To say Hubert Cani was a disappointment in his rookie season in the UAAP would be an understatement.
Riding on his reputation as a clutch playmaker who helped NU win a juniors basketball championship in his brief stay in Sampaloc, Cani was the subject of a recruitment tug-of-war that eventually led to controversial Senate hearings.
And by the time he finally got the clearance to play for Ateneo in the seniors division, the crafty point guard has literally ballooned and was apparently out of playing shape.
The result was a lackluster freshman year where he hardly made an impact as the Blue Eagles returned to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion FEU off a Mac Belo buzzer-beater.
Cani was rarely sent in, and when he was given spot minutes, the 5-foot-10 cager looked lost and uninspired to the point that a report came out midway through the tournament that he was seeking to transfer to another UAAP school when the season is over.
It wasn’t the dream start Cani and his family imagined when he decided to move from Manila to Katipunan. It was a nightmare that was unfolding right before their very eyes, and Cani, like when he made the jump, was not in control.
Fast forward to three months after and coach Tab Baldwin is now running the show in Loyola Heights, bringing his wealth of experience in international basketball and trying to bring to life a proud school’s tradition of hoops excellence.
Along with the returning Thirdy Ravena, who himself got derailed by academic problems before Season 78, Cani ran up and down the court, following whatever instruction Baldwin hollered from the sidelines.
For a change, Cani looks physically fit, although he still has to shed some few pounds to get to his ideal playing weight.
He’s hustling, he’s scoring, he’s defending, and most importantly, he’s smiling.
Smiles were far and few in between for Cani last season, when he obviously lacked the confidence to run Ateneo’s offense when handed the keys.
“Dati kasi parang nabigla ako na makakalaro pala ako,” he said of the UAAP Board’s last-minute decision to allow the Eagles to field him. “Di ko in-expect na ganun. Kaya napabayaan ko talaga.”
“Sobrang nag-regret ako dun kasi ang pangit ng outcome. Pero marami pa namang years para makabawi,” he added.
“Marami pa namang years” seemed to have been a little improbable to believe in when you saw him last November, when he was overweight, disconnected and averaged more turnovers and fouls than points and assists in 6 minutes per game.
Matt Nieto, Adrian Wong and even Jerie Pingoy, who after waiting 2 years to suit up for the Blue and White was also a disappointment, were ahead of him on the depth chart. Blue-chip recruits like Tyler Tio, Cole Micek and Jolo Mendoza were expected to crowd an already-loaded guard corps.
With this, he would’ve actually been better off looking for a new home. But he never did. And slowly but surely, the Cani of old is making his presence felt in Loyola Heights again.
“Grabe yung training ni coach Tab,” an exhausted Cani told FOX Sports after one of their sessions at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Complex. “Puro takbuhan kami tapos may conditioning kami ngayon. Kaya talagang babalik yung kundisyon namin.”
He might never be the college standout he was envisioned to be when he came out of NU, a cerebral playmaker who knows how to run plays like the back of his hand and an assassin who’s capable of taking over a game when he needs (or wants) to.
But one thing’s for sure, he won’t surrender to the circumstances he is in, whether it’s the competition in their crowded backcourt or the killer trainings they are going through under Baldwin, a known disciplinarian.
“Kailangan talaga lumaban sa spots,” Cani said, knowing how the Gilas Pilipinas coach values hard work and dedication over talent and flair.
“Kung sino yung tuma-trabaho, yun yung nakikita ni coach Tab e. Kailangan lang mag-trabaho kami para maipakita namin yung deserved namin na minutes.”
Unlike when he was hotly-recruited and highly-touted, Cani now plays with a chip on his shoulder. His inspiration remains his family, but Baldwin coming in has added a new dimension to how he approaches his game.
“Sobrang galing ni coach Tab mag-motivate, kausapin kami,” he said. “Pag pinagalitan kami, talagang direct to the point. Kailangan mo talagang ayusin pag may drills kang kailangan gawin.”
“Yung confidence ko, naibabalik ko na ngayon,” he shared, smiling. “Dun mo kasi nakukuha yung confidence mo sa training.”
And while all of these may sound new to Cani, it actually isn’t. It’s more like a blast from the past, a reminder of what he used to battle day-to-day when he anchored the Bullpups and served as coach Jeff Napa’s on-court extension.
“Talagang parang balik high school kami,” he related. “Nung high school ko, planting rice. Grabe yung takbuhan namin. Parang ayaw mo na tumakbo ng isa pa e. Parang pupulikatin ka na talaga.”
From now until September could make or break Hubert Cani. Trainings will be harder. Competition will be tougher. There will be days when he will question whether he’s built for stuff like these or not.
But if it’s any consolation for the former UAAP Finals MVP, it’s the fact that he’s been there before — “planting rice,” doing suicides and killing himself in training.
Only the question is whether Cani can turn it around once more and be atop the basketball world he’s in right now. — By Josiah Albelda