He’s on the phone when he walks into the restaurant. The conversation is about basketball. His face is weary and incredulous, like he’s worn out by what’s going on without really believing it’s happening: 0-4 to start the conference, Barangay Ginebra’s worst since 2008.
As he hangs up, he apologizes for keeping me waiting.
It’s cool. I’m sure he’s got a lot on his mind. This is L.A. Tenorio after all, erstwhile golden boy of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, onetime face of the Alaska Aces. Mentored by the likes of Ato Badolato, Norman Black, and Tim Cone, and now the starting point guard for the PBA’s most popular team for the last twenty years.
I look at him in his Spike Lee t-shirt and dark nylon shorts and think: If anyone’s living the dream of every Pinoy who’s ever wanted to play basketball, it’s this guy.
I mean, he’s five-foot-eight and without any special physical ability. He himself won’t own up to having a consistent shot.
“I'm pretending I’m a shooter,” he says as he orders spaghetti, “but I'm not a shooter.”
The only athletic skill he admits to in 81 minutes of recorded conversation is his basketball IQ: “I know what's going to happen. Ganoon ako mag-isip. Umaandar ‘yan sa isip ko, one hundred miles per hour during the game.”
But unlike other players, he never aspired to have a claim to basketball fame. The backstory to L.A.—the behind-the-scenes of his championships, game-winning shots, and playmaking assists—is that of an ordinary boy who dared not dream, an adolescent who nearly quit on the verge of opportunity, and a man who grieved deeply over leaving a team he loved.
But his story really begins with shoes.
“Hindi ka maniniwala yung brand ng shoes na sinusuot ko while playing,” he says of his time with the varsity team of Don Bosco-Makati grade school. “Yung mga nabibili mo lang sa tabi-tabi.”
No surprise then that when he first laid eyes on Nike’s Chris Webber Air Max Sensations, it was love at first sight. “Sa sobrang pagkagusto ko sa shoes na yun, nagpabili ako sa parents ko,” L.A. says. But money was tight.
“We [were] okay as a family, financially. But…shoes [were] not a priority. Education was the priority for us, and kung anumang kailangan namin sa school.”
So, like a lovesick puppy, L.A. took to bed with a fever. Then for his birthday, his aunt surprised him with a brand new pair of C-Webbs. L.A. grins at the memory.
“Tuwang-tuwa ako no’n, sobra,” he recalls, laughing. “Tanggal sakit!”
Today L.A. wears CP3 and Kobe signature shoes on the court. Lightweight Flyknit’s adorn his feet at the interview, and he admits to collecting Jordans at home. All are symbols of how far he’s come since the day he wept for a pair of sneakers.
But little of it came easy. He talks about his early years with Ateneo like part of him still can’t believe he made it through. “Nung first year college ako…sobrang loner ako. After class, diretso lang ako sa Moro [Lorenzo Sports Center],” he says, where Ateneo's men's senior basketball team held practice. At the time, L.A. was fresh from San Beda High School, and the culture shock in college was overwhelming. Walking down hallways he’d feel people’s eyes on him, hear his name whispered as he passed.
It wasn't pride or paranoia. In 2001, his rookie year, he scored 30 points in the most crucial game of the season—Game 3 of the UAAP Finals against La Salle. Though the Blue Eagles lost, L.A. Tenorio became a household name in the Ateneo community.
But: “Sobrang mahiyain ako,” he admits. “Kapag may makipagusap sa akin, lalaki man o babae, hindi ko alam sasabihin ko, I’m sweating and everything.”
He was also a lone rookie among veterans. Though he opened up to teammates Larry Fonacier, Magnum Membrere, and Bajjie del Rosario, he spent most breaks at Moro with Fr. Tito Caluag. The social culture was troubling, but academics were torture. L.A. failed his first semester freshman year and was suspended from basketball.
“I was about to quit [the team] kasi hindi ko talaga kaya yung studies,” he says. “Buong second sem ng first year I couldn’t go to the basketball court.
“Sabi ko, hindi ko na kaya.”
Consider for a moment the headline: “L.A. Tenorio leaves Ateneo.” How different the landscape of Philippine basketball would have been.
Obviously, L.A. didn’t quit school. Fr. Caluag, along with Manny Pangilinan himself, convinced L.A. to keep trying. He found a tutor and slowly began learning to balance sports and studies. A year later Ateneo wins its first championship since 1988. After that, L.A. says, “totally nag-iba yung mundo namin as players.”
No longer did he have to line up to register for classes. Group work? His classmates would come to him. The days when he’d sit in the back, waiting to see which group needed one more person so he could join them, were over.
“[Nagkaroon kami bigla ng] TV guestings, mga pictorial… Minsan kumakain kami sa restaurant and [the waiter would say], ‘Sir, babayaran na po [yung bill niyo] ni ano.’ Ganoon kasarap dati.”
Girls would also call their dorm, drop by, and send food. L.A. denies having a girlfriend in college, though he met his wife, Chesca, when he was a freshman (but that’s a story for another time).
“Mahiyain talaga ako eh. Torpe pa. Minsan nga naiinggit ako sa mga teammates ko eh, parang, ‘Ang daming girlfriend ng mga 'to ah!’" He laughs. “Dati ‘yon.”
The victory, the constant attention, and the deeper bond with his teammates boosted L.A.’s confidence—though still not enough for him to consider going pro.
