'Don't lose hope': PJ Simon hopes to inspire bench-warmers and undrafted players

It's common for longtime basketball stars to grapple with the idea of their basketball mortality, and some even battle with their own struggles more violently than others. But in PJ Simon's case, the transition appears to be a peaceful one.

"Maybe it's time [to retire]. It's also for the next generation. I already did my part. It's a bit saddening since I think I can still play, but I also think this is the right time," he said in Filipino on Sunday.

"It's also for me to have more time for myself. It's time to rest. It's difficult because I love basketball. Basketball is my first love and my routine every day."

The eight-time PBA champion will be retiring at the end of the All-Filipino conference and will be the fourth player in franchise history to have his jersey retired, alongside Rey Evangelista, Jerry Codiñera and Alvin Patrimonio -- the latter who was his teammate during his rookie year and whom he tied for the most number of seasons played with the Purefoods franchise.

"I'm honored," he said. "I didn't imagine [Alvin and I would] tie for 17 seasons together."

Simon found the jersey retirement gesture, which was initiated by team governor Rene Pardo and the team to be held on May 10 during their Manila Clasico tilt with Ginebra, flattering.

"It's touching and at the same time, I'm having mixed emotions. Touching, but saddening since I'm really going to miss the game for sure."

Seeing Magnolia's guards consistently play at a high level also contributed to Simon's decision to retire. He believes that Magnolia is in good hands with Paul Lee, Mark Barroca, Chris Banchero, Justin Melton and Jio Jalalon running the offense for years to come.

"We have a lot of guards and they're all really good. That's also why I thought of retiring because this is their time," he explained. "I'm happy that I'm able to impart my knowledge to the younger players, and hopefully I'm still able to inspire them that at my age, I can still compete."

Simon began his farewell tour on Sunday, when his Hotshots absorbed a beating at the hands of defending five-time champions San Miguel Beermen to open the 2020 Philippine Cup. He saw limited minutes, but was still productive, scoring four points and logging a team-high plus-14 rating in only 11 minutes.

"It's a long way to go and it's a long conference. I believe we can bounce back. This is the conference where we always reach the finals. That's why I picked this as my last conference: the All-Filipino Cup is very prestigious," he said.

"I hope we finally win a championship because we went to the finals twice consecutively. I believe we can now, and that's why I chose to retire this conference because I know there's a chance to reach the finals again. Hopefully we can get there."

Few players, if any, have had more colorful and decorated career arcs than Simon, who had to scrape his way into PBA relevance after strong stints in now-defunct leagues Metropolitan Basketball Association and Philippine Basketball League. Simon was drafted with the 43rd overall pick by Sta. Lucia in the 2001 rookie draft, but did not make his league debut until 2004, when Purefoods signed him as a free agent.

Simon eventually went on to become a pivotal part of the franchise's Grand Slam six years ago and raked in individual honors along the way as he became an eight-time All-Star -- even winning the All-Star MVP award back in 2008, a one-time member of the second Mythical Team in 2014, and a two-time Mr. Quality Minutes awardee in 2008 and 2014.

But he had to go through some personal trials on the floor first, too. Before averaging double-digit scoring for the first time in the 2006-07 season, Simon was basically a non-factor. In his rookie year, he averaged 6.2 points on 44.8 percent shooting in 14.9 minutes and 62 games. That dropped to 4.4 points per game on 38.3 percent in merely 9.6 minutes and 28 games in his second season.

Asked about the kind of legacy he wants to leave behind, Simon pointed to his struggles and said that he wants that rocky experience to be an inspiration to players who are striving to find their niche in the league.

"Especially to those bench players and the undrafted ones, they shouldn't lose hope because that's what happened to me. There were times that I wanted to give up, but I kept going. Maybe that's the legacy I'm going to leave behind," he said. "Kaya minsan naisip ko kung bakit ako nag-struggle noong first two years ko, three years, dahil parang feeling ko 'yun pala yung maiiwan ko, na maging inspiration ako sa mga hindi nakakalaro masyado."

"Hopefully to the undrafted players, they don't lose hope. They can't give up because if I could do it, for sure they could do it too."