Danny I’s farewell tour
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2015 - 12:00am

This PBA season could also be known as Danny Ildefonso’s farewell tour. The 17-year PBA veteran has decided to step away from the game and concentrate on the budding high school careers of his sons, and his growing businesses in his home province of Pangasinan. It has been a long, improbable story of someone who actually came to the game late, and played at a consistently high level longer than most players would have lasted. 

Ildefonso started out as a simple farmboy in Urdaneta, and typically, loved sports. Though he has the latent talent in many, basketball eventually overshadowed the other sports he played. For one, there was a dirt court behind his house, a makeshift board nailed against a sturdy coconut tree trunk. Danny often played so much basketball that his father, who bought and sold carabaos to augment their income, often scolded him for neglecting to find grass for their carabaos to eat. Sometimes, Danny even forgot to go back for them, leaving them in the fields until way after dark. Theft of the prized animals was so blatant that, even if you were leading an animal home, it could be taken, leaving you with a rope attached to thin air.

“Basketball was not part of our plans. I had two options: study or help my father farm,” said the center on multiple San Miguel Beer teams in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. “I was afraid of ballpens. I didn’t like studying. So I offered to help my father farm, instead. That would have been my future, probably farming and drinking.”

When he was third year high school, he was standing in the doorway of their modest home when the flickering image of a basketball game on a neighbor’s TV screen caught his eye. It was a UAAP game. Danny didn’t even know that there was a UAAP, or that playing basketball could help you get an education. That became his next goal in life. Luckily, an older friend whom he had won quite a bit of pocket money playing basketball games to win wagers with was a student at National University, and offered to bring him to Manila. Danny jumped at the chance, knowing that NU was a UAAP school. Since he was exceptionally tall for his age, he got a spot on the varsity team, and a free education, And despite his fear of studying, he managed to pass his subjects while practicing. He says the teachers took it easy in him, knowing his background.

Soon came an opportunity to earn a little money by playing in the Philippine Basketball League, which he thought then would have been his ultimate destination. That was all he wanted, until his teammate Henry Fernandez entered the PBA Rookie Draft. That got Danny to thinking that maybe he, too, could play professionally. But another opportunity surfaced. The Metropolitan Basketball Association was launching, and Danny’s coach on the Philippine Youth team, Dong Vergeire, invited him to join the future Pangasinan Presidents. Excited at the prospect of playing for his old coach and being a hometown player, Danny agreed, and had actually played a few games before the PBA came calling.

“I was told that coach Ron Jacobs wanted me to join San Miguel,” says the 1998 PBA Rookie of the Year. “I was excited, but I told them that I already had a contract with Pangasinan. They worked it out, and I submitted all my papers to enter the draft a few days before the deadline.”

This was the call that turned Ildefonso’s life around. He realized that he could keep up with the tough competition in the league, and wasn’t fazed by the really big centers like Marlou Aquino, Benjie Paras and Jerry Codiñera. In a rare era where the physicality was not as excessive as the league’s early days, Danny thrived. And even when the huge wave of big, strong Fil-Ams, he knew he could manage.

“It’s confidence,” the two-time PBA MVP told The Star. “Once you get your confidence in basketball, it doesn’t matter who your opponent is. You know you can compete with them, no matter who they are.”

Ildefonso loved playing with his teammates of that era. He won eight championships with the Beermen. The most treasured trophy in his collection would probably be the 2000 Governors Cup, when the Beermen defeated Purefoods, and Ildefonso got to play in a finals series against his boyhood idol, Alvin Patrimonio. Danny still talks about that with a glow in his eyes and a big smile on his face. He grew up with The Captain as the gold standard for big men in the PBA. It was always the four-time MVP that Danny looked up to, and to not only play against him but beat him for a PBA championship was one of the most fulfilling moments in a career that has now equaled Patrimonio’s in consistency and length of tenure.

“I really enjoyed playing with those guys, Olsen (Racela), Danny (Seigle) and Dondon (Hontiveros),” adds the eight-time All-Star. “I enjoyed playing with them. With Olsen, it’s like having another coach on the floor. We won six championships together. He always drew the defense, and it opened things up for me, and it was easy for me to score.”

The blessings continue to pour in for the Ildefonsos. Danny owns a Petron gas station in Pangasinan, grows chickens at his technologically advanced hometown farm, and dabbles in other businesses. In August, the family moved to a larger, more comfortable home suited for a growing brood of athletes. His sons Shaun and Dave are now Ateneo Blue Eaglets, and he marvels at their ability to balance basketball and their studies, which he laughs, “they got from their Mom”.

“I’ll never forget those times with coach Ron, boss Danding and sir Henry (Cojuangco),” said the player known by the Ilocano endearment ‘Lakay’. “They would always ask me if I was saving my money and investing. They told me to save my salary, because it would help me even after my basketball career was over. I still follow their advice until today.”

These and other life lessons are what he imparts to the younger players in his last season in the PBA, as well as the example of a work ethic that has kept him relatively injury-free and a valuable asset to every team he has played on. After this August, he will be more than happy to spend his time at home with his children, watching them grow and being thankful for everything basketball has done for them.

“What would my life have been like without basketball?” He pauses to reflect. “Everything I have is thanks for basketball. I met my wife through basketball. It gave me an education, a future. I was able to invest, we have a comfortable life. And even if I never pressured my kids into basketball, it has given them scholarships. We are so blessed because of the PBA, because of basketball.”

And for many, that is the Filipino dream.



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