At 34, Ronjay Buenafe showed why he’s still a top gunner, scoring 31 points and drilling nine three-pointers to lift his team to a victory last Saturday.
It looked like just another day in the office for Buenafe, a 10-year PBA veteran, but it wasn’t. The untelevised game was played at the humble Marikina Sports Center whose conditions are far from that of the more imposing SMART-Araneta Coliseum or Mall of Asia Arena, both of which are PBA’s regular playing venues.
In fact, he was suiting up for a squad named Hobe Bihon-Macway which defeated Madam Tess in that weekend game.
Welcome to the Marikina City Basketball League, a sanctuary for former PBA players like Buenafe.
But how did he end up playing in a semi-pro league that fans have hardly heard about?
For Buenafe, the answer is simple.
“Conditioning lang. Para pagdating ng games, ready tayo,” said the sharpshooter who is trying out for the NLEX Road Warriors.
“Antay-antay lang, pero hindi pa nakakapag-decide (si Coach Yeng Guiao). Sa ngayon, pakundisyon muna.”
Like Buenafe, Chito Jaime is using the MCBL in his attempt to make a PBA comeback.
“Hindi pa rin ako nawawalan ng pag-asa. Mas maganda pa rin talaga yung nasa PBA ka. Baka sakaling may mangailangan. Katulad ni Coach Yeng, mahilig magbigay yun ng break,” said Jaime who once played for Guiao at Rain or Shine.
The MCBL, now on its 11th year, has attracted former PBA players, top amateur players and even imports. The league boasts of once having former PBA MVP Willie Miller, GlobalPort star Terrence Romeo and PBA legends such as Samboy Lim and Vergel Meneses in its stable.
For Hobe team owner Bobby Co, hiring ex-PBA players is a win-win both for his team and the players.
“It’s good for our team because we’re bringing in players who have become household names in the PBA. At the same time, baka sakaling makatulong rin tayo sa kanila kasi yung iba sa kanila gusto pa ring bumalik sa PBA. We welcome them to our team,” he said.
Make no mistake, suiting up in the MCBL is nowhere near the PBA experience. But the competition is still tough, according to Buenafe.
“Mataas yung competition ng liga. Isa ring way yun para mahasa yung mga amateur players na gustong magpa-draft. May mga imports pa,” he said. “Magandang liga ito. Marami kang matututunan.”
Al Vergara, who apart from the PBA once played for the Singapore Slingers in the ASEAN Basketball League, feels the same.
“Thankful ako dahil nakakalaro at thankful rin andito pa ako sa magandang liga. Kung titingnan mo nga yung MCBL parang ABL rin eh, may mga import pa,” he said.
Passion for basketball
Playing for Hobe Macway has also helped former PBA players earn money. Just ask Sunday Salvacion.
“Kailangan nating maghanapbuhay eh,” said the sniper who was once known for his “Sunday Special” three-pointers.
Salvacion last saw action for GlobalPort but injuries prevented him from having a significant contribution. He was later dropped by the team.
Unlike Buenafe and Jaime, Salvacion is not looking for a PBA return. He is contented playing in the MCBL and invitational games in the provinces.
“Yung injury ko kasi. Hindi ko na kaya yung everyday na practice. Kaya yung mga ganitong laro tulad sa Hobe Macway, OK lang,” he said.
“Mahirap kapag everyday. May mga schedule pa rin naman akong lalaruan katulad sa Isabela, then may schedule rin ako sa Butuan. Mga invitationals lang. Hindi maiwasan kasi gusto mong maglaro kasama nung mga ex-PBA kasi nami-miss mo eh. Habang kaya pa.”
Mac Andaya, a 6-foot-9 big man who played for Barako Bull, Rain or Shine and Air21, has already embarked on a career in showbiz after his brief PBA stint.
But Andaya, a fan favorite in the MCBL, admitted that he still loves to play basketball–and that’s what the Marikina league has allowed him to do.
“Natutuwa ako kasi nagagawa pa rin namin ng mga ex-PBA players yung gusto naming gawin, yung paglalaro ng competitive basketball,” he said.