It would not be too much of a stretch to describe it as a “million-to-one shot.”
What are the odds that a player from tiny Saipan could make it to the top echelons of basketball-crazy Philippines? There are hundreds of thousands of wannabes across the archipelago dreaming of making it to the pro ranks without hitting the mark, but for Jericho Cruz, that proverbial million-to-one shot went swish! All net, baby! Through hard work and determination he moved from the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (population roughly 55 thousand) to the megalopolis of Manila to play in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the oldest and one of the premiere professional leagues in all of Asia.
“Growing up in the CNMI is very laid back. Everybody knows each other. You get to greet every one every day. It’s a place where you get a lot of friends simply because no one is a stranger. We get to play a lot of sports, eat together, and all that fun stuff,” Jericho recalled fondly.
He said playing basketball in Saipan was so much different than in the Philippines. “In high school, we only played against three teams, no summer camps, no quality trainings and we don’t have ‘real’ basketball training; we would just go out there to play and have fun,” Jericho explained.
Moving to the Philippines to play college ball was an eye-opener, according to Jericho. “There’s way too many teams, way too many leagues, and way too many players. The competition is very high—if you don’t show your skills up, you won’t get a chance to get that spot. In Saipan, I was one of the top players, but when I came out here, I was just a normal player, so I had to adjust, start from scratch, and step up. It was a struggle for me at first. I had no idea if I was going to make it or not. It seems like every player here is so good, but I did not give up. I put in the work each and every day just to prove to our team that I deserve a spot,” he explained.
Before you can turn pro in the Philippines, you have to play a minimum of two years at the collegiate level, and then play in the semi-pro D-League for two conferences. “I joined the semi-pro league during my second year in college,” Jericho said. “I had doubters, haters and all that, but of course, I did not mind them at all. In the semi-pros I got drafted by Blackwater Elite…while working my ass off, I got noticed by the Philippine team.”
Jericho was invited to try out for the National Team that would compete in the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) tournament that will determine who will represent the region in the international FIBA Championships. “Luckily I got in! I got to wear a Philippine jersey and compete. We got the gold medal in SEABA. After my Philippine team experience, I decided to join the PBA draft. But of course I wasn’t expecting that much,” Jericho explained.
But he was certainly able to impress the Rain or Shine team, which selected him in the first round as the overall number 9 pick out of more than 150 draftees. “I was really surprised because ROS is one of the top teams in the PBA,” Jericho said.
Players who make it to the league are idolized by legions of fans, who Jericho said might not realize how hard they have to work to keep their jobs. “I know a lot of people think that what we do is really easy. We just practice and do what we love to do. But that’s not really the case. It takes a lot of discipline, sacrifices, and effort. Preparing for games, my wife and I had an agreement: If it’s our season, I have to sleep early every night, meaning no night outs and all. I also maintain my diet. I only eat chicken, fish, fruits, and veggies. Plus I do extra workouts. I would normally arrive three hours before our training to shoot around, then an extra workout again in the afternoon or before I go to sleep. That’s me during the season. I really discipline myself,” Jericho said.
But the work they put in at the gym and on the court is easy compared to the other trappings of life in the PBA. The players are stars in the Philippines, who draw a lot of public attention and constant scrutiny. It’s not something that is easy to get used to when you’re coming from the laid-back confines of the CNMI. “I think one of the hardest parts is trying to please everyone. Of course you can’t do that for all, but here in the Philippines social media is such a big deal that everybody has their own opinion in everything that you do. Every player has a basher or hater, and that’s a challenge for me to overcome and try not to be sensitive in everything that I read or hear,” Jericho said.
The CNMI basketball standout is living his dream of playing professional basketball, and making a living at what he has always loved to do. “I just want to thank the people in Saipan for all the support. You guys motivate me to work harder each and every day, and I just want to tell the young ballers out there to keep believing, and it’s possible to reach their dreams if they work for it. If I can do it, then they can do it—maybe even better.”
He continued, “To my family and friends out there, thank you all for your undying support, and I will do my best to represent our island, and I hope to see you all soon. Si Yu’us Maase!”