No matter how far he has gone in his career, Jericho Cruz will never forget everyone who helped him along the way, including the man whom he considers his “second dad”.
That man is none other than Leo Austria, who, before becoming one decorated coach in the PBA by steering San Miguel Beer to multiple championships, mentored Adamson University in the UAAP.
“Parang second dad ko na rin eh, kasi he took care of me nung nasa Adamson pa ako.
“‘Yung mga kailangan ko, binibigay niya,” said Cruz in the 2OT podcast presented by SMART and Team Phenom Sportswear.
It was Austria who lured Cruz to the Soaring Falcons’ lair when the latter caught the former’s attention through his fine play with Rizal Technological University in the 2010 Philippine University Games in Dumaguete City.
Cruz actually started his basketball career in the country with RTU. The Saipan-raised cager was discovered by Blue Thunder coach Beaujing Acot while playing in a barangay in Cainta, where his uncle resides.
“‘Yun nga, nakuha ako ni Coach Beaujing. I played for RTU for one year yata ‘yun or one conference, tapos nakalaro namin sina Coach Leo sa Dumaguete. UniGames,” recalled Cruz.
“Doon, nakita ako ni Coach Leo. From then on, medyo fina-follow niya na ako sa mga games namin sa NCRAA. So, halos every game, nandoon siya, kinakausap ako. I decided to play for Coach Leo sa Adamson.”
Cruz then headed to San Marcelino in 2011, marking the start of another chapter in his young career. The next year, he suited up for the Soaring Falcons in Season 75, finally introducing himself to a much bigger audience.
His rookie year, though, wasn’t ideal. Adamson only won thrice in 14 games — a major dip from its performance the previous season, where it finished as the second seed before falling to Far Eastern University in the semis.
Cruz suffered another disappointment the following season. The Soaring Falcons had a good start, winning three of their first five games, only to lose six straight afterwards and eventually end up with a 4-10 card.
Still, Cruz had a shot to make things better in his final playing year in 2014. But he did not return, and the major reason was Austria’s decision to step down from his post following Adamson’s dismal Season 76 run.
“He’s one of the reasons why umalis ako sa Adamson — dahil sa pag-alis niya,” said Cruz, who averaged 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in his final year.
“Pag-alis niya kasi, medyo gusto ko na rin sumama.”
That ended up being a good decision for Cruz, though. Following his stint with the Sinag Pilipinas crew that ruled the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, he declared himself eligible for the 2014 PBA Draft.
There, he was picked ninth overall by Rain or Shine, where he would blossom as a solid guard under coach Yeng Guiao. He then played a key role in the Elasto Painters’ conquest of the 2016 Commissioner’s Cup.
Now, Cruz is currently with the NLEX Road Warriors — together with Guiao — and now in his seventh season in the pros. Still, his deep connection with his second father in Austria remains — and forever will, for sure.
“Hanggang ngayon, okay pa ‘yung communication namin ni coach,” the 29-year-old said. “‘Pag may mga kailangan akong tanungin sa kanya o kailangan ko ng advice, palagi ko siyang tinatawagan.
“‘Yung mga ganong bagay, kahit hanggang ngayon nakakausap ko pa rin si Coach Leo.”