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Nowhere to go but CSB for Will Gozum

From 2018 to 2019, University of the Philippines was making all the history – from the school’s first finals in three decades to its first-ever second-seed and twice-to-beat advantage. All throughout, Will Gozum was there as a Fighting Maroon.

Gozum was a good teammate. Gozum was celebrating all the milestones for a once-downtrodden program. He was happy for all the special moments that, at long last, happened for State U. Somehow, someway, though, Gozum wasn’t necessarily feeling so special.

The 6-foot-5 forward’s commitment to the maroon and green for college was supposed to be some sort of homecoming. He was once part of a group of promising prospects for UPIS that included Diego Dario and Gomez de Liaño brothers Joe, Javi, and Juan.

He ended up making his way to Mapua, where he powered up a championship core in 2018. There, he averaged 13.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, ultimately hoisting the NCAA Season 93 Juniors title and MVP at the end of it all.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for him to feel that Diliman no longer felt like home. His homecoming was missing its first four letters – and perhaps even its last six.

As a rookie for UP, Gozum played 16 of 18 possible games but was only on the floor for an average of four minutes. That year, the NCAA Juniors champion and the best player only totaled – again, totaled – 16 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks.

Things weren’t much better the following season, as he wound up with just two rebounds in total in just three games played. In 2018, he was one of the most promising prospects – and perhaps, the best big – coming out of high school. In 2020, he went scoreless for one season.

Yes, he was happy to be part of school history, but still, he deservedly wanted to make a mark of his own, much like current Fighting Maroon forwards Carl Tamayo and Zavier Lucero have been doing in the ongoing UAAP tournament. Only, the call for the likes of Tamayo and Lucero never came for Gozum.

As he sat glued on the Fighting Maroons’ bench, he could do nothing but watch as the shine was coming off of him.

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“Thankful pa rin ako sa nangyari sa akin sa UP,” he shared over the phone as he looked back at his stint in State U. “Kung ‘di naman sa nangyari na ganun, feeling ko ‘di ako magwo-work hard lalo. Wala akong masabi sa UP, grabe sila mag-alaga ng player. Mahal na mahal ko sila lahat dun.

“Ang ginawa ko lang talaga is saving my career.”

After two, well, wasted (let’s be frank about it) years in maroon and green, Gozum decided to bet on himself.

“Nagbigay lang ako ng opportunity sa sarili ko – opportunity na ako mismo ang gagawa,” he shared, now standing as a pillar for contending College of St. Benilde back in the NCAA.

Filoil-2018-Gilas-Cadets-vs.-UP-Gozum-6817 Nowhere to go but CSB for Will Gozum CSB NCAA News  - philippine sports news

Just to be clear, Gozum worked hard – and kept working hard – when he was in UP. He felt he deserved more playing time, no matter how many minutes, than he received. He believed he could’ve contributed on the court itself, in live games themselves.

Obviously, that is not how things turned out. Reflecting on his becoming a benchwarmer, he was candid enough to admit that it just looked like his game had no place in the system of then-UP head coach, and now-program director, Bo Perasol.

“Feeling ko, hindi ako fit sa laro nila. Tapos, bata pa ako and maraming mas may experience,” he shared, referring to teammates such as Bright Akhuetie, Gelo Vito, Jerson Prado, and Kobe Paras, among others, who played much more than him. “Pero kahit na ganun, through that, natuto pa rin ako. Sa lahat ng nangyari, natuto akong dadating din yung time ko.”

After relocating to Taft Avenue, it seems Gozum’s time has come. Under the watchful eye of a new coach in Charles Tiu, it seems Gozum finally fits in.

2021-Chooks-MPBL-Invitational-Muntinllupa-vs-Nueva-Ecija-Will-Gozum-scaled Nowhere to go but CSB for Will Gozum CSB NCAA News  - philippine sports news

“Siyempre, happy ako sa nangyayari. Happy lang talaga. Sobrang saya ko sa tiwala ng team, sa trust ng mga coach,” said Gozum, who had a headstart in adjusting to Tiu’s system during the MPBL Invitational Cup last December as he played for Nueva Ecija. 

