Calvin Abueva's highly-anticipated return to the Phoenix Fuel Masters came with plenty of questions. Chief among them was how would Abueva look in his first game in 512 days?
For over two minutes after Abueva first checked in at the 7:32 mark in the first quarter against NLEX on Monday, the answer seemed a bit muted.
The trademark hustle on loose balls, rebounds and defense was there, but the offense wasn't clicking just yet. His first shot attempt of the night against the Road Warriors ended in a whistle after crashing into an offensive foul. The second, a drive which came off a timeout with four seconds left on the shot clock, came up short and hit the side of the rim, while a mid-range jumper for his third attempt of the night hit back iron.
Abueva knew he needed to turn it around -- fast. Fortunately, fundamental questions don't really need complicated answers.
"I just reminded myself to cool down and to go back to basics," Abueva said in Filipino.
That approach worked. Abueva got himself going by getting his first two points off a tough fall-away jumper underneath the basket with 5:16 on the clock. He eventually settled down and made five of the next 10 the rest of the way to finish with 21 points in 31 productive minutes off the bench and help Phoenix Super LPG push past the Road Warriors 114-110.
Abueva sank 9-for-11 free throws and added 13 rebounds, seven assists and a steal in an all-around game that served as a massive shot in the arm for the Fuel Masters, now 4-2 in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup.
"I really didn't think too much about expectations. I just focused on my first game in 16 months, so I just gave it my all on the floor and doubled my effort," he said.
That type of across-the-board brilliance from Abueva was par for the course before he was suspended June last year, but it wasn't something coach Topex Robinson and the rest of the team expected from the 32-year-old star in his first game back.
"We really tried to quiet our expectations of Calvin. Everybody was expecting that he's gonna be all out and loose," said Robinson. "But at the end of the day, what's important is we give him support. And I think that's what he always needed during the year and a half that he was gone."
Phoenix certainly needed him on Monday just as much as Abueva needed the team during the 16 months he was suspended from PBA play. The Road Warriors weren't quite as active on threes as they normally were (5-for-22), but impressive shooting elsewhere (53.5 percent from the field), particularly in the paint (67.3 percent for 66 points), kept them within striking distance down the stretch.
Abueva's presence helped a great deal in shutting the door on NLEX. Phoenix Super LPG's offense was 18 points better with their star forward on the floor, and that earned him the right to finish the game alongside Wright, Justin Chua, RJ Jazul and Jensen Rios. He also delivered in the clutch by hitting a short jumper that kept the Fuel Masters ahead by three, 110-107, with 44 seconds left in the game.
"Coach Topex knows how I've played ever since our days in (San Sebastian)," Abueva said of Robinson. "Our communication's just different from everybody else. He knows how to utilize me, and he knows when to take me out of the game. That's why I'm thankful for the opportunity to return while having him as my coach."
Abueva said this type of effort is something he believes he can continue as he cherishes this new lease on his career.
"I'm thankful for all the help that the GAB (Games and Amusements Board) and commissioner (Willie Marcial) gave me. I told commissioner I'm gonna give my give it my best not just in this game, but in the next games and in future seasons. I'll give my best until my career ends," Abueva said.
Asked about his mental approach if opponents ever try to get under his skin, Abueva said he's got that part covered.
"That's a challenge for me, but I already expect that. I'll remind myself to keep focused on the game, and I don't think about anger or any kind of trouble. I'll just keep mind on trying to think of ways to win us this game," he said.
Robinson, for his part, said he and the rest of the team will just continue providing Abueva the necessary support to keep him in check moving forward.
"We just have to continue supporting Calvin because again, he's part of us, he's part of our family, and we're always going to protect our family. We're always going to be our brother's keeper," he said.