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Rabeh: THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION

By Misael Perez

I have learned that everybody wants to live on top of the mountain, without knowing that true happiness is obtained in the journey taken and
the form used to reach the top of the hill.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Rabeh Al-Hussaini
Rabeh Al-Hussaini

I have always believed that champions are winners connected to something bigger than themselves. It is a big statement  embedded with many meanings. But rather than dissect it, let's take it at its face value and ask what does it really mean? Simply put, champions are those who are “others-oriented.” They are determined people who see their struggles in light of a purpose built around others they deem more important than themselves.

This is the nature of champions. Of fighters, warriors, and winners who transcend themselves and are called upon to take up a cause, the hopes and dreams of a people. It is service of high magnitude.

It's the school we choose


I had the privilege of getting to know a young one. A diamond in the rough. Rabeh as he is known, and he knows, too, that his name means “winner” in Arabic. It was his father who gave Rabeh his name and explained its meaning to him. Breaking the ice before the interview started, Rabeh joked that he grew up in the “ghetto” of Makati and that he learned to fend for himself at a young age.

He grew up and lived in Kuwait until his Bahraini father passed away when he was in Grade 3. At that time, his older brother, professional ballplayer Carlo Sharma, was in college already making a name for himself. His mother has since been supporting the family through their father's pension.

When he was around 10 years old, his mother brought him and his younger sister back to the Philippines where both siblings finished their elementary years in Manila. Rabeh is proud of his close-knit family. The family, together with his older brother's family, has regular gatherings. His devotion to his mother is just a notch below his sister's own closeness to their mom. There isn't a day when he doesn't talk to his mother. Even now that he lives in the dorm away from home, he calls her everyday.

It was the glory and glamor of once watching an Ateneo-La Salle game that struck him with so much awe that there and then he told himself he only had two choices for college. The other school, fortunately, did not consider recruiting him.

Of all the schools that wanted to recruit him, it was only Ateneo he entertained. His mother and brother advised him to choose Ateneo. In case he didn't succeed as a ball player, they said, he'd have an education to back him up. When team manager Paolo Trillo visited Rabeh's family, little did Paolo know that it was a done deal upon setting foot in the house. In fact, Rabeh didn't even try out for the other schools that invited him.

Since his introduction to the Ateneo community, many Ateneans knew he was apart from the rest and adopted a “wait and see” attitude. Same was true of LA Tenorio and Magnum Mumbrere in their freshman year.

This perception towards basketball recruits did not escape Rabeh. He immediately had doubts on whether or not he could succeed as a student of the Ateneo. Before entering the school maraming nagsasabing mayabang ang mga taga-Ateneo, may pera, matatalino. Paano ako mag-aadjust? Baka isipin cheap ako.

In Ateneo, Rabeh has learned, dito hindi ka athlete lang, student rin. You represent a school but studies first. Ang layo ng difference kasi sa high school, just meet the requirements, ok na. Dito kailangang mag-maintain ng 70%, muntik nga akong ma-kickout.

The concept of “gelling” as a team was not alien to him since he already learned it in high school basketball. Back then, teamwork was already taught to them as an essential ingredient to successful basketball. It wasn't difficult for him to blend in. Yet, the Ateneo team made a strong impact on him, sobrang mababait sila. We were welcomed immediately. Anim kaming rookies at tinanggap kami agad. Walang bossy at pantay-pantay lahat ang tingin.

Yet if academic demands were way different between his former high school and Ateneo college, so too, was the difference between high school and college basketball. Sa high school, superstar ako. I'd average 20-30 points a game. In college I was “zero.” Ang hirap gumawa ng 2 points. Kinailangan kong magpalakas ng katawan. So he hit the weights. He wasn't happy with his rookie year and resolved to get better the following year. It became the typical story of a player who wanted to win and did “extra work.”

