JD Cagulangan – yes, call him JD, and not Joel, not Maimai – is having fun at University of the Philippines.
For the first time since his days making his mark for La Salle Green Hills in the NCAA Juniors, the smile on his face is there, the bounce in his step is there.
It’s all because, for the first time since leading the Jr. Blazers to their first-ever championship, he’s playing, he’s had meaningful minutes, and he’s contributing.
“Masayang-masaya ako kasi na-miss ko yung ganun.
“Yung ganung laro ko, yung nasa loob ako, yung nakakatulong ako, yung tiwala ng coach ko sa akin, buong-buo,” he shared over the phone last Wednesday, right before the Fighting Maroons’ practice for their crucial contest opposite Adamson.
It actually shouldn’t be a surprise that Cagulangan has emerged as the steadying presence at point for title-contending State U. While his per game counts of 5.0 points, 5.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in close to 22 minutes are by no means eye-popping, they’re still proof that if given the chance, he can make something, many things happen.
After all, he, all 5-feet and 9-inches of him, was the first and foremost driving force that allowed LSGH to make history in 2017. Averaging 18.1 points, 6.6 assists, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.9 steals in 33.5 minutes through the tournament, he spearheaded his squad in coming out on top in a knockout bout for the fourth-seed vs. San Sebastian, toppling top-seed and twice-to-beat dynastic San Beda, and finally, getting the better of powerhouse Mapua (then Malayan) in three games.
Just on that championship run alone, it looked like La Salle had its next great guard thanks to LSGH, who’s even better – or, at least, at par – with Robert Bolick and Ricci Rivero who came before him. Cagulangan had one more year left in high school, however, and even though they fell short in defending the title, he still put up norms of 18.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 2.0 steals in 33.4 minutes in 2018.
All was set for the Butuan native to move on to dominating greener pastures in Taft Avenue. Even if he’d have to first backstop the likes of Aljun Melecio, Andrei Caracut, and Jordan Bartlett, his talent, his tenure was just too much to be ignored.
But alas, it was ignored. Cagulangan, flying high, on cloud nine from his scintillating stint in the NCAA Juniors, went crashing back down to earth in the UAAP Seniors.
While Cagulangan had more than willing mentors in Melecio and company as well as a believer in head coach (technically) Gian Nazario, he also had to meet the eye and maintain the attention of Jermaine Byrd – DLSU’s first-year active consultant who was actually calling the shots. Byrd, credentialed as he was, was an American who was just getting to know Philippine basketball. Not only was he a newbie as a decision-maker for the Green Archers in the UAAP, but he was also a newbie in the country’s culture and history of basketball.
That meant that, no, Byrd was not at all familiar with the talent and tenure of Cagulangan – La Salle’s homegrown product and the Green Archers’ supposed point guard of the future.
“Para sa akin, malaking bagay na hindi nakita ni coach kung pano ako maglaro nung high school. Hindi niya ako kilala e,” he shared. “Sa totoo lang, yung playing time, nagulat lang din ako kasi nung preseason, ok naman, pero pagdating ng season, biglang nawala. Every practice, tinatrabaho ko naman, pero wala, ganun talaga.
“Siguro, hindi ako fit sa sistema niya. Foreigner coach siya e, iba siguro ang gusto niya.”
As a rookie for DLSU, Cagulangan’s per game counts were 0.8 points, 0.8 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in eight and a half minutes. He only played in four of the possible 14 assignments. His season-high scoring output was three points. After making his mark all over the floor for much of his time as a Jr. Blazer, all the mark he made as a Green Archer was the mark on his seat on the bench.
His chair was warm, always warm, whether it was at MOA Arena, Araneta Coliseum, Filoil Flying V Centre, or Ynares Center. Make no mistake, he was, and will always be, a great teammate, cheering, applauding, whooping, hi-fiving, encouraging.
