Gab Banal felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to return to the PBA when Alaska opened the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup versus Blackwater, Friday.
This marks his return to Asia’s pioneering pro league after four years; or since playing for GlobalPort in 2017 where he only played sparingly.
It also was the second-generation cager’s return to 5-on-5 basketball after a long while. He last suited up for Bacoor in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) last year.
“It feels good to be back in the PBA,” said the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 PBA Draft. “Almost one and a half years without playing 5-on-5.
“And, it’s a good blessing for me that I just played my 5-on-5 game in the PBA — the number one league here in the Philippines where the cream of the crop, great talents, great coaches, great people, great systems [are].”
Banal played for 22 minutes and 41 seconds, and he definitely made the most out of it. He collected eight points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field, alongside six rebounds and three assists against just one turnover.
Even better, his Aces won, 103-77. According to the league’s stats chief Fidel Mangonon III, it is the most lopsided season opener in 22 years.
“Not only is he intelligent, but he knows his strengths and weaknesses,” said Coach Jeff Cariaso. “Being a vet, even if in the past few years he hasn’t been in the PBA, he brings us a different look, because he’s really smart out there.”
Banal signed a one-year deal with the Uytengsu-owned franchise back in February. And he feels glad that he’s proved he belongs in the PBA.
“It feels good to know that I belong in this league,” said the 30-year-old, who’s the son of former cager and renowned coach Joel Banal.
And what he showed in his return wowed his coach because of the experiences he gained from his time away from the PBA, he said.
After that stint with the Batang Pier, Banal blossomed as a player. He proved it when he powered Go For Gold to the 2018 D-League Foundation Cup championship, bagging Finals MVP honors in the process.
He also thrived in the MPBL as he was adjudged as the 2018-19 Datu Cup MVP. Banal was then part of the Mythical Second Team the next season.
Aside from those leagues, Banal also made a mark in the Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas 3×3, with an overseas stint abroad once. He was part of the Go For Gold-backed iECO in Asia League’s The Terrific 12 in 2018.
“To be honest, I felt like the last time I was in the league, I wasn’t mature. I felt like I don’t have the confidence yet or the skills. But I guess playing with other leagues, other tournaments helped me hone my skills and my experiences.
“It really helped me develop my basketball IQ, and the feel for the game. It’s just a matter of the number of games you play that will really make you better. So I got that outside of the PBA,” said the 6-foot-3 forward.
It also helped that the venue was in the Ynares Sports Arena, where he holds nothing but fond memories. It was there that he won the D-League title.
“In Ynares Pasig, I had lots of good memories, especially when I won the championship and gained the Finals MVP for Go for Gold,” he recalled.
Definitely, there’s another memory he could cherish for a long time.