Robert Bolick was about 80 kilometers away from the action when he provided what could be one of the lasting images of the PBA bubble in Pampanga - him lying on his side watching NorthPort's season opener against Blackwater from the virtual stands.
"Pinakita na kasi ako nung una so sabi ko tapos na siguro, so humiga na lang ako. Nagulat ako pinakita pala ako ulit," Bolick laughingly explained on Tuesday's episode of Sports Page.
As amusing as that image of Bolick may be, the 25-year-old guard was actually far from happy as he watched the game unfold from the confines of his home in Manila.
"Relaxed, pero sa isip-isip, medyo badtrip kasi kayang-kaya ko tulungan 'yung team," he shared. "But 'yun nga, this happens for a reason so ia-accept lang namin."
That feeling of helplessness was also felt by Elite swingman Carl Bryan Cruz, who had to make do with sending simple messages of support for his teammates currently striving to make the Philippine Cup playoffs inside the bubble.
"Nakaka-inggit talaga eh. Syempre gusto mo rin talaga makasama doon, gusto mo makapag-perform. Gusto mo matulungan sila. Hanggang cheer na lang muna sa Viber," he lamented. "Deep inside, nakakainggit na nakakapanghinayang na gusto mo makatulong sa kanila."
Bolick and Cruz were unable to join their teams in the 2020 season restart due to health considerations. Both have made considerable progress in their respective recoveries, but their doctors and mother teams took into consideration the short amount of preparation they would have had to go through before jumping back into competitive games.
Cruz underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus last November and said he even tried rushing his rehabilitation to try making the final 15-man lineup for Blackwater in the bubble.
"Nung hindi pa ko nakakapag-decide kung sasama ba ko sa bubble, medyo pressured kami eh. Sa part ko, naghahabol ako na kailangan nandito na ko sa ganitong stage," he said. "Since 'di na ko sumama, kumbaga meron kaming mas mahabang time pa para makapag-focus. Hindi masyadong rushed 'yung mga program namin, so nagagawa namin ng maayos."
Bolick, on the other hand, said he was already in game shape but accepted the fact that he wasn't ready to play the tempo at full speed almost a year after tearing his right ACL.
"One year ako hindi nakapag-laro tapos one week lang lalaro ako agad ng full speed. Hindi naman 'to college o high school eh, these are pro players and these guys are ready also," he explained. "I think 'di pa ko ready sa ganoong situation and Dr. (Raul) Canlas said it's not really a good thing to force it."
Both players said the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) within Metro Manila last March stalled the progress that they were making.
"Medyo matagal din 'yung process tsaka recovery non. Unluckily biglang inabutan ng ECQ, so kumbaga 'yung progression biglang nahinto, natagalan din," said Cruz.
"Siguro kung 'di lang ako nadale ng ECQ, I think makakapaglaro na ko ngayon," rued Bolick. "'Pag-start ng ECQ, 'yun sana 'yung time na tumatalon na ko."
Bolick, in particular, said he had to make do with rehabbing alone at home before being able to resume sessions with his physical therapists over at the Moro Lorenzo Gym inside the Ateneo campus in Quezon City.
"Iba pa rin 'yung may strength and conditioning coach ka. Mas kumpyansa ka eh. Nung ako lang mag-isa, sabi ko, 'Kaya ko ba tumalon? Baka pagtalon ko kung ano mangyari sa'kin.' But kapag tumulo na 'yung pawis, andiyan na 'yung competitiveness, nawawala na 'yan eh," he said.
"I'm very happy that I put my heart and soul sa pinapagawa nila sa'kin," continued Bolick. "Pagpasok ko sa Moro noong June to July, sabi nila, 'Wow, ang lakas mo na!' Hindi nila akalain na ganoon ang mangyayari. From that day hanggang ngayon, we built confidence. Nakakapag-basketball na ko. Ang sarap sa feeling na nakakatalon ka, nakakagalaw ka, wala ka nang nararamdamang sakit, normal na ang katawan mo. "
There could be an argument to the extent that Blackwater and NorthPort are missing both guards, but Bolick and Cruz have eventually found peace in the fact that all they can do now is to just watch their teams go through the highs and lows of the season.
For Cruz, he takes pleasure in seeing the Elite (2-3) continue to figure things out under new head coach Nash Racela.
"Feeling ko natutuwa rin si coach Nash sa mga effort ng teammates ko at sa tinatakbo ng team, though talo sila last game (against TNT last week)," he said. "Sana tuloy-tuloy lang 'yung ganung laro at sana tulungan alng nila si Coach Nash, kasi bago lang din, ang tagal din nawala ni Coach Nash sa coaching.
"Grabe rin 'yung sacrifice nila before ECQ, during ECQ and after ECQ. Kasi during ECQ, kahit nasa bahay kami, may mga Zoom workouts. Talagang we really needed to stay in shape. Sa tingin ko nagbubunga naman."
Bolick, meanwhile, uses this time away from the game to learn about his team from another perspective.
"Alam mo kapag nanonood ka pala ng game, nakikita mo talaga 'yung laro. Iba pa rin 'yung perspective ng coaches," opened Bolick. "I've been a fan of the game so nung na-injure ako, I just kept on watching the games. I don't miss any games para at least pagbalik ako, I know kung ano kulang, I know kung saan kami nagkakamali.
"It's been seven, eight months na wala kang laro. It's gonna be hard, it's never gonna be easy. Sabi ko sa kanila, 'The more you hesitate, the more you're gonna miss,'" he added. "Just stay loose. Kapag open, tira lang nang tira kasi alam naman natin si coach Pido, nagagalit lang 'yan kapag naghe-hesitate ka."
Having experienced a major injury himself, Bolick also reached out to Alaska forward Kevin Racal, who tore his ACL in the first week of action inside the bubble.
"Hindi kami magkakilala masyado noon, minessage ko sa Instagram," he said. "'Kung nagdadalawang-isip ka, andito lang ako.' Kahit Letran siya at San Beda ako. May bad blood diyan pero at the end of the day, outside basketball, humans pa rin kami. We're part of the PBA family."
Their return to play may have been delayed by circumstances beyond their control, but the optimism and the hunger to improve and compete are still there for Bolick and Cruz.
"This is one of the most challenging parts of my career. But at the same time syempre you have to expand your game. Hopefully by next year may maidadagdag kami sa mga laro namin," said Bolick. "I think we will never change the way we play, ma-injure man o hindi. We just have to play our game."
Added Cruz: "Hopefully next year sana maka 101 percent. At least ngayon marami pang panahon, hindi masyadong pressured. Ibibigay ko lang naman 'yung best ko para makabalik ulit. Tsaka improve ko lang siguro 'yung mga skills, mga kulang ko these past seasons. Feel ko it's time for me na i-improve ko ngayon na may time pa ko para magawa."