If you’re an avid fan of basketball, it’s more than likely that you’ve heard of Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) player Justin Chua. Recently, Chua was named the Top Bubble D-Fender by the PBA Press Corps. and was nominated for the Most Improved Player award. Even during his high school days, he was one to watch as a star player for the Chiang Kai Shek Blue Dragons.
But where did he get his start?
“My stepdad — or tito, since they aren’t officially married — pushed me to play basketball when I was still in the province, Bacolod,” Chua said. “I started playing basketball when I was just 12 years old, maybe. I played my first official organized basketball game at 13 and the rest is history.”
And while you hear from professional athletes that they’ve always dreamed of playing in the big leagues since they were little, that wasn’t the case with Chua.
“When I started playing the game, I saw the opportunities. First of all, there was the scholarship and the fact that I could help my family. And then I took it one level at a time,” he shared. “When I was in high school, I never really thought of going pro. I just wanted to get to college first. Then, when I got to college, I told myself I’d try to go semi-pro, and then from semi-pro, I’ll try to make it to pro — something like that. I never really looked so far forward. Like when I was in high school, I never thought to myself, ‘Ah, goal ko na mag-PBA.'”
“When I was in the province, I always assumed I would stay in the province, and that I would work in the bank or do something corporate. There aren’t that many options available in the province so that was the life I thought I would have before basketball,” he added.
Speaking of the various stages in his basketball career, he said, “It’s really different. When I was in high school, especially in the Chinese league, I was one of the biggest, so, not saying the competition wasn’t good, but I definitely had a height advantage. So it was really different. I felt like I was so big, so I was able to get rebounds easily.
“But when I got to college, it was different from what I was accustomed to because physicality-wise, it was different. Coming from a Chinese league to UAAP, it was extremely different. My first year was really an adjustment. Then after college, it was the same thing, I went semi-pro. In the semi-pros, it was kind of similar to college, but when I got to the pros, I had to re-adjust again. The people were older, they were stronger, so I had to adjust to that, too.”
But after seven years of playing professionally, a lot of eyes are now on Chua as his career is gaining ground. What’s changed and has provided him with the extra wind beneath his wings?
“I guess it’s just the opportunities that have been presented to me. Let’s just say in the first six years, there weren’t that many opportunities given to me, or if there were, they weren’t consistent,” he said. “So the change in our coach resulted in a change in my playing time, and the trust of my coach in me changed as well. When you play without the pressure of having to do certain stuff, you have a lighter feeling when you play, so I guess that’s the main thing that helped me. I was allowed to just play my game.”
“There have never been restrictions throughout my career,” Chua clarified, “but there’s a term in basketball and in my team, ‘Maiksi yun tali ko.’ If I make a mistake or two mistakes, I would be benched immediately. But with the team now, it’s not like that. It takes the pressure off of me when I play. Before, when I played, before I even made a mistake, I would always think that ‘Oh, I’m going to be benched.'”
“Sometimes, it plays with your head,” he added.
That just goes to show how big of a factor a pro-ball player’s mental state is when he plays the game. What more in the midst of the pandemic?
Athletics during the pandemic
“It was difficult because we were confined to home workouts. So I would have to work out alone at the condo or with my girlfriend doing virtual yoga, but of course, I missed basketball. In a way, it kind of helped also. It felt like if you went to Boracay. For us, players, it felt like a vacation and we felt refreshed. We were able to take a break from the continuous strenuous basketball and training throughout our lives. So it helped my body recover, and when we started practicing … I was able to start getting into condition early, so when practice started, I was a bit ahead of some of the guys, so I think that helped physically and mentally when we all got back.”
“I feel like yoga really helped me a lot, especially during the pandemic,” he shared. “It made my body loose, in a way. Being away from basketball and strenuous activity also helped. I have a major knee injury from four or five years ago, so there’s a tightness in my left knee. So during the pandemic, while there was no basketball and all I did was yoga, it refreshed my body as well.”
According to Chua, for a professional basketball player, training starts in April, and they have a two-month break. But because they start training for the next season, their break is usually looks more like 3 weeks to a month before they have to get back on the court.
Now that they’re shooting hoops professionally again, Chua is back with his jersey, which has almost always sported the no. 18. “When I was 13 years old, the jersey that was given to me at my first organized basketball game had that number and I have never changed it. Whenever I’m given a chance to pick no. 18, I take it.”
