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Big Mac knocks

By: - Reporter / @jwpayoINQ
/ 10:14 PM November 05, 2016
Blacwater Elite picks Mac Belo in the special draft. Tristan Tamayo/INQUIRER.net

Blacwater Elite picks Mac Belo in the special draft. Tristan Tamayo/INQUIRER.net

Not one to shy away from big moments, Rey Mark “Mac” Belo thrives in the clutch, his confidence hardly wavering. But off the court, the versatile forward returns to his soft-spoken self, often shrugging off attempts to make any situation about him.

Even as he reprises his game-hero role many times over, Belo tends to deflect all the credit to his teammates and coaches. Oftentimes, he just feels thankful for the opportunities coming his way.

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So it’s really no surprise that Belo didn’t mind the new format of the 2016 Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Rookie Draft, which technically denied him the official “No. 1 rookie pick” tag this season.

“I feel very blessed,” Belo says in Filipino. “I’ve dreamt of being in the PBA, so this is a big opportunity for me.”

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Veering away from tradition, the PBA held a special draft for Belo and 11 other amateur members of the Gilas Pilipinas national pool. In a surprise ruling, the pro league opted not to disclose the predetermined Draft order. Then on Draft day, the teams—in alphabetical order—simply announced their selections.

So even as the consensus best talent available for recruitment, Belo seemingly got robbed of that once-in-a-lifetime moment where a PBA hopeful basks in the spotlight of marching up the stage first after getting called as the No. 1 pick.

Instead, Belo got called out third by Blackwater, the presumptive top-pick holder in the special draft. The Elite also had first choice in the regular draft, where they selected Raphael Banal, the son of former PBA coach Joel Banal who played for Hope International University in Fullerton, California.

All the fuss on the unique, and some say confusing, Draft was no big deal for the former Far Eastern University stalwart, who just wants to focus on proving his worth in the country’s biggest league.

“The pressure is there, but I’m ready to accept the challenge,” says Belo. “I’ll just give my best. [Blackwater] has a good mix of veterans and young guys, so it’s a good team.”

Then there’s also his duties with the national team under returning Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes, who can pull out Belo and other pool members from their PBA stint any time for an international tournament.

“Playing for the Philippines is the best feeling for me,” shares Belo. “But now I have the PBA and I have Gilas, so I have to be ready for both.”

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The extra work doesn’t worry Belo, the 23-year-old who’s very much used to toiling on court after taking the long road, literally, to amateur hoops success.

Growing up in Midsayap, North Cotabato, Belo thinks he’s no basketball prodigy. Unlike some of his peers—say, former Ateneo star Kiefer Ravena or fellow FEU standout Mike Tolomia, who were tagged as potential talents even before high school—the 6-foot-3 cager made his presence felt just three years ago.

“When I first came to Manila, I had nothing, zero [knowledge of basketball],” shares Belo. “I got recruited because of my height and I was athletic. I had to go through everything step by step—the terms, the drills.

“Here I had to learn the game fast because I did not consider myself a good player when I was still playing in our province. I seldom played in Midsayap because I did not want people to see how I moved or took shots.”

Belo only decided to join the varsity team of Saint Mary’s Academy of Midsayap on his senior year in high school. Before starring for the Tamaraws, he had a brief stint with Notre Dame of Midsayap College, where former FEU mentor Bert Flores spotted him as a raw but athletic player during the National Games of the Commission on Higher Education.

How Belo vastly improved—despite admitting he only understood the intricacies of the sport when he joined the Tamaraws—remains pretty much impressive. He surprised even his former FEU coach Nash Racela, who once said that “nobody thought [Belo] would develop into a solid player.”

“It was hard at first, but I was able to achieve what I wanted,” says Belo. “I’m really thankful to FEU.”

Belo transformed into a do-it-all threat who can go hard in the paint and also smoothly knock down three pointers. Ever efficient, he quickly collected many stellar on-court moments in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), the PBA D-League and on the international stage.

It’s this string of success that makes many think that Belo has been around for a long time.

“I always do extra work,” he says.

Blessed with size, speed and skill, Belo powered the FEU Tamaraws to the UAAP Season 78 men’s basketball championship against the University of Santo Tomas Tigers last year. His selection as Finals Most Valuable Player, with averages of 16.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in the Final Four and the Finals, sweetened the victory even more.

But Belo isn’t just remembered for FEU’s championship romp. His epic buzzer-beater shots against both La Salle and Ateneo in two UAAP Final Four seasons arguably put him among the league’s all-time best clutch performers.

In 2014, Belo ended the Green Archers’ bid for back-to-back crowns when he buried a triple right at the buzzer, lifting the Tamaraws to a 67-64 victory and sending them to the UAAP Finals.

The following season, Belo again towed the Tamaraws to the title round after nailing a putback just as time expired for a 76-74 triumph over the Blue Eagles.

Both shots made Belo a social media trending topic. Fans came up with memes, like how the league’s two glamour squads got “Belo-fied,” a play on the marketing catchphrase of celebrity cosmetic surgeon Vicki Belo (whom he has no relation, by the way).

“It just happens,” Belo says of his game-winners. “I don’t plan on doing it, it just happens.”

Belo carried his winning ways to the PBA D-League, where he won back-to-back championships and an MVP award with Phoenix.

In international play, Belo also picked up gold medals with the Gilas Pilipinas Cadet team in the 2013 Burma (Myanmar) and 2015 Singapore Southeast Asian Games, the 2015 Southeast Asia Basketball Association (Seaba) tilt in Singapore and the 2016 Seaba Cup in Bangkok. He also suited up for the country’s campaign in the 2016 Fiba Asia Challenge in Iran and the 2016 Fiba 3×3 World Championships in China.

All these, impressively, in a span of three years. “Hopefully, I get to learn more,” says Belo.

Clearly, he’s just getting started.

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