Former Ateneo reserve big man Justin Chua is a man on a mission.
Chua was one of just three Blue Eagles — alongside two-time UAAP finals Most Valuable Player Nico Salva and backup guard Tonino Gonzaga — who won a title in every single UAAP season in the last five years.
But he has spent most of it playing in a reserve role, first to former UAAP MVP Rabeh Al-Hussaini, who now plays for Talk ‘N Text in the PBA, and later to 7-foot-tall Greg Slaughter, a perennial mythical five member.
But in the PBA D-League finals, Chua is out to prove he’s no career backup as he goes head-to-head with the guy he played behind for the last two years, and a couple of other old friends as well.
A total of five former Ateneo players are playing in the D-League finals with Chua and Bacon Austria suiting up for Blackwater Sports, which is leading the best-of-three series 1-0. Slaughter, Salva, and Kirk Long are on the opposing side, the defending champion NLEX Road Warriors.
In Game One of the finals, Chua was the former Blue Eagle that shone brightest, posting 17 points, two rebounds, and a block for Blackwater Sports. He outplayed NLEX’s Slaughter, who finished with just nine points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field, alongside five rebounds and two blocks.
Though he holds no animosity against his former teammates, Chua admits he has something to prove in the series.
“Sa totoo lang, wala naman akong anything against them pero, personally, I just want to prove that I can play also,” he said. “In the past few years, backup lang ako parati. I found it as a chance na rin to show that I have what it takes to play against them.”
Chua is averaging a respectable 11.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, and is sixth in total points scored in the tournament.
His former Ateneo teammate Salva isn’t surprised by Chua’s current success even while going against Slaughter and himself admits he’s happy for Chua despite playing for the other team.
“I actually saw that so many times sa practice before sa UAAP season,” Salva said. “Justin’s really good. He’s a good player and I’m glad he’s doing well right now.”
Salva and Chua, who entered the league at the same time, are both just getting used to playing against their former teammates although they have different perspectives on the issue.
Chua seems to be genuinely enjoying the challenge of going against his friends. “I look forward to it every time. Kahit hindi NLEX, kahit sino, basta naging teammate ko, I always look forward to it kasi it’s fun eh,” he said. “It gets competitive rin, dati teammates kayo, ngayon magkalaban na kayo.”
Salva, meanwhile, isn’t thrilled with the prospect but understands that it’s merely a fact of basketball life.
“It’s weird to play against Justin and Bacon,” Salva said. “But you get used to it. If I go to the PBA, he goes to the PBA, it’s going to be more battles like that.”
In the end, though, both players understand that the matchup is nothing personal, and they’re all just playing for the ultimate prize – a title for their team.
“It’s our team’s goal to win the championship, nagkataon lang sila Nico yung kalaban namin so it’s more fun for me,” Chua said.
“We’re just trying to get two wins cause we lost (last Thursday) so we’ll see what happens,” Salva added.