Paul Desiderio received a pass in the corner as Gilas Pilipinas were doing their practice drills last Monday at the Meralco Gym.
The UP Fighting Maroons gunner set his feet, squared his shoulders, and hoisted up a three-pointer.
Surprisingly, someone shouted “Atin ‘to!” from the other end of the court.
It was Mac Belo, teasing and joking about the UP star’s famous line.
The entire Gilas pool couldn’t help but laugh. The collegiate players know all the current Gilas players – followed them, idolized them, and patterned their games around them. But Belo’s comment did not only provide a light and joyous atmosphere, but somehow, it also represented how the older players have kept tabs on the younger generation.
“Nanginginig pa ko kanina kasi mga idol ko yung kasama ko eh,” Desiderio gushed after Monday’s practice. “Naninibago pa ako. Sa next practice sana maka-adjust na ako.”
Desiderio was selected as part of the “23 for 2023” pool handpicked by the Gilas coaching staff. The Cebu native made a name for himself in Season 80 as a reliable gunslinger for the Fighting Maroons. He’s a knockdown scorer who has a knack for coming up big in the clutch.
It was in UP’s very first game against the UST Growling Tigers last season when Desiderio confidently shouted “Atin ‘to! Papasok ‘to!” in the timeout before burying a cold-blooded shot from downtown to win the game.
Five months since that fateful shot, Desiderio is now shooting three-pointers while wearing a Gilas jersey.
“Sobrang saya. Naalala ko nasa Cebu pa ko nun tapos tinatawagan ako ni coach Ryan (Betia) kaso mahina yung signal sa amin. Di ako ma-contact. Nung natanggap ko yung text ni coach Ryan, sobrang saya. Parang gusto ko na nga bumalik kaagad ng Manila nun,” Desiderio shared on when he first found out he made into the pool.
Joining Desiderio is the UAAP Rookie of the Year and fellow Fighting Maroon, Juan Gomez De Liaño.
“I actually got shocked when I got the call from the SBP group saying that I made the pool for 2023,” the 17-year-old said. “I was really excited for it and looking forward to working with these guys. I’m really thankful for it.”
It’s also no coincidence that there are two UP players in the current Gilas pool. The school is slowly making its way to prominence after a number of disappointing seasons.
Two years ago in Season 79, they reached five wins in what was already considered an accomplishment by fans. However, under coach Bo Perasol’s tutelage, the Fighting Maroons had a bigger vision to fulfill. By Season 80, they finished fifth place in the standings with a 6-8 record, and aim to enter the playoffs next season.
“It’s exciting for UP’s future since both of us were handpicked,” De Liaño beamed.
“Malaking bagay na kasama ko si Juan kasi rookie pa siya,” said Desiderio, who’s looking for an impactful last year for the Fighting Maroons. “Pag graduate ng wings namin, si Juan na magli-lead sa kanila. Masaya ako para sa kanya. Nakikita ko na siya na ang magdadala ng UP.”
In the meantime, the UP standouts’ main focus is to absorb whatever they can from being part of the Gilas pool.
Having proven himself as a bonafide scorer complete with a slogan, Desiderio is hoping to learn from the country’s best. Similarly, De Liaño said he’s looking forward to improve his game with the likes of Gabe Norwood and Jayson Castro.
The year 2023 is still a long way to go but the two UP stars are willing to do the work to prove that they belong among the nation’s best players. At the end of Monday night’s practice, De Liaño stayed behind to put up more shots.
“I’m just making the most of this once in a lifetime opportunity, just enjoying the process because I’m still young,” he said.