A fighter's resolve

Rabeh Al-HussainiRabeh claims to be a late bloomer because he only got into basketball at 12 years old. His mother asked him to try it as getting a basketball scholarship could certainly spare her from financial worries about his studies. Back then, it was soccer he loved, not basketball. Yet, for his mom, he tried out for high school basketball. It may have been because he had a professional ballplayer for a brother or maybe because he was 6 feet 2 inches upon entering first year high school that he was accepted into the line-up. Hindi ko gusto ang
basketball at hindi ako marunong. Nagdi-dribble ako nang bukas ang palad at makatama lang ako ng ring masaya na ako. Noong first year ako, nasa sulok lang ako, mag-isang nagdidribble ng bola.

Epiphany came in his high school sophomore year. Napaisip ako. Paano ako makakapag-aral kung mawala ang basketball? Papahirapan ko lang ang Mama ko. Extra work kicked in. He calls it “First in, Last out”. He would be in the court more than an hour before practice shooting hoops, and he would stay in the gym way after practice still working on his drills. Everyday he would force himself into this routine until it became boring—he felt hopeless. Para saan ba ito?, he would continually ask himself and he'd continually affirm to himself, kailangan kong tulungan ang Mama ko. The hard work paid off for in that year he was promoted to starter.

He is now a college senior and he has learned to assess himself dispassionately. Nag-mature ako ngayon. Medyo may problema sa ugali ko dati, bata pa ako mag-isip noon. Mabilis ako magalit sa lahat ng bagay. He resolved to change his attitude; kailangang tanggalin ko 'yung pagiging mainitin ng ulo or else ako na talaga ang mayayari. Ngayon sa court, nabibigla ako minsan pero natatanggal ko agad. Hindi tulad noon, ang tagal bago matanggal ang init ng ulo. Buong game affected ako.

It helped that teammates and coaches kept reminding Rabeh that he had to expect being a target. Ako ang sisikuhin, gugulangan. Pero tinatandaan ko na lahat ng gagawa niyan sa akin ay wala sa level of playing ko. Ako ang mas magaling, wala sila. Babawian ko sila by scoring on them. This became his solution, his coping mechanism to controlling his temper. Outplay ko na lang sila, 'yun ang solusyon dun. Sila pa ang maasar, “walanghiya ito, hindi nagagalit, a!”

A winner's spirit


His high school coaches had already told him that he could excel in basketball if he kept up the good work. In college, his coaches have similarly been telling him that if only he didn't rush things, and if only he exercised more patience, he could actually dominate the game. Last summer, Coach Norman Black pointed out that for them to win, Rabeh would have to be the first to step up. He recalls repeating his “First in, Last out” strategy to improve his skills. Besides this he also looked deeper into himself.

Tao akong maraming tanong, maraming doubt sa sarili. Kailangan kong magbago ng ugali kung gusto kong gumaling. Sige, hindi ko na gagawin ito para sa akin, gagawin ko ito para sa team. Kailangang lahat magbago sa akin para sa kanila. Kailangang makasundo ko sila. Kailangang baguhin ko sarili ko, hindi sarili ang iniisip ko, iisipin ko sila. Huli na ako. Encourage ko sila. Huwag kayong matakot. Huwag kayong matakot magkamali. Sige, gawin mo ito, ako back-up mo.

Even with the “small things” he would let his teammates go first. Sa taping sinasabi sa akin, ikaw ang senior, mauna ka na. Sasabihin ko, hindi, kayo na ang mauna. Pati sa dinner sinisigurado kong nakakain na silang lahat. Ako na ang huli. Sa lahat ng bagay, sila na inuuna ko, bago ako.

