Ben Mbala will always be a Lasallian at heart.
The cager from Cameroon said as much when he bid goodbye to De La Salle University in 2017 through a lengthy, heartfelt message, as he had decided to forego his final playing year to play professionally overseas.
“I am truly grateful for having had the opportunity to represent the Green Archers and will always be Lasallian at heart,” wrote Mbala.
It was at Taft Avenue that Mbala found a home and tasted success. He led the Green Archers to the UAAP gold medal in Season 79, the same season he was crowned the league’s Most Valuable Player — which he would win again the following year.
La Salle also served as a springboard for him to reach new heights in his career. In the middle of his two playing years with the green-and-white, he was called up to play for the Cameroonian national team in the FIBA AfroBasket 2017.
But believe it or not, La Salle was not the first school of choice by Mbala.
Mbala bared in Tiebreaker Vodcasts’ The Prospects Pod, presented by SMART on Friday, that he wanted to go to Ateneo De Manila University in 2012. At the time, he was being courted by schools due to his strong showings with Southwestern University.
“I told you, Ateneo was my first choice. I’m not gonna lie to you,” Mbala said in the podcast hosted by NLEX Road Warriors star Kiefer Ravena together with seasoned journalists Randolph Leongson and Norman Riego.
With the Blue Eagles, Mbala felt he would find the opportunities he’d been looking for. Back then, the team’s frontline was about to lose major cogs 7-foot slotman Greg Slaughter and Justin Chua to graduation.
“Like Kiefer said, most of the bigs were graduating, and I was looking for a team where I can go and have a lot of responsibilities and get playing time,” said Mbala, who led SWU to the CESAFI title in 2012.
It was different for the Green Archers, who had a loaded frontcourt with the likes of Arnold Van Opstal, Norbert Torres, Jason Perkins, and Yutien Andrada — all of whom eventually played in the PBA.
“Going to La Salle, you have Van Opstal, Norbert Torres, Yutien Andrada, you have like… The paint was stacked. Yeah, Perkins, and all that. You gotta go over there and then compete to have playing time,” Mbala said.
“So, I was just like, fuck it, I’m going to Ateneo.”
Mbala shared that he had actually paid the Ateneo campus a visit. “I saw one person in Ateneo, and then I went to this one office across the library. I met someone there and then spoke for like five, ten minutes, and then I went to the gym,” he recalled.
“They threw me a ball and I was wearing jeans, or I don’t know what. They were asking me to dunk. I wasn’t warmed up, I wasn’t stretched, I just made a two-handed dunk. And then they were like, ‘Woah!’ They were like, ‘Yeah!’ And then I left.”
And by then, he had decided that he’d take his talents to Katipunan – Ateneo, according to him, was actually set to talk to SWU’s top brass and Cobras head coach Yayoy Alcoseba. But then he received a call that destroyed his plans.
“I heard, like, the school would come into Southwestern to talk to Southwestern and coach Yayoy. One day, they called me and said, ‘You’re going to La Salle’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean? I want to go to Ateneo’,” he said.
That did not sit well with him at first, obviously. But Mbala realized later that it was the best possible situation for him. It pushed him to become better, since he had to earn his place in the team given its strength, especially upfront.
“At the end of the day, I feel like going over there with all those players kinda made me find a way to improve because when you go where the competition is tough, you can’t just lie down and wait for my turn,” he said.
“I was never the type of guy who’s gonna sit on the side and wait.”
And it did end up making him a much better player.
Mbala became one of the most dominant athletes Philippine college basketball has ever seen. Now, he has been playing professionally for three years, to go along with his duties for flag and country.
But the 24-year-old isn’t stopping there.
“I’m hoping to gain more experience and keep working on my game.”