Former Adamson Falcon Ryan Monteclaro had mixed feelings the moment he stepped on the rubber floor of the 3x3 court inside SM Megamall on Saturday.
It was the opening day of the first-ever Chooks-to-Go 3x3 Asia Pacific Super Quest and the Philippines was playing host to 12 teams across various countries. Monteclaro had a weird yet exciting feeling because he wasn't representing the Philippines, but a different country in the form of the Saigon Aces.
"At first, Anton (Altamirano) was telling me that I was a traitor for representing another country," Monteclaro jokingly said in Filipino. "But then again, Vietnam is my second home."
For nearly three years, the 5-foot-7 kid from Butuan City has been grinding it out in Vietnam as the technical leader of the Saigon Sports Academy. He became a coach, a leader, and an adviser for a country that's trying to make basketball relevant.
"I think Vietnam and the Philippines have a lot of similarities," he shared. "It's heartwarming because basketball here is like soccer for them in terms of support."
The last time he was in the country was in December for the PBA draft where he was selected as the ninth pick in the third round by none other than his former Adamson coach, Leo Austria, and the San Miguel Beermen. His journey came full circle when Monteclaro, who was the first-ever Batang PBA MVP back in 2005, was drafted to the big league. After all his hardships and sacrifices he had to go through during his college career, including the loss of his parents, getting on stage for the draft was truly a proud moment for him.
However, Monteclaro still had to honor his contract in Vietnam. He hasn't played a single game in the PBA yet, but he knows there's a reason and a purpose for him in Vietnam. Surprisingly, his mission in trying to develop basketball in a foreign country led him to an opportunity back home.
"I'll always be thankful for Vietnam, from the heads, the kids, the players, and all of the people behind us," he said. "I'm so excited because I didn't imagine that I'll be back for a tournament here."
Joining in a prestigious tournament such as the inaugural 3x3 Asia Pacific Super Quest is already a huge accomplishment for Vietnamese basketball.
"First and foremost, Vietnam, in terms of basketball, they're still developing. Their professional league is only on their third year," Monteclaro explained. "This is a big step for their basketball program to participate in these kinds of tournaments."
"There was no intention of joining at first. They're trying to bring FIBA in Vietnam, trying to make it big, and they decided to come up with the team," he went on.
Vietnam's entry into the Super Quest also had its own bumps on the road. The Saigon Aces initially only had two players on their roster - Monteclaro and Gabe Riche. It was only until the last two weeks before the tournament started when the lineup started to take shape. Monteclaro called up former FEU big man Prince Orizu while a local player, Kim Ban Vo, suited up for the squad in the last minute.
The Aces gave their all in the opening day of the Super Quest and represented their country proudly. They lost their first game but came up with a clutch win in their second outing against China. As fate would have it, it was a late free throw by Monteclaro with 4.4 seconds left that gave his team the victory. Unfortunately, the Saigon Aces failed to make the quarterfinals because they had a lower quotient.
Nonetheless, it was still mission accomplished for Monteclaro and Vietnam. The goal of joining the Super Quest was to expose the country, its fans, officials, and players to more basketball.
"That's the biggest thing. They'll be able to see that this is a good opportunity and whatever happens, it's a first step," he said. "The beginning is always the hardest. Luckily for us, we won a game against China. That's big for Vietnam. We're excited to go back there and we're happy to have a respectable finish."
Ryan Monteclaro didn't imagine that he would go back to the Philippines, let alone represent a different country. But in a way, everything that's happened to him the last few years led him to this higher calling.
"I'm so thankful because I didn't expect to represent their country. What I've been doing the past two and a half years is to develop their basketball program," he closed. "I didn't expect that I'll be representing Vietnam. The whole Vietnam is watching right now and Chooks-to-Go is helping Vietnam realize how big 3x3 can be."