Mac Cardona: A thin line between love and hate

AKTV/Paolo Papa

Meralco Bolts guard Mac Cardona is having a strong campaign in the Commissioner’s Cup, leading his team back to the playoffs and reclaiming his throne as the league’s eminent anti-hero. This profile, which originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Baller Magazine, takes a deeper look at the man everyone seems to love to hate.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT PBA FANS would have such enmity for a frail 6-foot-1 shooting guard with an unorthodox game, but Mac Cardona just might be the most hated player in the PBA today. The animosity reaches its apex during the playoffs, when boobirds would hound Cardona each time he touches the ball.

Part of it is because he’s so damn good. He led the whole league in scoring during the 2008-09 season, when he was named a member of the Mythical Five after leading the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters to the Philippine Cup championship. Beyond that, he’s a killer in the clutch, fearlessly getting buckets in the face of the league’s toughest defenses.

But a bigger part of it is the way he carries himself on the court. Swagger oozes out of every inch of his body, from the way he walks, to the way he sets up his dribble drive, to the way he runs back on defense. His manic celebrations after big plays – the chest-thumping, the arms flailing, the wild gestures – seem to be intended to instigate a reaction, not just from fans, but from opposing players and coaches as well. With Cardona, one gets the impression that he’s not content with sticking the dagger on the other team; he also needs to twist and turn the knife to make his opponents squirm.

His in-game demeanor has won him a few enemies – at least on the court. During the 2009 Philippine Cup finals, Alaska coach Tim Cone threatened to instruct his big guys to lay Cardona out if the guard did not cut out his antics, which included taunting the Aces’ LA Tenorio. Cardona has also been involved in a number of scuffles, most notably with Ginebra’s backcourt irritant, Ronald Tubid. In 2008, the Talk ‘N Text top gun was ejected after giving Tubid a solid stomp while the Ginebra defender was sprawled on the floor.

Cardona swears, however, that his on-court antics are not meant to incite; he’s just a really intense guy. On the Tubid incident, he says that the two of them just got carried away during that game.

He adds that what happens in the hardcourt stays in the hardcourt. He understands that even threats of bodily harm from Tim Cone is just part of the game. “Ginagamit ko na lang na motivation yun,” he said. “Si Tim Cone, instead na sa team niya siya nag-focus, sa akin siya nag-focus. Ako yung naka-isa, ‘di ba? Pero kung natalo kami dun, siya yung naka-isa sa akin.

The reason it’s easy to let things slide, Cardona says, is that players actually have a different relationship away from the bright lights. “Hindi ko dinidibdib yung mga yun,” he said about these incidents. “Lahat kaming players, magkakaibigan kami.”

Even Ronald Tubid?

Oo, kahit kami ni Tubid. Pagdating sa labas, friends kami.”

WHILE CARDONA HAS MADE HIS FAIR share of enemies on the court, Meralco Bolts coach Ryan Gregorio has nothing but love for his star player. Gregorio credits Cardona for his team overachieving in the 2010-11 Philippine Cup, where they finished 7-7 in the eliminations before losing to the B-MEG Derby Ace Llamados in the quarterfinals. “Of our seven wins, Macmac was probably singlehandedly responsible for five of them,” he admitted.

The coach speaks in breathless tones about his prized player. “The guy’s really good,” he said. “Imagine, he puts up big numbers on our team despite the fact that defenses are keyed in on him.”

“And we’re winning. It’s easy for a selfish player to put up stats on a bad team, but we’re actually winning.”

The lovefest between Cardona and his coach isn’t one-sided. According to the hotshot guard, Gregorio was key to his adjustment from Talk ‘N Text to Meralco – a change he originally wasn’t too keen about. “Dati ayoko pang lumipat, gusto ko sanang matapos yung career ko sa Talk ‘N Text,” he said.

“Nung una, mahirap, kasi five years ako sa Talk ‘N Text, dun ako sumikat, maganda naman yung career ko,” he added. But he knew that as a professional basketball player, he had no choice if he were traded.

It was after a meeting with Gregorio that Cardona warmed up to the idea of being Meralco’s franchise player. He was impressed by the coach’s reputation of being a player’s coach. He cited, in particular, Gregorio’s track record alongside two-time Most Valuable Player James Yap, whom the coach drafted and mentored with the Purefoods franchise. “Siya yung unang nagpa-champion kay James,” said Cardona. “Sa PBL, sa UAAP, hindi naman nag-champion si James.”

He also has grown fond of his new coach’s style. “Lagi siyang positive,” he said. “Kapag natatalo, in-embrace niya pa rin yung team, unlike yung iba, ‘pag talo, watak-watak na.”

