James Spencer Opens Up About Being an Iskolar ng Bayan and a UAAP Champion

"When I'm out there on the court, everything else just really dissolves away."
by Cass Lazaro   |  Jun 17, 2022
Image: Instagram/jsp3ncer Art: Pau Moyano
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When the UP Fighting Maroons went against the Ateneo Blue Eagles for this year’s UAAP men’s basketball championship, few people expected them to give the reigning champs a run for their money. The latter, after all, was on a 39-game winning streak. And UP, well, they haven’t cinched a single title in 36 years.

But if there’s a lesson learned in history, it’s that underdogs can win, as evidenced by how the Maroons beat the Eagles not just once but thrice to covet their first-ever championship title in decades!

The victory, though no doubt a product of relentless team effort, catapulted certain standouts to social media success. One of which is James Spencer, a Fil-Australian point guard who gave their opponents a hard time with his ~cold-blooded~ clutch three-pointers.

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“Honestly, I was just thinking, my shot’s feeling good, [I] have no hesitation on the catch,” he said matter-of-factly of his OT-forcing three in the game 1 of the series. Level-headed despite the gravity of their victory, James had no qualms in saying that the team became itself through passion and perceptiveness. “I wouldn’t say it’s an adjustment,” he cooly responded when I asked how he’s been ~adjusting~ to what seems like an unforeseeable win. “This is the goal we set out to achieve when we got into the bubble. I can say that, as a group, we all saw that vision. We all worked very hard to get towards it.”

A little over a month after achieving the historic milestone for UP, James took some time off-court (albeit not really, he still plays casual ball with his friends) and decided to spend his remaining days outside the bubble with his loved ones in his hometown in Australia, where his Australian dad and Filipina mom raised him.

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Yet even with the team’s strong finish this year, James believes they still have work cut out for them as they vie for back-to-back championships next season. “I really feel like it’s the start of the winning culture in UP, but at the same time, we can’t dwell on it too much because the next season is just around the corner, so we gotta be starting our preparations soon.”

Whatever the outcome, the 22-year-old star player has already marked a major milestone in his UAAP career, firmly sealing his status as a formidable athlete to keep your eye on moving forward.

In this week’s Candy University feature, we caught up with James to talk about his life as a student-athlete, his reaction to being ~viral~ on social media, and his biggest goals as a rising basketball star.

What was the adjustment period like—from studying in Australia in your early school years to pursuing college in the Philippines?

It was definitely a lot of culture shock for me. Getting used to how things are run—what’s normal here is kinda different. People operate differently here. Meeting people with positions of power, you have to be respectful and almost watchful of what you say, whereas I can say that in Australia, it’s probably not as strict in that sense. It’s almost normal to regularly challenge your superiors and have that healthy dialogue between two people, for instance, in my case, between a player and a coach. When I first came I wasn’t able to really ask too many questions, and it’s kind of just like this is how it is; you’ve just got to follow suit. But now, I feel like the culture at UP has definitely changed. It’s a lot more fluid, and the communication is a lot better. My transition was not smooth, but I figured it out in the end.

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How different is the education system in the Philippines from what you were used to in Australia?

If you go to Australia for a Sports Science course, all your classes will be based on Sports Science. Whereas UP wants its students to have a holistic experience and learn about everything, that’s why we have electives and other subjects outside the usual courses. It made me realize that you can be educated in more than just your field.

What are your biggest learnings from UP?

I had a professor who would say, “Other people are the greatest tools in learning and furthering your understanding of how to communicate and get the most out of experience in your life.” When I came to the school, I was pretty shy ’cause I don’t speak Tagalog. I would just go to classes and beat myself up. But once I realized I’ve got nothing to lose, I asked many questions and became unafraid to approach fellow classmates and other people within the school. Whenever I’d do that, I found myself having pretty good conversations and learning from people from different walks of life.

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How do you feel about the support you’re getting on social media?

I think it’s great! It’s cool. It’s a rare opportunity as well. Coming from Australia—at least from where I was in my basketball career—I feel like I wouldn’t have this kind of opportunity to grow my brand and presence on social media. It’s been cool to see not just myself but also my teammates get a bigger following from everyone, not just the UP community. That’s just the way the Filipino people are. They are really supportive so that’s great.

What are your biggest career goals?

At the moment, I’m focused on this upcoming season, trying to go back-to-back with the team. Obviously, I have my roots in Australia and I would love to play there whenever that may be. But I’m also not closing any doors to PBA and into playing in multiple countries as well.

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How do you prepare for a big game?

I think the biggest thing is consistency. My preparation and routine, they don’t waver nor change. It’s to get some shots in the morning before the game, do a little lift just to prime the body.. then when I’m in the locker room, I listen to music, stretch, warm-up, and meditate. I prepare for every game like it’s an important game because every game is important.

What do you love the most about playing basketball?

Basketball, I feel like it’s a language—it’s a language that I’m good at speaking. It’s something that I really enjoy, and when I’m out there on the court, everything else just really dissolves away. Yeah, it’s got to stem from your love for the game. I love it. I love playing basketball, and I feel like it’s what I’m out here to do.

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Cass Lazaro
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