Words by Naveen Ganglani
Photos by Jio Igual, Princess Ravelo, Rafael Zaballero, Judian Mari Tirazona, Mr. Jimmy Brown and Karl Angelo G. delos Santos
Dear Ben Mbala,
Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like ever since your first second of UAAP basketball action, you’ve been constantly scrutinized.
I was there at the Mall of Asia Arena for your debut when the Green Archers took on a rival, the FEU Tamaraws, on September 7, 2016. I was a few steps away as you entered the hardwood for the first time. You weren’t arrogant, cocky, or pretentious as others made you out to be. You had tears in your eyes, clearly overwhelmed by the moment, looking like a young man who loved basketball finally seeing his dreams come true after a grueling three-year wait.
Trust me, for Lasallians, that long wait was grueling as well. Some branded you a savior, with the expectation of nothing short of leading DLSU to a championship on your broad shoulders. That evening, you had 13 points and 23 rebounds, far from the best of your capabilities. But what’s crazy is that some UAAP players go five years of their college careers without compiling stats like that. For you, that’s an off day.
You’ve done a lot for the green and white: two league MVPs, one championship, countless highlight dunks, and morale-breaking blocks. But you gave La Salle so much more. You sacrificed your body. You fought for your teammates. You played with heart. Your passion, dedication, and resiliency were never in question. Your love for the game and for the school were contagious, not only to your teammates but to everyone who bled green.
But what may be most impressive is how you managed to conduct yourself with grace against the numerous obstacles that came in your way. In some games, your body was treated like a punching bag by defenders, who did everything in their power physically to stop you, even if it meant dropping your 6-foot-6 frame to the ground while the referees swallowed their whistles. And yet, rarely did you ever mutter judgment on the game officials.
While playing for DLSU, fans of opposing teams did everything they could to taunt you, with some words crossing the line of bigotry. When you were named MVP twice, some were quick to discredit your accomplishment, saying the award should be handed to local players through messages of narrow-mindedness. But over and over again, you took the high road.
The truth is, many feared you and everything you were capable of doing. Never before has Philippine basketball seen a foreign student-athlete who had the powers on the basketball court that you possess; abilities that, at times, made you seem like a superhero. As your teammate and captain Kib Montalbo pointed out, “Thank God, may LeBron James na kami.” Fitting, considering LeBron is your favorite NBA player. Now I know where you got the idea of the chasedown blocks from.
Speaking of LeBron, how long before your idol becomes your rival, when you play for Cameroon in FIBA basketball? When that happens, trust me, the whole Philippines will be rooting for you – at the least, your Lasallian family will.
Sure, the ending to this past UAAP season wasn’t the fairytale DLSU was hoping for. What was supposed to be tears of joy turned into tears of disappointment as the rivals in blue celebrated their championship. It was the kind of defeat that I know will never leave your memory, given the intense competitor you are.
You’re harder on yourself than anyone could be, but give yourself a break. You’ve done everything you can for the name in front of your jersey, and because of that, you will always be remembered.
You’ve officially decided to go pro, which means your UAAP career has come to an end. It’s sad, but I know it’s the decision you have to make for your career.
With that in mind, I want to say thank you for the memories, Ben.
Thank you for taking our breaths away with each display of unbelievable athleticism.
Thank you for never giving up on the basketball court, allowing each and every one of us enough faith to never give up on you or the team.
Thank you for holding true to the standards of what a Lasallian should be.
Thank you for one hell of an adventure.
No good-byes, buddy. We’ll see you later.
Letter originally published in Vol. 16 No. 1 of AnimoMagazine