The funny thing is that when they were on opposing sides, Cardona and Gregorio had their fair share of conflict. “Nag-ta-trash talk kami dati ni Coach Ryan,” said Cardona. “Lalo akong gumagaling. Eh pagka-tinrash talk ako, gaganahan ako, ipapakita ko sa ‘yo ‘yung galit ko, yung galit na gusto ko talagang manalo.

Gregorio says that he’s encountered no problems coaching Cardona. There is the occasional outburst, which he chalks up to Cardona’s competitiveness.

“He’s a good guy,” said the coach. “He’s just misunderstood.”

AKTV/Paolo Papa

LIKE HIS GAME, THERE IS A CERTAIN ROUGHNESS about Mac Cardona when he speaks, and his honesty during interviews is particularly refreshing, almost endearing. He takes on any topic and speaks about them earnestly and candidly.

Topics like the 2009 PBA Most Valuable Player award, which he lost to Barangay Ginebra guard Jayjay Helterbrand despite leading the league in scoring and carrying Talk ‘N Text to its first all-Filipino title. Cardona has no qualms about admitting that he really wanted to win the award – and that it hurt when he didn’t. “Nag-champion kami, nanalo akong finals MVP, nasama ako sa Mythical Five… parang year ko yun eh. Kung feeling mo sa sarili mo na you deserve the award, tapos hindi ka nanalo, sasama ang loob mo.”

Unlike other players who swear they don’t care about individual accolades, the MVP award still remains a major goal for Cardona, second only to winning championships. “I care about those awards. After ng career mo, yun yung magre-remind sa ‘yo. Maipapakita mo sa anak mo, eto yung kasikatan ko.”

“Aim ko rin na maging part ng history ng PBA. Syempre ine-aim ko muna na mag-champion, pero kung mag-champion ka, susunod yun eh.”

He is just as forthcoming when talking about being bypassed for Powerade Team Pilipinas, the all-pro squad assembled by Yeng Guiao to compete in the 2009 FIBA Asia Championships in Tianjin, China. “42 points,” he says proudly, indicating his career-high production during Talk ‘N Text’s first game against Guiao’s Air 21 after the national team lineup was announced. He admits that he was trying to send a message to Guiao, and he used the snub to motivate himself to play well.

Never akong nag-national team [in college], so gusto kong ma-experience yun. Tingin ko lang, deserving din ako makapaglaro dun, kasi marunong din naman ako maglaro.

Over the course of his career, Cardona has used setbacks and perceived slights to motivate himself to play better, and it has served him well. Curiously, his road to basketball stardom mirrors that of a typical underdog hero, a far cry from the villain role that he plays so well on television.

CARDONA’S STORY BEGINS in Carson, California, where he migrated to join his mother in 1996. He had played some basketball in the streets of Mandaluyong, but he didn’t play organized hoops until suiting up for Carson High’s junior varsity team. His first taste of basketball glory came in tenth grade, when his team won a championship with him as a co-MVP.

By then, the basketball bug had bitten Cardona, who spent most of his free time practicing at the basketball court just across their home, much to his mother’s chagrin. “Wala akong pinipiling oras, buong araw akong nagba-basketball,” he said. “Pinapagalitan nga ako palagi, binibiro pa ako ng nanay ko, basketball ka nang basketball, wala ka namang mapapala diyan.”

It was also at this neighborhood court that Cardona developed his trademark floaters and hook shots. “Idol ko si Shaquille O’Neal nun, at si Anfernee Hardaway,” he said. “Eh ‘di ba ang hihilig nila sa mga one-handed shots?”

When he went back to the Philippines in 1998 for summer vacation, the opportunity of pursuing a basketball career lured him to stay behind. Already a lanky teenager, Cardona tried out for the juniors team of Jose Rizal University, even enrolling in the high school program for one semester. But his dream suffered a setback when he found out that he did not make the varsity team’s line-up.

He packed his bags and tried out for the juniors team of the National University, the traditional whipping boys of UAAP basketball, but again failed to make the team. Heartbroken, he went back to the United States. At the back of his mind, he wondered if his dream to play basketball in the Philippines would remain just that – a dream.

Back in California, he worked a number of odd jobs in restaurants such as Jack in the Box and Seafood City. But he continued to play basketball, this time in various Filipino-American leagues. After he turned some heads with his play, he was invited by an agent to come back to Manila in 2000 to try out for Philippine basketball’s most prestigious college program: the De La Salle Green Archers.

