CALAMBA, Laguna - It was the first scrimmage of the Gilas Pilipinas 3x3 Men pool in Calamba, Laguna and Karl Dehesa came in with guns blazing. Dehesa and Leonard Santillan had joined the team of Joshua Munzon, Moala Tautuaa, and CJ Perez to push them in practice with Alvin Pasaol still unavailable.
Dehesa scored the first six points of his team, all from the outside, and at the end of the scrimmage, his rag-tag team with Santillan and assistant coach Moriah Gingerich ended up with the win after another Dehesa two-ball.
"That's why they're here," Munzon told Tautuaa and Perez. "They're here to compete against us because that'll make us better."
Dehesa is one of the most experienced 3x3 players in the country. While the likes of Munzon have played since 2019, he already dabbled with it back in 2015 while he was still in the PBA.
Dehesa was selected 22nd overall by the Alaska Aces in the 2012 PBA Rookie Draft. However, he was not signed by the squad. After playing in the ASEAN Basketball League, Dehesa finally got the chance to play in the PBA after expansion team Kia scooped him up as a free agent. Dehesa's PBA stint did not last too long. He played for Kia, GlobalPort, and Phoenix but he fell out of the league after playing just 85 games.
"I was stressed when it happened," admitted Dehesa. "It was my livelihood for a long time. I worked so hard to get into the PBA and I got there. To fall out of it so fast, I wasn't prepared for it. I tried out for a few teams, I put myself into situations similar to what I did as a rookie, but it wasn't something that I wanted to put myself through anymore so I stepped away."
The cut caught Dehesa off-guard. Like many players who came before him, he was left without a team at a time when he knew he still had a lot to give. Everyone thinks they'd be staying in the PBA for at least five years but with the influx of fresh talent coming in every year, there will be those who'll fall through the cracks.
At that point of uncertainty, he realized that the best way to move forward was to look back.
"In 2016 when we were in the World Cup, I was talking to coach Mark Solano, one of the coaches with us from the SBP. It was my third 3x3 tournament and I remember walking to the venue and telling him that getting to travel the world and playing against tough opposition was so much fun. I told him if they made a pro 3x3 league in the Philippines, I would join," recalled Dehesa.
During his third year in the PBA, Dehesa got an opportunity to play in the 2016 FIBA 3x3 World Championships together with Mac Belo, Russel Escoto, and Glenn Khobuntin. They performed well even if Escoto was injured, leaving them with only three players. They finished at the ninth spot and Dehesa went home with a special appreciation for 3x3 basketball. Little did he know that this variation of the sport would be the next stage of his career.
"It's crazy how that just manifested. In three years' time, I was playing in a 3x3 pro league, traveling the world, and experiencing so many things because of this game. It's been quite a journey for me," he said.
Fortunately for Dehesa, he got into 3x3 just as it was beginning to take off.
"When I first started playing 3x3 in 2015, how we played it back then is so different to how it's played now. It has evolved because players are stronger and more creative. We had to learn on the fly in 2019 but getting to play against some of the best players in the world fast-tracked our learning," Dehesa stated.
In 2015, 3x3 was viewed as something that five-on-five players did from time to time. In five years it turned into an Olympic sport with talented basketball players all over the world choosing it as a viable career option.
For Dehesa, it was the perfect way to extend his basketball career and open new avenues for his personal growth.
In a few weeks, Munzon, Tautuaa, Pasaol, and Perez will be gunning for an Olympic spot as they'll fly to Austria for the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifier. Although he may not be a part of the lineup, Dehesa is an important part of the team because of his knowledge of the sport. For him, this is also the perfect way to give back to the sport that has been kind to him in the past three years.
"I'm very blessed to be here. It feels weird being on the other side now, being the oldest guy here. Just being able to soak up the moment and really enjoy the experience of being able to play especially because I'm sharing the floor with elite talents in the country. I'm around three first overall picks in Josh, CJ, and Mo, a top-five pick in Santi, and a top-10 pick in Alvin," Dehesa said. "I thank the SBP for giving me this opportunity and believing that I have something to contribute to the program."
For the 33-year-old veteran, part of his value here is to impart his knowledge about 3x3 to prepare the team for the upcoming competition. However, his added value is to impart the wisdom that he has amassed, sometimes the hard way, in his basketball career.
"Being able to give back is important to me," he said. "Being able to share my faults, my mistakes, my failures to the younger generation so they don't make the same ones is gratifying. I wanted the younger players to succeed faster and not make the same mistakes that I and my generation had coming up."
Come the FIBA 3x3 Qualifier, Dehesa would be one of the top cheerleaders for the squad that he helped prepare but during that time he's also hopeful to move forward in his career. He knows he still has a few good years of basketball in him and he's speaking his heart's wishes to manifest them just like that he did in 2016 when he first dreamt of a professional 3x3 career.
"To be a part of the top league in the Philippines and with them opening a 3x3 league, and to be a pioneer for that league, that would be a great experience," Dehesa shared.
"The perfect scenario for me is to continue what I'm doing right now and stay with the national team pool of the SBP and represent the country in all the tournaments. And honestly, it has been a dream to play for Ginebra. I want to play for the most popular team in the country outside of the national team. Being with these two top, high-standard organizations would be the ideal situation for me."