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No league like PBA for Meralco’s ace import

Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love (right) arrives at the NAIA yesterday to grace the Master Game Face All Star Challenge tomorrow at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. At left is Apples Aberin, Unilever PR head for Personal Care. RUDY SANTOS

MANILA, Philippines - Three-time Meralco import Mario West celebrated his 30th birthday in Boracay yesterday and will leave the country Sunday to return home to Atlanta with the hope of coming back for another tour of duty in the PBA.

West came in to replace original import Terrence Williams after Meralco’s 0-3 start and led the Bolts to a 3-3 record the rest of the way in the Governors Cup. Because it’s a short conference, Meralco couldn’t recover in time and failed to make it to the playoffs. West wound up averaging 27.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 44.3 minutes.

Bad breaks haunted Meralco from the onset. Burly center Rabeh Al-Hussaini would’ve played a key role since the import limit was 6-5 but took a leave to attend to family matters in Kuwait, his father’s home country. “We had big plans for Rabeh this conference,” said Meralco coach Ryan Gregorio. “He was supposed to be gone 10 days but the process of arranging his pension is taking longer than expected. We understand it’s for his future and that’s important for his family.” Another setback was Mike Cortez’ absence. He sat out Meralco’s first four games which were all losses. When Cortez was reactivated, the Bolts won three of five.

One more unlucky turn was when Meralco traded Jay-R Reyes for Kerby Raymundo who never played a game for the Bolts because of injury. That aborted a reunion between Raymundo and Gregorio who were previously with the Purefoods franchise. Raymundo, now an unrestricted free agent, reportedly sold his car to undergo surgery and rehab in the US and is contemplating a comeback. Then there was Williams, an NBA first round draft pick who couldn’t play within Gregorio’s system. Meralco was winless with Williams in uniform.

It wasn’t the first time that West was called in as a replacement import. In the 2012 Governors Cup, he took over from Champ Oguchi after a 1-3 start and averaged 30.1 points as Meralco won six of 11. West was back for the 2013 Governors Cup where Meralco finished third after losing to eventual champion San Mig Coffee in the semifinals. He averaged 24.5 points and 8.9 rebounds that conference. His single-game high was 47 points in Meralco’s 92-86 win over Talk ‘N’ Text.

“I’m grateful to Meralco for the trust,” said West. “I’m spoiled at Meralco. I think it’s special for anyone to play in a league like the PBA. I’ve played in leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy and France and I really like the PBA the best. The Meralco organization, from management down to the staff, is first class. The fans are great. It wasn’t a big adjustment for me to get used to the food and culture. Meralco always takes good care of me. That’s why I play so hard. Down to our last game, we all play with pride. We go out there to win for the organization and the fans.”

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West wasn’t drafted in the NBA but his work ethic led to a four-year career with the Atlanta Hawks and New Jersey Nets, bankrolling about $2 Million. “It was tough defending guys who were five inches taller but I had to do it,” said West. “It’s wasn’t easy defending LeBron (James), (Kevin) Durant and Carmelo (Anthony). My most memorable NBA game was when I shot my NBA career high of 13 points with the Nets against Philadelphia. My NBA teammates whom I still keep in contact with are Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson. I learned a lot from Mike who’s one of my best friends. Right now, he’s coaching his son who’s a sophomore, a third generation Bibby basketball player. As for Joe, I’m so impressed with his work ethic and he’s a skilled player.”

West said while the PBA is a physical league, he doesn’t think the players are out to inflict bodily harm. “There’s a thin line between playing physical and going out to hurt somebody,” he said. “In the end, it’s just a game and playing physical is part of the game. You’ve got to be prepared for it.”

For West, the PBA has become a second home. “I’ve made a lot of good friends in the Philippines like Chris Timberlake, Yousif Al Jamal, Paul Artadi, Papa Rey (Hugnatan) and All-Day Rey (Guevarra),” he said. “I enjoy playing with Meralco and I hope they ask me back next season. Whether they get me from the start or as a replacement import, I’ll be ready to play.”


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