Zav Lucero just simply wanted to fire up his teammates when he insisted to see action despite his injured status.
But he did more than that: He inspired the entire basketball community.
University of the Philippines program director Bo Perasol couldn’t find the right word to describe Lucero’s gesture of showing up for the crucial Game 3 of their Season 85 University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball tournament best-of-three finals series against Ateneo de Manila University late Monday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Perasol said Lucero had been wanting to play despite tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in Game 2, but the coaches were strongly against it, knowing that it could only aggravate his injury and jeopardize his career.
“The kid is a fighter,” Perasol told Daily Tribune in the aftermath of their 68-75 loss to the Blue Eagles that knocked the crown off their heads.
“Actually, he couldn’t walk after Game 2 but our therapist did a good job in reducing the pain. He asked the coaches if he can play for a few minutes just to inspire his teammates, but they turned it down.”
“First, it will give his teammates a false sense of complacency that he is still there and, second, it could further aggravate his injury and jeopardize his career. We don’t want it to happen. His health is far more important than anything else.”
Perasol said more than his tough defense, they would definitely miss Lucero’s great attitude and winning mentality as they try to regain the title in Season 86 next year.
Aside from Lucero, who was already booked to return to San Francisco on 22 December, they will also lose Henry Galinato, AJ Madrigal, CJ Catapusan and team captain Brix Ramos to graduation.
They, however, will be bringing back prized transferee CJ Cansino and former National University stalwarts Janjan Felicilda and Reyland Torres together with a handful of rookies like Lowell Briones Jr. and Mark Belmonte – depending on their performance in the off-season.
They will also see the return of Most Valuable Player Malick Diouf, Carl Tamayo, and James Spencer making them a force to be reckoned with in the coming season.
“We’ll still be fine,” added Perasol, the chief architect of the Fighting Maroons revival from a so-so team into a rock-solid contender.
“We still have Malick, Carl and James coming back together with CJ. So if you look at our lineup, we’ll still be having a mixture of veteran and young players. The championship chemistry will still be there.”
He, however, admitted that Lucero’s looming absence will be greatly felt.
“I have to admit: Our dynamics will change without Zav,” Perasol said.
“He is a twinner, a player who can play both the forward and guard spots. He is long, tall, mobile and very athletic, which are qualities that are hard to fill up. We will surely struggle finding his successor, but we’ll try our best to manage it.”
Perasol said Lucero’s options are endless.
“He has an offer to play in Taiwan. Prior to that, Japanese (executives) were eying him for the B.League,” he said.
“But his focus is on (joining) the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association). I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands in the Top 3 of the coming PBA draft. He can shoot, he can defend, he can take it strong to the basket, he can do everything. I’m sure teams will love him and he will do well if ever he joins the PBA.”
“But again, first things first: He has to undergo an operation and regain his strength. After that, the possibilities are endless. Sky’s the limit for Zav.”
True enough, Lucero’s stock in the professional ranks soared following a heartwarming gesture that inspired even the members of the opposing squad in Game 3 of the finale.
With the clock winding down and the outcome no longer in doubt, an Ateneo turnover gave UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde a golden opportunity to insert Lucero into the game to shoot a technical free throw.
“It wasn’t planned. It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Perasol stressed.
“When Ateneo committed a technical foul for entering the court, coach Gold realized that it was the perfect opportunity to field in Zav and allow him to shoot a free throw. It was so heartwarming because we were able to give a fitting goodbye to a player who sacrificed a lot just to help us get this far.”
Lucero made his free throw.
He was still winning – even with just one healthy knee.