Johnny A.:Last man standing
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2014 - 12:00am

Johnny Abarrientos is an inspiration to millions. Over the span of more than 20 years, he has become a symbol of what the little guy can achieve in what is considered a giant’s game: basketball. Johnny has constantly fought the odds, been doubted because of his size, and yet fought on, ultimately reaching all his dreams with his steadfast faith in God and his passion to succeed. It is a tale worth retelling over and over, at a time when our countrymen search for heroes.

But there is also more to his story that makes it poignant, heart-rending and moving. You see, Johnny did not come from a wealthy family. In fact, he was the youngest in a brood of nine, and often felt that he lacked parental attention, though he kept that sentiment to himself. But he found his muse in basketball, marveling at his older brothers, point guards all, who each led several community teams in small commercial leagues, with Johnny as their waterboy. In all his innocence, the young Johnny did not know what fortune lay inside the lines of a basketball court, he just knew it as a game he loved to watch and play. One time when he was ill, he told his family they could leave him behind when they took a two-week vacation in Bicol, as long as he had a tennis ball and a makeshift hoop. He never missed them at all.

Despite being under five feet tall, Johnny’s skill was exceptional. He led NCBA’s high school team to a league championship. Then he impressed the coaching staff of FEU in a scrimmage. He didn’t know at the time that it would leave an open door for him to reach the next level of success.

“The time came when most of us were in college already, and my father said I would have to stop studying because we couldn’t afford it,” Johnny told The STAR. “I was so worried, because I really wanted to be a doctor.”

Johnny was more than a month late in enrollment, but despite doubts about his size, he was taken in by FEU. He didn’t even know what a scholarship was then. It was a much better situation for him, since the schedule of classes and games didn’t conflict. But since his father, Johnny Sr., didn’t want him to play anymore, he has to keep his UAAP success a secret as long as he could. You see, two of his older brothers became policemen, two others never finished their schooling. The family’s youngest child was the last man standing, his father’s final hope for one of them to graduate with a title of doctor or engineer.

Johnny’s game was so impressive and irrepressible that his name was in all the box scores, and his name was spreading. Finally, he confessed to his father while handing him a ticket to a Final Four game.

“My father said I had been fooling him for a year, and I felt really bad about it,” Johnny recalls, tears welling in his eyes. “But when I got to the coliseum, the first person I saw behind the bench was my father. I always wanted his attention. There are nine of us, and my older sister born before me was deaf and mute so I never fought for attention. I finally got it then. And I knew that if he supported me, my other siblings would follow, it was as if a thorn had been taken out of my side. I wasn’t thinking of anything else but just playing. I’ll never forget it.”

It was not to be the last trial for Johnny, however. At the end of the 1980s, he was part of the initial pool of over 300 players being considered for the Philippine youth team. That number went down to 200, then lower and lower until only 15 remained. The final roster of 12 would be announced on television. Johnny’s name wasn’t on it. He was devastated.

“I locked myself in my room for a month. What was the point of playing? That was everything I dreamed of,” he reveals. “Then my father came into my room and said ‘It’s not your loss. It’s theirs. Now go out there and prove them wrong. Wherever you want to play, I will be behind you. Just go out and play.’”

That was all that Johnny needed. Soon enough, he got his chance. In 1989, the Philippines was cheated out of the men’s basketball gold at the Southeast Asian Games in Jakarta. But the 1991 games would be held in the Philippines. Johnny was point guard of a powerhouse team that included Marlou Aquino, Vergel Meneses, Bong Ravena, Nonoy Chuatico and Jun Limpot. In the semifinal, Johnny had sprained both ankles, but demanded that coach Francis Rodriguez just have them taped up again so he could play. He was not going to miss this chance of a lifetime, his vindication. The Philippines overcame Thailand for the gold medal in front of a deafening crowd at the Araneta Coliseum. I commentated that game. It was also the first photo this writer ever had taken with an athlete, a diminutive guard with a gold medal proudly hanging around his neck, a true warrior. I still have that photo.

That was the beginning of the legend of the Flying A, the last man standing.

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