Despite catching the eye of scouts, things still didn’t come easy for Cardona. He initially failed to make an impression with then-La Salle head coach Franz Pumaren. “Kung makikita mo ako nun, payat… malikot lang ako, masipag lang ako, pero kung titingnan mo ako, hindi ako mukhang player,” Cardona said.

Fortunately for Cardona, Pumaren’s brother Derrick, who was also a La Salle team consultant, saw something special in him, so he ended up making the team. By a stroke of luck, Derrick would also give Cardona his first big break in the pros as a coach with Talk ‘N Text several years later.

PBA/Nuki Sabio

THE ARCHERS WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP during Cardona’s first year with the team. It was a happy time for the newbie, who had forged a tight bond with the team’s star guard Renren Ritualo. Cardona credits DLSU veterans Ritualo and Willie Wilson as his role models that allowed him to develop his confidence. “Tumatak sa isip ko, gusto ko maging tulad nila,maging star,” he said. “Gusto ko mapansin ako ng tao, gusto ko mapansin nila yung skills ko.”

Cardona traces his swagger to his days at La Salle, where he participated in numerous high profile battles against his team’s arch-rivals, the Ateneo Blue Eagles. “Sa Ateneo-La Salle, ‘di ba, angasan? Eh bata pa kami noon. Lagi pa kaming nananalo. Cocky ka nang konti, nag-aangas ka sa court. Yung itsura din namin, lalo na sa akin, mukha akong mayabang.”

But things headed south for the Archers after the departure of Ritualo and Wilson. In Cardona’s second year with the team, the Archers lost in the UAAP finals to Ateneo, in a series highlighted by a game-ending block on Cardona by Larry Fonacier in Game One. A year later, the Archers failed to make the UAAP finals, ending a string of nine straight trips by the school to the championship.

Cardona used these failures as motivation for his play. “Inisip ko, ‘Susuko na lang ba ako? Hindi na ba ako magta-trabaho? Pero naisip ko, nothing to lose naman ako eh, kaya lumaban na lang ako.

In his last season in the UAAP, he led La Salle to an upset victory over the defending champion Far Eastern University to bring back the crown to Taft. (The Archers ended up returning their trophy after it was proven that the team had fielded in ineligible players during the season; the team was also suspended from the league for one season.)

After leaving La Salle, Cardona joined Harbour Centre in the PBL, winning the MVP trophy in the 2005 PBL Unity Cup before joining the PBA draft. After being drafted by Air 21, he was quickly sent to Talk ‘N Text to back-up former MVP Willie Miller.

Miller was traded late in Cardona’s rookie season, with the Tropang Texters acquiring Ritualo. Cardona continued to work on his game, and he got a break when Ritualo left the team to join the SMC Team Pilipinas for training. Thrust as a starter in the PBA for the first time, Cardona won the Best Player of the Conference award in the 2007 Fiesta Conference, helping his squad once again to the finals before narrowly losing to Alaska. Ritualo returned to the team the next conference, but by then no one was taking Cardona’s spot in the starting lineup.

After all the hard work, Cardona had finally become a star.

BY THE TIME HE BECAME THE PBA’S pre-eminent villain, Cardona says he had been used to the boos – he was also a favorite target by Ateneo fans back in the UAAP – and that they never rattle him. “Hindi ako na-affect. Eh bi-nu-boo din ako ng San Miguel, bi-nu-boo ako ng Alaska, nag-champion naman kami.”

He has grown to love the boos, in fact, and like every other hurdle along his way, he uses it to motivate himself to play better. “Siguro, kaya ako bi-nu-boo, kasi tinik ako sa lalamunan nila,” he said. “Gusto ko ring ginaganun ako, kasi ibig sabihin nun, may value kang player.”

Cardona may not be too far out of line when he suggests that the boos are really just another way of displaying affection for his game. Rafe Bartholomew, in his seminal book about Philippine basketball Pacific Rims, was a witness to the beauty and madness of Cardona’s game as part of the Alaska Aces. He watched as the guard confounded Alaska’s defenders time and again, and despite the fact that Cardona was on the other side, he gained a grudging respect for the former Archer.

“I was a secret admirer of Cardona’s game,” Bartholomew wrote. “Even though he was the prime mover behind Alaska’s potential demise, he was a unique talent… whose eccentric basketball style was a leitmotif evoking the essence of Philippine basketball. Cardona with his full-throttle hoopward blitzes, was the avatar of desire. Players like Cardona, who conjured these transcendent moments every time they took the court, helped me connect with the Philippine game in an elemental way.”

Chances are, as long as Cardona and his team keep winning – and with his track record, it’s hard to bet against the guy – the boos for him are going to keep coming. But while the boos may mean that we hate the player, it’s impossible to feel anything but love for his game.

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