He believes that besides dreaming to be self-giving, “opening up” has helped him improve his attitude. Ako ‘yung taong hindi sociable, hindi lang ako mahilig makipag-usap sa ibang tao. Pero nasabi ko sa sarili kong wala sigurong mawawala sa akin kung susubukan kong makipag-usap sa iba, makipagkuwentuhan. Pili lang kasi ang kakuwentuhan ko sa team. From the first to the last man in the team, the coaching staff, and alumni, he tried his best to hold conversations or to engage in small talk. Nakatulong pa sa akin, talaga. May nagsabi pa nga sa aking charming pala ako if I let my guard down.

Wala palang masama sa pagiging mas-open. Nakatulong talaga sa akin.
Rabeh claims that attitude change has been the primary reason for a lot of his present improvements. A humble admission of ambition also reveals a steely determination. Gusto ko ring gumaling, makilala maski paano. Na-overshadow na ako ng mga seniors dati tulad nila Ford at Doug. Siguro oras ko na at di ko na sasayangin itong opportunity at maghintay pa ng 5th year. At least I'll try to make a name now and next year a lot of people will respect me.

Since last year his game has significantly improved statistically. From 5.9 points per game it rose to 18 points per game. Rebounding and assists have also picked up impressively. On the average, he already does 1.3 assists, with 6.9 defensive and 2.7 offensive rebounds per game. Underneath this imposingly determined posture is a humble demeanor. He knows he is at the top of his game, pero hindi ako perfect player; meron akong weakness na kailangang ma-improve. By next year if I can improve on these weaknesses, I can become a more complete player. Baka maitaas ko lalo ang stats.

Complete player, complete person


Rabeh Al-HussainiDati tamad ako, natuto akong sumipag mag-aral dahil sa Ateneo. Rabeh fondly recalls a lesson in Leadership studies about being in and out of the box.

The box is your comfort zone. Comfort zone ko, “happy-go-lucky” akong tao. Para masubukan ko ‘yung iba, kailangang alisin ko ang sarili ko sa box. Kailangang mag-adjust ako para sa iba. Subukan ko ang mga bagong bagay tulad ng pagsisipag. Eventually magkakaroon ako ng box na nakasanayan ko. Ok pala ito, so I'll build more boxes. Nagiging flexible ako ngayon.

Having an attitude that is not rigid but open to change is important if one is to go through life's dynamics. In basketball Rabeh integrates the need for the right attitude and success as ball players. Maraming players ang saksakan ng galing pero saksakan din ang lakas ng toyo. Kaya wala ring napupuntahan. Kuya ko magaling siya, pero minsan toyoin at may mga nagsasabing nagmana ako sa kanya. Starting this year, tatanggalin ko ang impression na ‘yan. I'll prove to everyone na nagbago na ako. Eto na ako ngayon.

If there is one reason why Rabeh wants to become a professional ball player, it is this: ang Mom ko, gusto kong maialis kung saan kami ngayon at mapadpad sa bagong buhay. Puwedeng magtayo ng negosyo. Basic lang ang pangarap ko. Hindi ko naman kailangan ng sampung kotse at mga bahay. Simple lang. I just want to start from small beginnings.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Rabeh what is Ateneo basketball to him. His answer came quickly: Ateneo basketball is All Heart. Puso. Kahit gaano ka kagaling, kung wala kang puso, zero ka. Pinakagusto kong tagline ng Ateneo ang, “Keep Believing.” Nakakapag-motivate sa akin. Not only that, it is the slogan that best explains why he is where he's at now. Huwag mawalan ng pag-asa. Never stay down. Laban, huwag bibitaw. Wala namang laging panalo, may natatalo. In times, when it's the down side, maniwala ka lang, lahat naman ok rin. Sipag at tiyaga lang and always pray, malaking bagay ‘yan.

It's a parting message of a young man on a journey. A champion in the works. Steadfast and resolute, Rabeh has expressed magis in his effort to become a complete player. He has also embraced something of the Ignatian value of generosity to the core. In all sincerity and modesty he expressed himself as he is, a young man maturing. Before we parted, I asked what he would do if the team wins the championship. May bonfire...magba-barbecue ako, he says with a grin.




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