MANILA, Philippines – Ben Mbala received a warm welcome at the Araneta Coliseum when he watched De La Salle University's game against Far Eastern University (FEU) last week in the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
The two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player braved traffic from Taft to Cubao to watch the Green Archers, who fell to the Tamaraws in heartbreaking fashion, 71-70, on a game-winner by Arvin Tolentino.
Still, Mbala enjoyed watching his former teammates compete, even if the result did not go their way. He was also delighted to have caught up with the La Salle community, who had embraced him wholeheartedly during his time with the team.
"What do you think I'm here for?" said Mbala, who anchored La Salle's dominant run to the UAAP Season 79 crown. "I wanna show them my support, I wanna show them that I'm grateful for everything they've done for me. And I'm always a Lasallian, I will always be a Lasallian."
It turned out to be a quick visit for Mbala, who left the day after the Green Archers' last game of the tournament.
The Cameroonian star initially came to the Philippines for vacation before reporting for duty to their national team. However, he was contacted by the Magnolia Hotshots, who wanted him to be on stand-by just in case their import, Romeo Travis, would be unable to play for them in the PBA Governors' Cup semifinals.
"I was like, 'why not?'" Mbala said of the opportunity.
"But I think it's fine right now, so I gotta go on with what I have to do," he added.
Travis played through a strained hamstring to lead the Hotshots to the finals, where they will play the Alaska Aces.
His first opportunity to play in the PBA as an import may not have worked out, but Mbala is very much willing to play in the country again should another team come calling.
"I love the Philippines, of course. Of course, I'll be back. That's not even a question," said Mbala, who played for Southwestern University in Cebu before being recruited by La Salle.
The 23-year-old Mbala has already played in Mexico, France, and South Korea as a professional.
"I'm happy with everything. It's a learning experience, it's a process, and I'm just happy that I'm able to enjoy that and go through that," Mbala said of his professional career so far.
"I'm living my dream, to play pro, to play basketball. So I cannot complain about anything else."
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