CLARK, Pampanga - When Vic Manuel woke up on the morning of January 27th, his phone and social media accounts were filled with notifications. Something had happened. However, it would take him and the rest of the world awhile to fathom the news that would shake not only the basketball community, but the entire planet.
Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash that sent shockwaves across the globe and struck the 33-year-old Alaska Aces veteran to the core.
"I was really sad when I learned what happened to him. Really sad," the 6'4" power forward said in the vernacular. "Kobe Bryant is the only NBA player I idolized since 2002 and he's the reason why I got interested in playing basketball. I may not be able to perform his moves but I imbibed his scoring mentality and revolved my game around it."
As a 15-year-old growing up in Olongapo City, Manuel decided to make basketball a career after watching Bryant and his amazing run with the only franchise he ever played for in his 20-year stint in the NBA.
Eventually, Manuel gained prominence playing for the PSBA Jaguars in the UCAA and eventually burst into the national scene at the turn of the decade, achieving a rare feat along the way after he was named MVP in both PBL and PBA D-League. In 2012, GlobalPort selected him as the ninth overall pick in the PBA Draft. Not surprisingly, his first jersey number was 24.
The turning point for his PBA journey came in 2014 when he signed with the Aces and he been involved in numerous championship battles.
"(In Alaska) I wore number 4 which was my college jersey," Manuel explained. "Then it became 87 to honor my eldest child who was born on August 7."
But when Bryant died, he decided to come full circle and don the number 24 anew at the onset of the 2020 PBA season.
"I changed my jersey number for him (Kobe)," Manuel admitted. "I'll probably use (number 24) until I retire."
Manuel's ninth season in the league, however, got off to a tumultuous start here in the ongoing 2020 PBA Philippine Cup with Alaska dropping its first two assignments.
The team had gone through several personnel changes. There was the trade that sent playmaker Simon Enciso to TNT Tropang Giga during the offseason for gunner Michael DiGregorio, the retirement of perennial starting center Sonny Thoss, the injury to center Noy Baclao and, just recently, the season-ending ACL tear on starting forward Kevin Racal. But as of this writing, Alaska has looked good, and Manuel is a major reason.
Manuel is now on mentorship mode as he has now moved forward from playing alongside Thoss and Baclao to serving as role model for third-year big man Abu Tratter and rookie Barkley Eboña. With the help of two-time PBA MVP Danny Ildefonso, Manuel is pleased at how quickly the youngsters have come along.
"These kids are tough," Manuel exclaimed. "They got good guidance from Danny I. and I pitch in a bit to help boost their confidence."
But when Racal went down, it opened up more opportunities for minutes and Tratter and Ebonia have truly stepped up.
"We really need Abu especially on defense and rebounding. His hustle plays impress me (and) he's a good addition to the team," Manuel shared. "As for Barkley, I'm also happy for the kid because he's taken the opportunity given to him and made full use of it."
Manuel admits that they're still getting used to not having Thoss around as he was the franchise's main man in the middle since 2004.
"The impact of Sonny Thoss on the floor was different," he said. "We're grossly undersized so he could have still made a difference."
Without Thoss, the Aces will have to reply on a frontline composed of Manuel, Tratter (6'6") and Eboña (6'5") backstopped by veterans Yutien Andrada (6'5") and Rodney Brondial (6'4").
With what Alaska has shown of late, they seem to be the diesel team in the PBA Bubble. But with still a long road ahead, Manuel and the Aces have to dig into that "Mamba Mentality" if they are to make a serious playoff run.