I and a few other members of the media, have gathered at one end of a chilly MoA Arena hallway, waiting patiently for a chance to interview the just concluded game’s best player. At the entrance hall, UST’s Mark Alfafara posed for pictures with the fans. He flashed the same electric smile for each one that approached him
Looking on as he smiled for each fan selfie, one would never guess that he had just come off the most heartbreaking loss of his career. Dropping their first Final Four matchup against the NU Bulldogs in four excruciating sets, and on his last college season, come down to a deciding game on Saturday.
After the last fan had left, Alfafara limped into the hallway; his massive arms drooped to his sides and his face looking as gaunt as ever.
“Kuya, pwede ka ma-interview?” I asked as I caught a whiff of his scent all too familiar with sports writers; the distinct mixture of sweat and tears. You could smell the salty bitterness of defeat from a mile away.
“Sige, sige,” Alfafara replied. He sat against the wall, gasping for breath as if he had just been strangled. He bent down and grabbed the hem of his shorts, his sweat dripping on the floor.
“Kamusta ka kuya Boy? Ito na ba yung pinakamatinding pagod na naramdaman mo sa buong UAAP career mo?” I asked him.
“Siguro, ito na nga ‘yun,” he responded still gasping for breath.
“Last year ko na kasi, sasayangin ko lang kung hindi ko ibibigay ‘yung lahat lahat ko. Kung kaya ko pa naman, kahit feeling ko ubos na ‘ko. It’s a matter of mindset lang, mind and body. Kung papaniwalain mo ‘yung utak mo na kaya pa rin, kayang kaya pa rin talaga. Hindi ko iniisip na pagod na ‘ko. Siguro nararamdaman ko, iniisip ko na lang kaya ko pa, para sa team ko, para sa championship na ‘to,” he said, coming from a place mere mortals might not be able to understand. But Alfafara is a different breed of man, cut from a cloth of athletic greatness. He is gifted with the ability to focus, ignoring all external and internal stimuli and can zone in on the task at hand.
“Kuya Mark nung first two sets ng game, una kayo lageng nakaka-set point pero nakuha pa rin na kalaban (‘yung set), tingin mo saan kayo nagkulang?” I asked.
Alfafara straightened his stance, putting his back against the wall. He then caught his breath and words slipped effortlessly from his mouth. “Masyado naming inisip na tapos ‘yung laro. Minaliit namin yung kayayahan ng kalaban, na kaya pa nila, kaya pa nilang tapusin ‘yung laban,” he said in haste.
“Alam mo na ba kung nakailang points ka kuya Mark?” I asked him.
“‘Di pa,” he replied.
I showed him the stats sheet I had with me, “Naka-37 points ka Kuya Mark.”
He smirked then shook his head, then cringed as if he felt pain shooting from his chest. Alfafara played a brilliant match; he attacked from everywhere even when he was in the back row. NU’s devastating blocking had grinded down some of the league’s best scorers. But Alfafara persevered even when NU sent triple blocks at him. He banged his spikes off NU’s long armed blockers. By the fourth set, Alfafara was visibly spent, but kept asking for the ball when his teammates just could not produce for the team.
“Ito na ba ‘yung pinakamaraming na-score mo sa UAAP career mo?” I asked him
“Siguro the whole UAAP [career] ko, oo ito ‘yun. Pero para sa akin, bale wala ‘yung puntos na ‘yun kung hindi namin naipanalo ‘yung game na ‘to. Kahit makailang puntos ako, kahit maka-50 points ako, bale wala ‘yung points ko kung ‘di namin makuha ‘yung championship,” he uttered, as held back his tears.
I struggled to find a better way to compose my question. “Next game Kuya Mark, ano kailangan niyo gawin?”
I have watched Alfafara dominate the league since I started covering sports for Adamson. Alfafara has literally won everything a spiker could attain in the UAAP. He has the Best Scorer, Best Attacker, Best Blocker, Best Server, and MVP trophies. He has set records for most points in a season, including his most recent performance. He won a title during his first season, but since then, his teams have failed to make the Final Four. In his last season, his teammates have finally hit their peak, which earned them a Final Four slot and a twice-to-beat advantage.
You could see the pain in his eyes. The taste of that title still lingers in his mouth, and he so desperately wants to get one last bite of what he has been chasing for these past four years.
“Siguro kaunting polish lang,” he answered as he caught his breath yet again. “Nakalimutan namin ‘yung trabaho ng bawat isa, iniisip namin kaya ng kasama namin ‘to. ‘Di namin inisip ‘yung kaya namin. Masyado kaming naging dependent sa bawat isa. Nakalimutan namin ‘yung sarili naming trabaho.”
“Tingin mo ba naging masyado kayong complacent since may twice-to-beat advantage kayo?” Inquired another reporter from behind.
“Siguro,” he answered, paused, then suddenly found what he really wanted to say. “‘Di ko masasabing diretso na oo. Siguro, para sa akin, masyado naming tinanggalan ng respeto ‘yung kalaban. Iniisip namin na kaya namin, pero hindi namin naisip na kaya kaming harangan na umabot sa finals.” He then panted heavily as tears fell down his cheeks.
“So next game, Saturday, sabi ni Coach ayaw niyong humaba pero nangyari na. Paano na ‘to? Next game, do or die na.” The same reporter queried.
He wiped his cheeks with the end of his soaked jersey. He gathered his thoughts. “Sabi ko nga sa team ang matitira dito ‘yung gustong manalo. Ang mananalo dito ‘yung mas gustong umabot ng finals. Kung mas gugustuhin natin, mas gugustuhin ‘yun ng kalaban. Nasa sa amin na ‘yun kung hanggang kailan namin hahawakan, kung hanggang kailan namin gugustuhin manalo.”
Alfafara was shaking after he answered the question, whether it was the air conditioning or the finality of his career that made him shiver, only he knows.
I thanked him as I turned off my recorder. Alfafara stood off the wall, nodded in acknowledgement, smiled, gasped, and started limping slowly to the locker room.
Teary-eyed, I looked at my boss, who was standing behind me. He too was wiping tears off his cheeks.
“Grabe,” my boss said, he was left speechless.
Just like his powerful spikes, his desire to win moved us all in that room. Most athletes are guarded in interviews; you could tell they would keep something to themselves. Alfafara was different; halfway into the interview, he grew uninhibited. As he spent all his energy trying to lift his team to the finals, he left no words unsaid in that interview. Alfafara and his accomplishments have immortalized him, but he knows this title means more to his school and the community than it will ever mean to him. He wants everyone to be right there with him.
He still has one more shot to bring UST to the Promised Land. It’s now up to the rest of the team if they want to follow his lead.