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Beyond the court: Michael and Ben Phillips on the transition to Philippine collegiate basketball

The Phillips brothers’ journey to reach the pinnacle of collegiate basketball has a long way to go.

When the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) returned in Season 84, two new faces particularly stood out to many during the Men’s Basketball tournament: brotherly duo Ben and Michael “Mike” Phillips.

With a large number of rebounds under their belts and the height to match, the Phillips brothers have proved themselves to be unstoppable hustlers on and off the court. The new Taft stalwarts put on a stellar and unparalleled performance, making their way into the hearts of Lasallian fans and establishing themselves as collegiate basketball icons in the Philippines.

Following footsteps

Being surrounded by family is something that most Filipinos are accustomed to. Despite growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Phillips brothers were surrounded by their Pinoy relatives. They discovered and learned about their roots through classic Filipino dishes and stories shared by their family and relatives that grew up in the Philippines.

But beyond their heritage, the brothers were born to be athletes. Being exposed to various sports throughout the years, the brothers found themselves juggling soccer, volleyball, and American football.

However, basketball spoke to them, inspired by their family’s deep and prolific backgrounds in the sport. Their grandfather bagged state championships as a player and carried over his impeccable basketball IQ to win games as their hometown team’s head coach.

Their father was no chump on the hardwood as well, producing quality minutes for an NCAA Division 1 College Basketball program at Eastern Kentucky University. By being so close to such an environment in the world of basketball, the brothers were inspired to work hard to become just as successful as the generations before them.

When DLSU opened its doors for the brothers to play collegiate basketball in the Philippines, they knew it was an opportunity they could not pass up.

Trusting the process

Of all people, Filipinos know that basketball creates meaningful relationships for many on any given day. Mike was a regular high school student playing basketball for his varsity team. When he found out that one of his teammates is also of Filipino descent, they eventually had a conversation about their Asian heritage. Soon enough, Mike was given an opportunity to deepen his knowledge, understanding, and immersion in Filipino culture as La Salle came knocking on his door.

“La Salle just kind of reached out to me and I did my research [about the school and the country], and then when I came here, it really felt like a God thing…like a leap of faith, and like God was telling me, ‘This is where you need, want to be habang buhay,’” he says, looking back on when he was recruited.

On the other hand, Ben initially had no plans to suit up for the Green and White. But after accompanying his younger brother during a visit to DLSU, Ben did not come empty handed; he brought his basketball shoes with him to try out for the team, too. Long story short, he was eventually included in the squad’s Season 84 lineup. “It was the [being] vocal, the leadership, the [regard for] communication and defense that showed the coaches [that] I can be [valuable] to this team,” Ben posits.

Change of scenery

Being away from your home for the first time is challenging; the language barrier, the time zones, and the totally different culture can sway any student athlete. But for the Phillips brothers, the transition went quite well with the help of their teammates.

When looking into what were some of the most difficult adjustments, both Ben and Mike agree on one thing: Filipino slang. “When I was learning Tagalog, I would be watching ‘yung mga teleseryes and OPM. But when people say, ‘Oh, g?’ I’m like man, what are these words?” However, their time in the Philippines has only helped them learn even more. “It’s hard for me to even speak to my American friends now, because I’m so immersed,” expresses Ben.

Ben also shares how then senior Kurt Lojera helped him adjust to living in Taft, “He helped me with the adjustments, [from] the small things like where to go, where to get food, what’s the best food to get on Grab or Foodpanda.” “It’s really nice to have a veteran that kind of takes you under their wing,” he furthers.

Replay, then fast forward

Looking back on their first season, Mike says he truly felt the Animo spirit once he set foot in Taft Ave. He narrates, “Before every single game, [I had]…just so many messages—so much support actually…When it got to the playoffs…[I knew that I was] playing for someone more than myself or more than just just my jersey—I [was] playing for an entire school community.”

But after Season 84, a huge gap will be left by graduated captain Justine Baltazar, who Mike considers as his mentor—besides now alumnus Lojera. Envisioning his own eventual veteran leadership, Mike says that he has been studying Baltazar and his plays a lot, hoping to give the same offensive contribution. In the next iterations of the Men’s Basketball tournament, Mike and Ben will have to step up in place of their departing seniors.

But veteran head coach “Manong” Derrick Pumaren prepared the Phillips brothers—and the rest of the squad—exactly for these challenges. Ben is confident that they will be successful in the unfolding of this plan. He cites that “good leaders build good leaders” and that with Pumaren’s mentorship, what they are doing now is grooming the next generation of Lasallian basketball stars. Michael also expresses that he has “good faith” in Pumaren’s plans for the team, saying, “The good thing about coach Derrick is that as much as Balti and Kurt were great players, even though we’ll lose them, nandiyan pa rin ‘yung system ni coach Derrick, and it’s for the long term.”

(…coach Derrick’s system will still be there and it’s for the long term.)

For the Phillips brothers, DLSU fans can expect an improved game. As they begin working on their skills for Season 85—such as Mike’s lateral defense against players like UP Fighting Maroons Carl Tamayo and Malick Diouf, and Ben’s three-point and midrange shooting—they remind the La Salle faithful that there is so much more to look forward to in the coming months.

A tenacious duo

With their priorities in check for training, they also show much gratitude to the loyal DLSU fans who supported them throughout the rollercoaster that is Season 84. “The community really rallied around us, even through our losses..we appreciate every single message, every single thing,” Ben says, acknowledging the role that the audiences and Lasallian community played in the building of their identities in collegiate basketball.

Michael echoes his brother’s statement saying, “Sa hirap na pinagdaanan namin, lalo na being in a bubble, maraming salamat talaga sa inyong lahat, sa Lasallian community, because binigay [niyo] sa amin [ang isang] family…My heart really is for La Salle and will always be for La Salle.”

(Through all the hardships we faced, especially being in a bubble, thank you so much to all of you, the Lasallian community, because you gave us a family.)

The best is yet to come for the tenacious Phillips brothers. After a superb debut season, they are more than ready to prove that the Green Archers have hopes of bringing the crown back to Taft Ave.

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