Danding Cojuangco has big dreams for La SalleBy Jasmine W. Payo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
He laughed at jokes that he sold his stake in San Miguel Corp. just to invest and spend more time with De La Salle University’s basketball team.
Yet in one humid weekday afternoon, that seemed to be exactly what Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., one of the Philippines’ top tycoons, did. He sat in a corner of a sweaty school gym, watching the Green Archers scrimmage.
“You have to be with them, may samahan talaga (there’s a bond),” said Cojuangco.
Just recently, Cojuangco got a cool P37 billion after selling his 15 percent stake in San Miguel, where he remains chair and chief executive officer.
And in the days leading to Season 75 of the UAAP, Cojuangco has been a sideline fixture as one of the godfathers of La Salle’s basketball program.
But Cojuangco stressed that the job is certainly far from just flushing cash into the team—and he knows that from the experience of bankrolling pro league teams and past national basketball squads.
“You look after the health and welfare of your players, give them advice, you try to give them what’s needed,” said Cojuangco.
“I really enjoy the non-professionals because this is the molding of the character of this young men. This will be the future [of the] PBA. It’s exciting, you’re part of building them for the future.”
Now 77, Cojuangco is relearning the varsity ropes. Although he had backed La Salle in the past, Cojouangco’s basketball focus had been solely on his PBA squads before this latest reunion. Unlike in the pros where quick trades and recruits can make instant champions, he rediscovered the need for a great deal of patience in the collegiate scene.
“It’s a long-term build-up, there’s no such thing as an easy solution,” he said. “You have to prepare for the players, you have to have a constant replacement. And it’s not an easy job to do. You look for a player, convince him and the parents to study in your school, he takes an exam, kung hindi makapasa, patay na kami (if they don’t pass, we’re dead). There are limitations. If we cannot satisfy the school academically, sorry na lang kami (sorry for us).”
Cojuangco doesn’t expect the Green Archers to make a quick turnaround from last season’s woeful sixth-place finish even with new coach Gee Abanilla and standout recruit Jeron Teng.
“What we have promised the La Salle public is we’ll try to do better than last year. But [don’t] expect too much of us because basically, this is the same team,” said Cojuangco. “If we do a a little better than last year, we’ll be very happy. We should be very happy.”
“I think it’s a very realistic goal, it’s not a modest goal,” he added. “We don’t entertain the illusions of being champions or being in the top four. Of course, we’ll try our best, pero ika nga sa ating pananalita, suntok sa buwan na ’yun (it’s a long shot).”
With Ateneo, Far Eastern University and the emerging National University clearly on top of their game this season, Cojuangco said the La Salle godfathers have trained their sights on the future.
“We hope we can find our own boys from the different schools of La Salle,” said Cojuangco. “I think this year, we’ll start having tryouts in all school campuses. I’m hoping we can find good enough players for us to form the team. But if you’re really shooting for the No. 1 position, I think you should not limit yourself to just that. You should always avail yourself of the best available player.”
The growing trend of aggressively recruiting not just local talents, but also foreigners and Filipino players with foreign roots, isn’t lost on Cojuangco.
“The others are doing it, if we don’t do it, then we should not have that ambition at all,” the former ambassador said. “Before, I got clobbered by the press when I was handling the Philippine team. I was accused of forsaking the local players and getting foreigners. The fact was, I was just utilizing what the rules provided. I’m trying to maximize it to our benefit.”
Cojuangco knows there’s a lot of work to be done to bring the Green Archers back to their lofty basketball status.
“I’m giving myself at least four years,” said Cojuangco. “If within four years I cannot get the championship for this school, then I think I better think twice. I think we should be able to be pretty good after four years. Otherwise, we did not do our job.”