about a comeback.

Take the story of NorthPort Batang Pier's point guard, Robert Bolick, for example. He started his collegiate career by joining the De La Salle Green Archers in 2013. He was not able to showcase his skills on the court and was only able to play a few times in Season 77 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP). He was, in fact, a benchwarmer.

Robert then, transferred to San Beda College in 2016, playing for the Red Lions in the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation (NCAA). This is where he started to shine, contributing his skills to a champion team. The team was hailed champions for three consecutive seasons of the NCAA, from 2016 to 2018.

Thanks to his coach back then, Jamike Jarin, Robert was able to realize his full potential. The former Red Lions coach was one of the people who inspired him and really pushed him to be his best self.

Robert was drafted by NorthPort in 2018 and more recently, the 23-year-old played as one of the rookies of the Gilas Pilipinas, the national basketball team. His path to greatness is promising as this strong-willed young player continues to drive himself to success.


The Fireblazer

CJ Perez's moves and plays in the court can only described as intense. His aggressiveness in the game is driven by the fact that he wants to win.

Born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, CJ actually grew up in Pangasinan. He played for the NCAA for San Sebastian Golden Stags from 2012 to 2014. He then tried his luck and played a two-year residency for Ateneo de Manila University but failed to play at the UAAP games.

He came back to NCAA playing for Lyceum Pirates from 2017 to 2018. This season proved to be his best yet when the team landed a place on the finals. That failure to play for the UAAP fueled CJ to play better, work smarter, and train harder.

One of the professional players who really influenced CJ is Calvin “The Beast” Abueva. That is why he was labeled as “Baby Beast” because he tried to emulate the famous PBA player. But he owes his career the most to his former coach, Topex Robinson of Lyceum Pirates. The coach treated CJ as his son and guided his journey in the court. He was the one who pushed CJ to the limit and show the basketball world Baby Beast's full potential.

CJ now plays as shooting guard/small forward for Columbian Dyip in the PBA. He is also one of the rookies of Team Philippines, Gilas Pilipinas.

Playing professionally now has also given him the opportunity to provide for his family. Growing up poor in the province is something a lot of Filipinos experience. His attitude shows that through determination, anyone can achieve a goal, no matter how difficult. 


The Veteran

In basketball, there's no better play than experience.

For Asi Taulava, playing ball is his life and he has no plans of changing that soon. At 46 years old, Asi is still active in the league. But don't let his age fool you because he can still crush the toughest of opponents.

He started playing for the PBA in 1999 for Talk 'N Text Phone Pals. He has then played in various teams including Coca-Cola Tigers and Meralco Bolts. Currently in his 18th season, he plays for NLEX Road Warriors as center.

He has likewise played for the Philippine team in various tournaments like the 2002 Asian Games and more recently the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship.

Asi is already a household name thanks to his popularity in the PBA. He has been known because of his built. At two meters tall, he towers over most of players in the league and he uses this to his advantage.

There are only a few athletes who can say they have stayed more than two decades in their sport. Asi's endurance is a legendary feat only a few basketball superstars can claim.