by Renee Ticzon

You may know him as the playmaker with phenomenal range. You may also know him as the speedy point guard, flawlessly breaking down the defense and dishing out assists. But to many of his friends and family, he’s just one of them.

Louelle Jay Gonzales, better known as LJay, has been celebrated time and time again for his leadership and athletic ability. He is widely considered one of FEU’s rising stars following the footsteps of decorated guards like Johnny Abarrientos, Denok Miranda, Jonas Villanueva, RR Garcia, Terrence Romeo and Mike Tolomia.

Since the beginning of his UAAP career, the 21-year old bagged two individual awards and a championship in the Juniors after playing in 3 seasons.

However, LJay’s basketball career started out different from most players.

Born and raised in San Mateo, Isabela, LJay Gonzales is the youngest member of his tight-knit family. He lived a simple life with his father working at their family’s farm and his mother taking care of things at home. As their main provider, LJay’s father would find different ways to sustain the family’s expenses – waking up at the break of dawn just to find food for his family.

The young guard studied at San Mateo High School and was a young athlete early on. Funny thing is, basketball was not even his sport growing up. He was actually part of the school’s track and field team during his elementary years. This would explain LJay’s foot speed and ability to create fast plays.

LJay’s fondness for basketball only began when he was about 10 years. He frequented different basketball games his Tito Jomar used to play in. “Kasi nung bata ako, sumasama lang ako sa kanila – tagahawak ng sapatos o mga tubig para lang makapanood ako,” he fondly recalls.

The young talent then realized it was time to make the shift, so he decided to change his sport in the 8th grade. He trained day in and day out, even occasionally skipping school to play with his friends in different barangays for other teams. By this time, LJay started to excel in basketball despite the lack of formal training, with his uncle as his source of motivation.

Slowly but surely, his talent started to get recognized.

He was then invited by Isabela Head Coach, Ricardo Balinuyus, to play for the team in the upcoming Cagayan Valley Regional Athletic Association (CaVRAA) as one of the team’s point guards. With the help of Mayor Tonton Uy, LJay along with his other teammates were brought to Manila to practice with the different UAAP schools like UE, NU and FEU.

It was here that LJay’s talent and athletic ability got the attention of FEU Baby Tamaraws’ Head Coach, Allan Albano. He approached the high school player and invited him to join the team.

Stunned, LJay rushed to tell his family about the news and they initially did not believe him. After promising Lola she would get to watch the spectacular guard on TV soon, he happily made the decision to join FEU — and this would change his life forever.

The Isabela-native then moved to Manila to join the Baby Tams as one of their point guards in their roster of players.

A year after his first appearance in the UAAP, LJay and his team successfully brought home a championship to the FEU Baby Tamaraws, dethroning the reigning champions, the NU Bullpups. To his surprise, the crafty point guard even got the title of Finals MVP after his season averages of 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 8 assists per game.

Following that season, LJay received another individual award as part of the Mythical Five during his senior year of high school with the Baby Tams. Soon after, the star point guard hit headlines upon his movement up to the Seniors. Teams were eager to hear LJay’s decision on which school he would continue his basketball career.

Unsurprisingly, the attention and awards did not pull LJay away from the squad that discovered and formed his talent.

“Since high school ako, ayoko na talaga lumipat kasi parang dun na ako lumaki – inisip ko yung tulong nila,” says LJay.

However, as he was moving up to the Seniors division, disaster struck the Gonzales family.

LJay suffered the loss of his grandfather due to sickness. The sudden death caused a lot of trouble financially as his confinement racked up some hefty bills, something that the family was not prepared for.

In order to help the family, LJay turned over his savings to his parents just to keep them afloat, leaving nothing to the youngest of the family.

However, more than the expenses, the guard struggled emotionally. On the day his grandfather passed away, he rushed home hoping to see his Lolo for the last time, but unfortunately, he was too late. He fondly recalls spending most of his days with his grandfather planting corn in their farm. He would often have dinner or spend the night in their house because the two were very close to each other.

Moving forward, LJay then had the responsibility of being the family’s breadwinner – sending over most of his monthly allowance to help finance his sister’s educational expenses. Whenever his family needed to pay for different bills, LJay was tasked to help make ends meet.

“Mas maganda yung pinaghirapan mo, kaysa yung andiyan na talaga.”

This drove Isabela’s pride to strive even harder coming up to the Seniors. He knew he would be going up against bigger and stronger players, but the 5’10” guard believed in his ability to compete.

Despite the initial intimidation of moving up to the Seniors, LJay was able to adjust to the new team and competition. His focus was on improving his already outstanding performance in the Juniors to keep up with the new opponents. And although he was not given much playing time in his freshman year with only 8.9 minutes per game, he made sure that he did his best each time and maximized his performance with every opportunity he got. His season average was at 4.1 points, 1.6 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game.

During the 82nd season, LJay stepped up big time and became one of Coach Olsen Racela’s go-to point guards – working in tandem with one of his basketball mentors, Wendell Comboy. He averaged 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal in 25 minutes of playing time. He led the team in points, assists and steals, and was #2 in rebounds following 6’10 center, Patrick Tchuente. The increased opportunity displayed not only his all-around stat line from his Baby Tam days, but also that LJay Gonzales was one of the best point guards in the UAAP, if not the best. No wonder fans and basketball analysts like to compare him to Russell Westbrook because of his overall impact to the game.

Unfortunately, due to the unexpected community quarantine and lockdown, his basketball career had to step aside to focus on more pressing matters. As much as he wants to come back to Manila and train with his teammates, he knows that safety needs to be their priority during the pandemic.

His focus now is on keeping himself conditioned by attending FEU’s morning Zoom training, running for about 2 hours in the afternoon, and continuing the skills training led by the coaching staff.

Along with that, he continues to help his dad work on their farm by planting different crops in order to sustain the family. Sadly, he mentions that his family has been struggling a lot lately because of the pause in trade and other businesses.

However, LJay continues to have a positive attitude and remains motivated despite the crisis.

“Kahit anong mangyari lumaban kayo sa mga pangarap niyo.”

Once the season finally comes, we can expect a more vocal and decisive LJay Gonzales. He continues to focus on his leadership as a point guard, improving not only his performance, but the overall chemistry of the team. He also continues to work on some areas of improvement: decision-making ability and shooting, two factors that we know the Isabela-native is capable of adding to his developing all-around game.