May 24, 2024

GUTS AND GLORY | The continues evolution of CJ Perez

GUTS AND GLORY | The continues evolution of CJ Perez
PBA BPC, Finals MVP, and a playoff career-high 28 points in a title-clinching game. CJ Perez is that good, but the best is yet to come. Art by Mitzi Solano
It was February 9th inside the Smart-Araneta Coliseum. It was Game 4 of the PBA 48th Season Commissioner’s Cup.


CJ Perez was waiting for the announcement of the Best Player of the Conference. June Mar Fajardo, the man with nine of these awards already in his collection, had his arm draped around Perez. It was a simple but perhaps poignant moment. Fajardo and the Death 5 built this dynasty. Perez and the Death 15 will be tasked to continue this legacy.


When the result was announced, Perez revealed a shirt that celebrated the achievement. Unlike the Best Import of the Conference race, this revelation came as no surprise. Perez was the top local of the top team en route to another PBA championship.


It’s almost funny how the past few months turned out to be for Perez. 


Back in July and early August, he also stood here inside the Bid Dome. But instead of front and center, he was at the very end of the bench. 


The three-time PBA Scoring Champion, unfortunately, played the same position as Jordan Clarkson who normed around 36 minutes per game. As a result, Perez only saw action in three games, averaging 2.3 points in six minutes.


However, instead of sulking, Perez charged forward. Playing in his second World Cup was enough validation that he was one of the Philippines’ top players. The situation he fell in was not a testament to his skill or value but just a direction that the team went to.


After barely any rest, Perez quickly moved forward to join head coach Tim Cone in their golden Asian Games campaign. Then it was off to the PBA again where everything led to that one moment when all the eyes inside the coliseum were fixed upon Perez as he hoisted his BPC plaque.


Perez was not in his BPC form in the first half of Game 6. Saddled with fouls, he only put up four points in the first two quarters as it looked more and more likely that the Magnolia Chicken Timplados Hotshots were going to force a Game 7. He even had a heated discussion with San Miguel Beer head coach Jorge Gallent after he was yanked out of the game after a turnover.


This is not new for Perez. He’s such a ferocious competitor that he’s unafraid to let his feelings known.


It happened with Gilas too. On a couple of occasions, Perez also got into tense exchanges with coach Chot Reyes before the World Cup but it never got personal. Sometimes these things really happen. In the heat of the moment, tempers flare up because competitors want the same thing, which is to win, but might disagree on how to get there.


The third quarter of Game 6 was a personal show for Perez, showing everyone that SMB might still be Fajardo’s team but it’ll be his right after. He dropped a dozen points in the period and completed his heroics with a dagger three at the end of the game. 


He finished with 28 points and completed his epic conference with the Commissioner’s Cup championship and his first-ever Finals MVP.


While other players who saw action in the Finals went on their much-deserved vacations, Perez took a day off and then jumped right into Gilas duties once again. This time traveling with the squad to Hong Kong, his country of birth. In the mid-90s Perez and his mother left Hong Kong not knowing what the future held for them. Now he returned as a conquering hero, welcomed by legions of Filipino fans. 


The scary thing about Perez is that he is still learning. He won scoring titles with Terrafirma because of his talent and athleticism. When he moved to SMB, he paired that with a clear system and defined roles to win his first two championships. Now he gets to learn more of Cone’s system where he does need the ball to be effective, and when he puts all of these things together, a PBA Most Valuable Player award will no longer be a distant dream for Perez.