Still, there was nothing more he wanted at that point in time than be on the court. All the warmth his butt kept in his seat was all well and good, but he hoped to be out there, lighting a fire under his team.
“Yun yung pinakamahirap nun, yung naghihirap yung team, tapos hindi ako makatulong,” he shared.
“Yun yung pinaka nakaka-frustrate, yung sana man lang maka-contribute ako sa laro, kahit konti.”
Nobody will ever know if Cagulangan could have made a difference in La Salle’s 7-7 campaign, falling outside the Final Four for the second straight season. Nonetheless, the fact remained that a blue-chip recruit, a homegrown promising prospect, a supposed point guard of the future was right there. A La Salle lifer hopeful was right there – and all he wanted was one more shot.
“Masakit talaga. Hanggang ngayon, masakit pa rin sa akin yung nangyari. Hinding-hindi mangyayaring wala na lang sa akin yun.
“Mas ginusto ko talaga pumuntang La Salle kaysa ibang school, pero ganun pala ang mangyayari. Hindi man lang ako nagkaroon ng chance i-prove yung sinasabi na dapat nga, sa La Salle ako,” he expressed.
Yes, Cagulangan hails from Northern Mindanao, but after starring for his province in the 2013 Palarong Pambansa, it was LSGH that took a chance on him. He did more than prove worthy of their full faith.
“Kahit sobrang down ka na, magtrabaho ka pa rin. Kahit walang tiwala yung mga tao sayo, i-try mo pa ring ipakita na worth it ka. Sa mga ganung pagkakataon ko kasi mapapakita kung gaano ka katatag as a person,” he shared. “Tapos yung value ng sarili mo, paniwalaan mo. Ikaw lang ang nakakaalam ng totoong halaga mo kaya malalaman mong kung mahalaga ka sa kanila, aalagaan ka nila.”
That is how La Salle lost a lifer hopeful. That is how the Green Archers lost their onetime point guard of the future. That is how Taft Avenue lost another great player – just like it lost Bolick and Rivero.
That is how Cagulangan had to move on from his dream school.
Funnily enough, moving on wasn’t too tough. After starring for LSGH, Cagulangan actually had two top choices – La Salle or UP. And so, when he took off the green and white, he only had to switch to maroon and green. Once he did that, it didn’t take long for him to find himself once more.
“Lima kami sa family namin. After high school, apat sa kanila, gusto nila, UP ako. Pero ako nga, La Salle gusto ko,” he shared. “Buti na lang open pa pala sa akin ang UP and pagdating ko dun, naramdaman kong parang probinsya lang.
“Naging kumportable ako agad.”
“Malaking bagay para sa akin si coach Gold kasi alam kong alam niya yung laro ko. Ramdam na ramdam kong alam niya paano ako gamitin,” he shared, recalling how he and LSGH used to do battle with Monteverde’s National U Bullpups for national championships.
“Swerte na lang talaga kasi may nakaka-appreciate na ulit sa laro ko. And as a player na binigyan ng ganung chance, dapat kong ibigay lahat para sa taong yun.”
Without a doubt, giving his all is what Cagulangan has been doing each and every moment he has been on the court for UP. That effort – and effectivity – has, in turn, gotten him even more minutes, even more trust, as he’s usually the point guard – alongside Mythical Team contenders Zavier Lucero, Carl Tamayo, and Ricci Rivero – for the lineups Monteverde uses to close out contests.
In Diliman, Cagulangan feels he can be himself, finally, thankfully again. For UP, he hopes to help out in something he knows a thing or two about.
“Isa ring dahilan kaya ginusto kong lumipat sa UP kasi wala pa silang championship,” he shared, though, of course he meant in recent history as the Fighting Maroons won their first and only title in 1986.
“Parang sa LSGH, gusto kong mag-make history ulit dito. Playing for UP, masaya akong may chance na naman akong makatulong para sa something special.”
After high school, there were indeed greener pastures for JD Cagulangan. Instead of white, however, the color it’s actually paired with is maroon.