The Shared Journey of Will Navarro and Zavier Lucero

Two players, coming off similar injuries that happened just four days apart, are now teammates with a common purpose.

On Dec. 10, 2022, NorthPort Batang Pier rookie Will Navarro limped off the court of the PhilSports Arena late in the first quarter of a 2022-23 PBA Commissioner’s Cup quarterfinal game against Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.

Navarro didn’t know it at the time, but he had just torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and was done for the season, bringing what had been a promising rookie campaign to an abrupt end.

Four days later, on Dec. 14, 2022, UP Fighting Maroons prized forward Zavier Lucero was hurriedly bringing up the ball on the left sideline of the Smart-Araneta Coliseum in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the UAAP Season 85 Finals against the Ateneo Blue Eagles. His left knee bent awkwardly inwards, tearing his ACL and effectively ending his Finals stint (he would be inserted in the last seconds of Game 3 to take two free throws).

Navarro and Lucero would both have surgery on their respective knees that kept them sidelined for the whole of 2023. Navarro stayed in Manila for his rehabilitation program, while Lucero flew back to the United States to continue his own rehab there.

In July 2023, Navarro inked a two-year contract with the Batang Pier. The following month, Lucero threw his hat into the PBA Season 48 Rookie Draft, where he was picked fifth overall…by the Batang Pier.

On March 1, nearly 15 months after their injuries, Navarro and Lucero finally returned to basketball as NorthPort Batang Pier teammates. Even though their first game for NorthPort in the Season 48 Philippine Cup ended in a 107-100 loss to the NLEX Road Warriors, both players were given significant playing time and gave a glimpse of the team’s potential.

Their stat lines were strikingly similar: 12 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 34 minutes for Navarro and 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 31 minutes for Lucero. And for whatever reason, the two were the last NorthPort players to leave the locker room.

The game was held at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum, the very same venue where Lucero had torn his ACL. If he was harboring any apprehensions about playing for the first time in 15 months in the same place where he suffered his injury, it didn’t show.

“It feels good,” he said. “It was a good introduction to basketball again (in) my first game back, so just trying to find my rhythm again and just help the team win any way I can. I look forward to building on it, for sure.”

Lucero said he had put on 30 pounds of muscle during his recovery period to prepare himself for the professional grind. But he’s also still clearly working his way back, as he missed some easy buckets and made a couple of miscues.

“It’s getting there,” he said. “I felt good out there. I didn’t feel too winded or anything like that, you know. It’s just all about finding my rhythm again. I missed some gimme’s, dropped some passes, so me getting back into the flow of things, you know, it’s my first game in over a year. So I’m just happy that I made it through, and my knee is still intact.”

Two days later, the Batang Pier again went into overtime, but this time they came out victorious against the Converge FiberXers with Lucero’s father and former UP teammate Malick Diouf watching. This time, though, Lucero didn’t have a notable game, going scoreless in 16 minutes. Afterwards, coach Bonnie Tan explained that Lucero had asked out of the game as he was finally feeling the effects of jet lag.

Navarro, though, continued to pick up where he left off, tallying 16 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes of action. Like Lucero, he said his reconstructed knee hasn’t given him any problems so far.

“Feels good,” he said. “I mean, no problem so far. No pain. So, pretty much normal.”

Teaming up with Lucero in the front court is a tantalizing prospect for Navarro. Even though the sample size has only been two games, so far Navarro likes what he sees from his rookie teammate.

“He brings his length,” he said of Lucero. “Kasi, parehas kami mahaba din. Tapos, maganda rin yung pinanggalingan niyang school. Tapos, yung coach niya, okay din. So, yung presence niya, yung knowledge niya sa court, naikita ko nandun eh.”

His only wish was that Lucero had had more time to integrate himself in the system.

“He came late, actually, sa team. So, he wasn’t able to have a friendly game with us. We had, like, five games before the official games. So, he wasn’t able to be there. He came in, like, two days before two practices. And then, parang laro na agad. Oo. So, siya, hindi niya pa makukuha talaga yung chemistry, yung plays. So, mag-a-adjust pa talaga siya.”

Tan knows what he has in his two young forwards. If anything, he has a happy problem distributing minutes on a team that also has scoring machine Arvin Tolentino and impressive rookie Cade Flores.

“The advantage is that we have so many talents in that position,” he said. “The hardest part right now is figuring out the right combination of players to use. At the same time, (we need to figure out) the rotation to use and controlling the playing time of the players.”

Lucero is thankful for the trust put in him by his coach.

“He gives he gives everyone that he puts out there the trust to play their game.

I’m just trying to do my best to help the team win and do my best to find my spots and not force anything, but convert on open opportunities, shoot it when I’m open and create when I can. He’s letting us all kind of find our flow within the game and trusting us in that, and so I’m happy about that.”

Last conference, the Batang Pier finished sixth, losing to Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals. The addition of Navarro and Lucero has given them a boost, and could just be what it will take to push them to the next level.

“This team has potential,” Navarro said. “We’re long, we run. So, the sky’s the limit with our team. It’s just that we have to be more focused on our system, try to execute more, try to pass more. The little things, try to box out more. Mga ganun.”

Banner image from PBA Media Bureau.

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