He’s spent his years as an athlete, but just like everyone else, he ages. But thankfully, this 31-year old hasn’t experienced the effects of aging. “So far, I’ve been blessed to not experience these. I’m hoping that I’m still at my peak and have 2 or 3 more years before I feel those things,” he said. “But I do have to warm up well, and I can’t just play basketball off the bat. I reminisce about the times when I was in high school. As soon as I get to the gym, I can just run and I don’t really get hurt. But nowadays, if I do that, ‘Ah, ang sakit ng hamstring ko,‘ so I really have to warm up.”
A slam dunk
His career goals include representing the Philippines internationally, so is there anything special he does? “With regards to the national team, it’s reflected in how I play in the PBA, so I just really try to make the most out of every conference and get noticed,” he said. “I’ve been invited to play for the national team for two straight years. I played with them last year, and then supposedly this year, but it got canceled because of COVID. It got moved to June, but that makes it difficult because it’s in conflict with the PBA.
“But I’m still really grateful that I was able to play with them last year and train with them this year in February. We were supposed to fly to Doha for our window for Gilas, but a day before, it got cancelled. I’m still happy that I was part of that team. It’s just a loss that we weren’t able to compete. Hopefully, next time I’ll be invited again a few more times. It’s always been my dream to represent the country.”
For inspiration, Chua turns to two basketball players in particular. “Locally, I always look up to Kuya Ranidel [de Ocampo] because I want to pattern my game to his. The way he plays [is] very smart, very effective and efficient. He’s also very deceiving because he looks very slow, but he’s actually fast. So locally, him. For the NBA, it’s Dirk Nowitzki because I want to pattern my game to his. I’m not as strong as the other guys so I can’t just bump into them in the paint, so I’m a more perimeter-oriented big-guy.”
Now, while most Chinoys’ parents want their kids to be happy and fulfill their dreams, they’d also prefer that the children err on the side of caution when choosing careers. For Chua, he shared, “My parents have never had a problem because they were both athletes before and they never forced me or my siblings to go into corporate work. We were always allowed to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt us or the family name, so we never had that pressure of having to be a lawyer or a doctor.”
To unwind during his free time, Chua said, “I’m a typical guy, I wake up, do all my work, basketball-wise, all my extra work. When I come home, I just play video games if I’m not with my girlfriend. That’s how my life is right now because I want to focus on basketball because as I said, I have a few more years at peak form and I want to put in all my time and effort so that I won’t have regrets. Or maybe I’ll be blessed enough to stay much longer in the league because my ultimate goal is to stay in the league for 10 years.”
Coaching from Chua
Looking further down the road, Chua said, “If there’s a possibility, I could go into coaching. I would really love to help younger kids or incoming pros. That would be really good for me. Another thing: I would want to own a business before I retire so I have something that provides me with passive income.”
For anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps and play basketball, the pro-leaguer shared this advice: “If it’s really what you love doing, it won’t be a hassle for you to work on your game. There are people that love basketball, but just for fun. They’re not really willing to put all their time into it, but there are some guys that will put 90% of their time into it, so that’s where I’d start. Check if you’re really willing to do the work and if you decide that it’s really what you want, stay the course.
“It’s going to be a bumpy ride, it’s not always all positivity, especially when you’re aiming for a goal like entering the PBA, you’ll really get heartbroken. You can get frustrated when you work out, like something doesn’t feel right or everything’s not going your way. But personally, I would always stay the course. I tell myself, ‘No, today’s just a bad day. Tomorrow will be a good day.’ That’s always been my mantra, so just stay the course. Keep on working and working.”
“My motivation was that I really wanted to come back. It was really early in my career when I tore my ACL. I didn’t want to end there so I took it day by day, so even just simple progress with [my] knee when it improves in range or it gets a bit stronger — I considered those wins, like every day I was able to do this, I was able to do that. I was able to push myself like, ‘Ooh, I wanna do more, I wanna keep improving.’ And hopefully, I could get back to my normal form. But again, it’s not a straightforward journey. There were times that I didn’t want to go to rehab, but you just have to have keep pushing on and have an end goal to keep you moving forward.”
Aside from winning championships with his PBA team, the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters, Chua had this to say about his personal ambitions: “Hopefully, I get an award again because it’s really a blessing to get an award. I never really wanted it or thought about having it but since it’s there, why not aim for it again? It would be a waste, especially since I only have a few years left, I want to make it count.”
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