Look who feels like a star among the Star Hotshots

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Basketball success may be measured by how far you go or how high you soar, but for Star’s long-time ballboy Jun Rillo, his brush with shame and eventually, fame, remained as one of his most unforgettable moment in the PBA.

Over two years ago, Rillo, watching Game 5 of the 2014 PBA Governors Cup attentively from the bench, surprised everyone, including then San Mig Coffee Mixers (Star’s former name) head coach Tim Cone when he jumped into the scene and complained on a stepping-on-the-endline call made by a referee against Marc Pingris.

You see, complaining to the referees was never really part of Rillo’s job description, but the sheer intensity of the game prompted him to do what no utility personnel would usually do.

For the 59-year-old ballboy, who was the wearing San Mig’s white and blue uniform, he felt the referee’s judgment was flawed, so flawed that it could easily alter the outcome of the game and the series if not corrected.

No wonder, Rillo sprang up from the bench and made known his protest by diving on the floor, using his hand to measure how far Pingris’ foot was from the baseline.

While Rillo argued that the referee made an error on the call, his actions got him and the Mixers into trouble after being slapped with a technical foul, a rare call on a team personnel, which rewarded Rain or Shine with one point after Jeff Chan sank the bonus foul shot.

His split-second response eventually got him to instant social media fame because from then on, he was tagged the moniker, “Boy Sukat”.

Cone’s wrath

But for springing out of the bench and arguing with the referees, his reward didn’t come with strong commendation or praise. Instead, it was with an angry face from the American coach, who simply barked at him, “Get out! Get out!”

“Na-blackout ako,” Rillo, recalling trouble he got into during that do-or-die Finals game in the season-ending conference.

The game was nip-and-tuck in Game 5, a reason why Rillo, already feeling the emotional crunch after getting an earful from Cone, could only pray behind the team’s bench that San Mig scrapes out with the win.

Otherwise, Rillo said that might probably be his last in a San Mig ballboy uniform since a loss would doom the team’s chances of winning not just the championship series, but also cost the Mixers the Grand Slam title.

Fortunately, that unnerving moment just served as one of the final mixes to San Mig’s historical season-romp as the team closed the do-or-die game with as 82-79 victory, on the way to recording just the fifth Grand Slam title in the PBA’s 39-year history.

Close but not quite

Usually serving as team’s referee in practices, Rillo said originally, he had this passion to become a referee in the PBA during its early years.  

Starting with his fascination for basketball during the heated rivalry of Toyota and Crispa, a young Rillo admitted he possessed the keen eyes in observing players play “clean” basketball during the pro league’s early days in the 1970s.

“Crispa ako noon, pero idol ko rin yung mga nasa Toyota, tinitingnan ko yung mga malinis maglaro, kasi yun yung mga gusto ko,” he told FOX Sports.  

Unlike others who want to be a star in the hardcourt, Rillo’s desire was to run with the basketball superstars stars with whistle on his mouth.

After 2 years in college, the ever-smiling Pasig- resident utility decided to pursue a career in basketball officiating.

“Nag-apply ako nun, kaso dami ng magagaling. Saka ayokong pumasok na parang may backer,” he shared.

While he persevered in trying to pursue his dream, things still didn’t go on as planned.

“Ginawa ko, subok lang talaga ako. Uma-attend ako ng mga seminars, talaga lang siguro hindi uukol,” said Rillo.  “Gusto ko talaga mag-referee dito sa PBA. Kaso ang gagaling, ang dami, di rin ako swinerte.”

Home away from home

With no luck on his dream job, along with the growing demands from his family. Rillo was forced to try other means to earn.  At 24 years old, he found himself flying to Saudi Arabia for a production and planning office work.

But to his amazement, his first expedition to the Middle East wasn’t all work and no play after noticing that his fellow Overseas Filipino Workers brought their passion for the game to Saudi Arabia during their free time.

“Nalibang ako sa basketball doon, puro referee. Iyun kasi halos libangan ng mga Pilipino doon eh. Ang nangyari, nag-enjoy rin ako,” he said.  

Eventually, he got invited to oversee open tournaments and exhibition games during his free time there.

“Mga Saudi nationals, karaniwan mga Filipino, mga American, liga talaga,” he recalled.

But when the Gulf War erupted in 1990, his wife asked him to return home. Rillo did as he thought of his safety and the future of his wife and four daughters.

But when the Gulf War ended, he decided to return to Saudi Arabia before ultimately, settling in the country for good.   

“Di na ako naging masaya kasi naho-homesick na rin ako, kasi naglalakihan na rin mga anak ko, bumitaw na ako,” described Rillo after ending his 15 years of working abroad.

By then, he was able reconstruct their house through his hard earned money as well save enough for the future.

Home sweet home

Upon returning to Manila, Rillo said he first approached his neighbor and then-Sta. Lucia Realtors team manager Buddy Encarnado.

Fortunately, the Realtors were looking for a team referee, a job offered to him, which he gladly accepted.

In 1997, he debuted in the PBA as a team staff of Sta. Lucia, eventually, winning 2 league championships. He also had a short-lived stint for the now-defunct Coca-Cola franchise, before finding his way back with Sta. Lucia.

Rillo then applied for Purefoods, just 2 years before Sta. Lucia sold its PBA franchise, serving as some kind of a “lucky charm”.

For one, his transfer to Purefoods, coinciding with another ballboy Manuel “Maning” Vilbar’s move there, brought multiple championships to the proud franchise. 

Fast forward to 2016, “Mang Jun”, as he is fondly called, remains as one of the most reliable utility persons for the organization.

For despite pushing to the “senior” age, Rillo still serves as the team’s referee in practice, collects the Stars’ stats sheets during games and does other errands for the players and coaches.

For Rillo, his contribution to Star’s title run may seem insignificant for people looking from the outside, but he was candid enough to admit that he still feels being part of a family.

“Masaya ako kasi kumbaga kasama ka sa history. Tapos ang mga teammates mo pa, talagang parang pamilya turingan namin diyan, kung down ka, huwag ka mag-alala, iaangat ka pa nila,” he said, beaming with pride that he wears the Star Hotshots ballboy uniform.

Aside from the winning tradition, Rillo also takes pride in raising his family through his hard-earned money.

“Karamihan ng anak ko, dito nakatapos habang nasa basketball ako,” he said,  noting that his daughter Vanessa works now in the sports media industry.

Now one year behind his retirement age, Rillo wishes to continue running with PBA stars like Pingris, James Yap and Mark Barroca as long as he wants.

“Kung papalarin na tuloy tuloy pa rin dito, tuloy tuloy pa rin. Awa ng Diyos, kaya pa,” he said.

He may be best remembered as “Boy Sukat”, the man who jumped into the scene in Game 5 by using his hand to measure how far Pingris’ foot was from the baseline.

But the way he measured up to life’s challenges, his unwavering passion for basketball and his unconditional love for his family, all these point to one undeniable fact, that ‘Mang Jun’ is a star among the Star Hotshots. – Jason Mercene

Follow this writer on Twitter: @JasonMercenePH