Big Ben’s journey
As confetti rained down the court, La Salle center Ben Mbala stood up and faced the green side of the Smart Araneta Coliseum, raising his right hand fighting back tears.
The sight of the hulking Cameroonian center crying wasn’t knew to his teammates and coaches anymore.
The 6-foot-7 star had been a pillar of strength for the Green Archers—a double-double machine—in a season capped by the sweep of the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP Season 79 finals Wednesday night.
But behind closed doors, away from the spotlight, the first foreigner to be crowned Most Valuable Player of the UAAP struggled to keep his emotions in check. With every scowl or loud roar after a highlight reel dunk, there was also an episode when Mbala needed to be consoled.
“We were coming off a loss (to Ateneo) and the pressure was just too much for Ben he was crying inside the rest room of the dugout before the game against FEU,” La Salle coach Aldin Ayo recalled.
Now in front of the same fans that serenaded him with MVP chants earlier, “Big Ben” let it all out—as if a huge burden had been taken off from him as the final buzzer sounded. This time, these were tears of joy.
“A lot of people just told me to be patient because I almost got to a point that I almost gave up,” said Mbala, who finished the season with 17 double-doubles.
“This is hard because people are expecting us to be good. All of the teams want to beat us because they feel we’re the team to beat. And that’s the most challenging thing: We always have to step up, improve our game and always find adjustment.”
Mbala added: “We had to give it all and we had to win it. That’s the reason why coach Aldin (Ayo) made us go through hell and tonight it finally paid off.”
Hell meant waking up at 4:30 a.m. and sprinting up and down the iconic CCP Complex, before another three-hour practice session in the campus gym.
“Ben is really just a kid,” said Ayo. “He was too eager to play especially after sitting out for three years. We had to settle him down. But he was always willing to listen, (to) accept his role and surrender to the system.”
Mbala was a force unlike any other the UAAP has seen in recent years. He averaged 20 points and 16 boards, but was also on the end of some physical play from opponents.
“I’ve been though the worst fouls the entire season,” said Mbala. “Keeping my composure from every bad call is something that makes you improve (mentally).”
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