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Fallen star takes one last shot at interrupted dream

By: - Sports Editor / @ftjochoaINQ
/ 10:11 PM August 07, 2014

Paolo Orbeta Photo by DENISON DALUPANG

MANILA, Philippines — At around 7 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, inside an eatery on a side street off Taft Ave. frequented by students , Paolo Orbeta’s life changed forever. In a scene that seemed to pop out of an action movie, at least three agents of the National Bureau of Investigation drew their guns and pointed them at the then 23-year-old cager.

“I was scared,” the former St. Benilde star told the Inquirer. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

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Orbeta was cuffed, stuffed into a car and taken to the NBI office. He was detained and questioned for the next eight hours. At around 3 a.m. the following day, he was allowed his first phone call. He called his dad.

As the days went by, the events started sorting itself out. In the papers, he was named the target of a sting operation related to game-fixing.

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Officially, he was charged with robbery and extortion. But in front of a hoop-crazy public, Orbeta would become known as the first cager ever apprehended for game-fixing.

It was a low point in the life of a promising 5-foot-8 cager whose career was on the rise.

Before starting his last tour of duty with the Blazers, Orbeta was coming off a stint in the defunct Philippine Basketball League, where he helped steer Welcoat Paints to the championship, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the process while playing in a squad that featured amateur stars like Jay Washington, Jojo Tangkay, Marvin Ortiguerra and Eugene Tan.

But that promise ended abruptly. Orbeta and St. Benilde were coming off a loss to Letran in the NCAA when the entrapment happened.  As it turned out, that was his last game in a major basketball league in the country.

He wants to change that. On Tuesday, Orbeta quietly filed his application for the PBA Draft.

“I’m a believer of second chances,” Orbeta said. More than that, the feisty playmaker doesn’t want a long-nursed basketball dream to just die without a fight.

“I don’t like to be in my 50s, drinking my cup of coffee, wondering why I didn’t try to get into the PBA,” said Orbeta.

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“I don’t want to be asking ‘what-ifs,’” he added.

Ironic. Since his basketball life up to this point has been one huge “what-if.” What if that August evening never happened? What if he had played out the remaining three games of what would be a four-win season for the Blazers? What if he played one more season with the PBL and had applied for the PBA Draft the following year?

“I really don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “What I can do is find out what happens now.”

He is 30 now, seven years separated from the incident that forced him to walk away from the game he loved. That evening, his best friend had arranged a meeting with an irate fan, apparently to smooth things out with the cager.

But when he got into the eatery, the supposed fan, who a week earlier had sent Orbeta angry messages, showed the cager a bundle of money and told him to hold it.

“I told him I couldn’t touch it. It wasn’t my money. I said if people inside the eatery saw me receiving that much money, they might come to the wrong conclusion,” he said.

“I simply tucked my hands in my pockets.”

Turns out, the people in the eatery were NBI agents. For months, Orbeta attended hearing after hearing to clear his name. In March the following year, charges were dropped. After a celebrated arrest on supposed game-fixing charges, not a peep  was mentioned about his being cleared.

Not that it mattered much for Orbeta at that point. He had decided to leave the game he loved passionately.

“I felt betrayed. The months after were excruciating,” he said.

“But my parents brought me up well. And St. Benilde really instilled in me the fact that I was a student first, athlete second. That’s why when the whole thing happened, the only concern in my mind was to make sure I would graduate.”

That much, St. Benilde granted. He finished with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. After walking away from the game, he got married to Carla Hontiveros, fathered a kid and worked in a Makati hotel. He also worked in a hotel in the US in 2011 before flying home after a year.

That was when the dream resurfaced.

“I realized basketball was still a passion,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to be a bad example to son Graeme Ralleigh, 5. “What if he plays basketball in the future? I don’t want the day to come when I will motivate him to push on and he will say ‘Dad, you quit once too.’”

So Orbeta worked himself into shape.

“I started playing pick-up games. And then as I improved, I joined bigger leagues. I just realized that if ever I want the dream to still come true, I need to work on it. The dream wasn’t going to come true on its own.”

Miggy Ligot, a conditioning coach, is a witness to the effort Orbeta is putting into this comeback.

“Sometimes, we have an afternoon schedule and when I get to the gym, trainers there would tell me that Paolo had already been in the gym in the morning too,” Ligot said.

The hard work is evident. Orbeta has buffed up, muscles rippling all over his body. He is working on his timing now, and his overall game conditioning.

He knows though that all the training in the world won’t guarantee a successful comeback. And even if he does, even if he magically transforms into a superstar, all it takes is one bad game and his past will come flooding back.

“If you put the Lord in the center of your life, you won’t need to worry about things like that,” he said.

“If the PBA dream happens, it happens. If not, life will continue. I can tell myself I gave it my all and then I will move on.”

After crawling out of a darkness that began with drawn guns pointed at him, Orbeta has proven that he has what it takes to move on.

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