“I appreciate si Coach Charles kasi grabe yung pag-develop niya ng player. Tiyatiyagain ka talaga niya at sobrang detailed niyang magbigay ng sistema. Sobrang blessed ako na may ganun pa ring coach na sumalo pa rin sa akin kahit walang nangyari sa akin sa UP.

“Ramdam na ramdam kong sobra-sobrang magde-develop ako rito. Kaya sa binibigay nila sa aking chance, ako, ‘di ko sasayangin yun.”

Indeed, the 23-year-old is making the most out of his chance, helping the Blazers to a 5-3 record, right in the thick of things for the playoffs. Individually, he has also emerged as an MVP contender, churning out averages of 14.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.0 assists, and 1.0 steals.

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As it turns out, the former NCAA Jrs. MVP is very much still there – a force inside the paint and on the boards. Even better, he has also shown off much improved ballhandling as well as confident shotmaking from midrange or even from the perimeter. For that, he can thank skills trainer Patrick Tancioco of Better Basketball, who had worked with him since his days in Diliman.

“Dun ako lalong nagka-confidence to perform. Sa bawat training namin, napapaisip akong, ‘Uy, kaya ko pala ‘to!'” he shared. “Tapos katapatan ko pa sila Javi, sila CJ [Cansino], mga magagaling na wings na mapapabilib ka dahil kaya nilang gawin mga ganun.

“Ako naman, I challenged myself na try ko ring gawin ginagawa nila, and nagawa ko naman.”

Still, Gozum is modest as always in saying he is far from a finished product – especially after hardly seeing the court from 2018-2019 and getting no live games due to the pandemic from 2020-2021.

“Happy ako kung nasaan ako, pero ‘di pa ako ganun ka-happy sa linalaro ko. I know na ‘di pa rin ito yung lahat ng laro ko e. Meron pa ring mga mali,” he shared.

“Happy naman, pero marami pang kulang.”

NCAA-Season-97-CSB-vs-EAC-Will-Gozum Nowhere to go but CSB for Will Gozum CSB NCAA News  - philippine sports news

(C) NCAA/GMA Photos

The NCAA no longer has foreign student-athletes. This has paved the path for local young talent like Gozum, Arellano’s Justin Arana, and Letran’s Jeo Ambohot, among others, to stand tall. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be putting up big numbers if only the Alwell Oraemes and Mike Nzeusseus were still around. Still, it remains a necessary context.

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While he is aware of the debate about foreign student-athletes, Gozum says he chooses to just see it the best way he can.

“Siguro nga, bumaba yung competition, pero at least, mas mapapansin dito yung local bigs,” he shared.

“Dito (sa NCAA) ko lang nahanap yung magbibigay ng opportunity sa local bigs.”

Indeed, that is just it. The NCAA gave him an opportunity when he couldn’t get one in the UAAP. CSB gave him an opportunity when he couldn’t get one in UP. And this opportunity is something he has waited four years for, searched through two schools for. He knows full well how it feels to be right there in the middle of history, but not necessarily having a hand in it.

Now, Gozum feels good about being a big part of history, if ever, for CSB – a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002. Just as their brand new man in the middle feels determined to prove himself, the Blazers feel just as determined to prove themselves.

“Wala pa kaming napapatunayan. Eventually, sana meron this season, pero ngayon, wala pa,” he shared. “Lahat kami rito, hungry. Lahat kami rito, rookie or galing sa team na hindi kami na-notice. This time, we want to prove something.

“We want to prove na kaya rin naming maga-compete.”

It may not have worked out for Will Gozum in UP. He wasn’t the right fit. His shot wasn’t there. Still, he will remain a Fighting Maroon through and through. Even from the bench, he was fighting. And he kept fighting, until finally, fortunately, he had one more shot.

Only, it was in CSB, it was in the NCAA. Wherever it was, though, he wasn’t letting his long-awaited, much-desired shot get away once more. Will Gozum will fight, and keep fighting, but at the same time now, he will blaze his own trail.

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