“Hindi ko talaga dream maglaro sa PBA,” says L.A. He felt too small, and not good enough. Everyday he'd go to Moro, he'd see guys like Johnny Abarrientos and Ali Peek practicing, and think, “kaya ko kaya?”
Coach Joel Banal, then head coach of the Talk N’ Text Phone Pals, believed he could. He said so to L.A. who, then a junior, was beginning to think there might be a place for him in the pros. When he joined the 2006 rookie draft, San Miguel selected him, then traded him two years later to Alaska.
There, L.A. made history and a name for himself. With celebrated head coach Tim Cone, L.A. and the Aces won the 2010 Fiesta Conference championship. By then, his player-coach relationship with Cone was solid both on and off the court: “He was my second father. We were very close talaga.”
In 2011, news surfaced that Tim Cone was leaving Alaska after 22 years and 13 titles. L.A., anticipating the move, had a plan ready.
“Dapat mauuna ako,” he reveals. “I was about to ask permission na sa kanya.” Wherever his mentor went, L.A. hoped to be there, waiting.
But it was too late. Before L.A. could make arrangements, Coach Tim signed with the San Miguel Corporation. Recalling their last conversation, L.A. says, “Ako yung huli niyang kinausap na player. Sabi niya, it’s not easy to leave the company, pero ang mahirap raw talaga is iiwan niya yung mga players.
“Nag-iyakan pa kami n’on.” L.A. looks both sad and amused. “Drama no’n. Sabi [niya] sa ‘kin, ‘It’s not going to be easy for you.’”
And it wasn't. Alaska’s 2011-12 season was the franchise’s roughest in recent memory. Fans called it the “post-Tim Cone era” with a sense of impending doom. L.A. felt for the team and for Coach Joel Banal, who’d taken over as head coach.
“Lahat ng players hinahanap si Coach Tim,” L.A. recalls sadly. “Ang hirap talaga. Sinasabi ni Coach Joel, ‘I’m not Tim Cone.’ He kept explaining that to the players.”
But the hardest part was yet to come for L.A. Against Alaska management’s wishes he joined the 2012 national team, which secured for the country the elusive Jones Cup in Taiwan. L.A. was named Most Valuable Player.
“Niloloko ako ng mga coaches [ng national team], ‘O, i-te-trade ka na kasi naglaro ka sa Gilas.’ Sabi ko, ‘Hindi.’ One hundred ten percent naniniwala ako na hindi ako i-te-trade.”
How wrong he was. The day of the 2012-13 rookie draft, L.A. received a call about Alaska’s pick from Coach Luigi Trillo.
“No’ng kausap ko siya I felt something different,” he says. “Sabi niya, ‘L.A., [Calvin] Abueva na tayo.’ Tapos, ‘Ingat ka diyan.’ Pero hindi siya ganon. ‘Pag tumatawag siya sakin, one hour [kami kung mag-usap]. Minimum thirty-five minutes.”
True enough, his first Monday back at Alaska practice, Coach Luigi took him aside to break the news: L.A. would have to leave his beloved Aces.
He was crushed.
“Talagang nagmakaawa ako sa kanya. Sabi ko, ‘Coach, please.’ ” But management’s decision was final. Nor could L.A. blame them. “Eh kapalit ko Dondon [Hontiveros] at JV [Casio]? Kahit ako yung coach, kukunin ko na yun.”
Still, L.A. attempted to meet with Alaska head honcho Fred Uytengsu. Nothing came of it, not even when he asked if he could at least be sent to the San Miguel team where Tim Cone was. On his last day with the Aces, L.A. was told he’ll be sent to the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Gin Kings.
“Iyak ako,” he confesses. “Sobrang iyak talaga ako. Hindi ko napigilan. In front of the coaching staff, hindi lang kay Luigi.”
The coaches remarked that L.A. really wanted to stay, considering how he had wept upon learning of his transfer to the team that every PBA player prays to be part of. But to L.A., it was nothing against Ginebra. It’s like that old saying: The heart can’t choose whom it loves. It didn’t matter where he was going because it wouldn’t be Alaska. The only time in his career he’d wanted a trade was when Tim Cone left. But he had hoped, deep inside, to retire in a red-and-white Aces jersey.
Across the table from me, he shrugs. “Pero gano’n ang buhay ng player eh.”
The long confession leaves L.A. pensive. I ask him about today—the fanfare that met his arrival to Ginebra, the current situation.
There’s passion when he speaks, but also sadness. He’s aware of how disappointed fans are. He’s disappointed, too.
“I’m really struggling,” he admits. “We’re really struggling.” He adds that he gets frustrated when he looks at the court and sees that things aren’t going as planned. Thinking about his teammates, the next play, and what needs to be done makes it hard to focus on his own game.
But L.A. believes and hopes that chemistry, and victories, will come in time.
“We’re still in the process of getting to know each other sa Ginebra. Ang hinihingi ko lang muna ay pasensiya,” says L.A., and not just from fans, but from his coaches, from his teammates. Even from himself.
L.A.’s story started with shoes, those unbranded pairs he’d buy where he could, just to be able to play. Now his shoes are bigger than we can imagine, and the brand is that of a man they call “The Living Legend.”
It’s no small distance from one to the other. And there’s still a long way to go.
By the time this piece goes up, BGSM will be 1-4 after a decisive win against Barako Bull. Could it be the start of a stronger, surer Ginebra team, and a more confident L.A. Tenorio?
But one thing’s for sure: No one wants L.A. to do better than L.A. himself.
WORDS: JESSICA MENDOZA