FROM HARDCOURT STAR TO CITY COUNCIL STALWART
Cebu City Councilor Donaldo “Dondon” Hontiveros is one city councilor who can lay claim to being a household name all over the country.
By Fraulein Olavario
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EZEKIEL SULLANO
Few city councilors can lay claim to being a household name all over the country. Cebu City Councilor Donaldo “Dondon” Hontiveros is one of the few who can rightfully do so.
A star cager in a country mad with the game of basketball—a former national team player, a Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) champion, PBA and Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) All Star, among other accolades—the 6’1” shooting guard found success wherever he went because he is a team player. “I’ve never been a player whose goal is to win an award for himself. Never did I say that ‘This year, I’m going for MVP.’ That never crossed my mind. Personally, my constant goal was to be the best defensive player I could be. When I get recognition from an opposing player whom I was tasked to defend, saying that ‘Ang galing ni Dondon dumipensa (Dondon is good in defense),’ that’s when I get fulfillment. Usually, going into a season, [I ask myself,] ‘How will I get better as a teammate? as a player? And how can I best help the team?’ ‘Yun ‘yung maipagmayabang ko siguro (I guess that’s what I could be proud of), that I’ve always been a team player,” says Hontiveros, who was a vital cog in the Cebu Gems in the now-defunct MBA; Tanduay Rhum, San Miguel, Air21, Petron, and Alaska in the PBA; and Alab Pilipinas in the ABL. Always a star, never a prima donna, the second-term councilor’s humility and work ethic make him welcome everywhere, especially the city council of the Queen City of the South, where he has been the top councilor in terms of votes received for two elections straight.
MAKING THE JUMP
Hontiveros was courted by politicians in Cebu upon learning about his retirement from professional basketball in 2018. But true to his personality, the 45-year-old baller chose the group that gave him a clear and defined role within the team.
“Two parties here in Cebu City approached me for a meeting. I have friends from both parties, but I decided to align myself with Mayor Mike Rama because we already had an existing connection. I was also told that, ‘Dondon, we want you to be part of our group. We’ll put you in charge of youth and sports. We don’t want you to be a politician.’ Those were the exact words coming from them. ‘We want you to be yourself. You have connections with the youth and sports, and you can help us,’” says Hontiveros of his first run as city councilor under the banner of Partido Barug in 2019.
The decision to make the jump from the hardcourt to the session hall stemmed from Hontiveros’ values, which he learned from his parents, who were both law enforcers. Arturo and Ludivina Hontiveros had taught their son that for one to be able to say that he had truly served, he must have done something for people who cannot give anything in return.
When Hontiveros started earning, he made it a point to set aside money for outreach programs. He would prepare school supplies for children left behind by parents undergoing drug rehabilitation. He would pay an occasional visit to minor offenders; conduct basketball training camps for kids to teach them the values of accountability, teamwork, and discipline; and lead tree-planting activities to instill awareness of environmental issues among the youth; and invite the San Miguel and Alaska PBA teams to play in Cebu City and visit foundations.
“I guess I saw that in my parents, and found it fulfilling [when I started doing the same]. I also wanted to set an example for my son and my campers. So when there came an opportunity to be of service, to be in a position to influence, to share, to make a difference, that led me to think that perhaps that was my chance [to run for public office],” he explains. Athletic, affable, and charming, Hontiveros’ popularity made him a shoo-in for the city council, and he topped the councilor race in 2019. But true to his nature, the resounding victory did not give him any air of overconfidence. His decision to run, after all, was based on his genuine desire to serve, and he was happiest that his new position allowed him to do just that. “I guess I had an advantage because they saw me on TV before. If I were in their shoes, I live in Cebu and there’s this person who represents us in Manila and the [men’s basketball] national team, I would give him a chance. True enough, I won though I never expected to be No. 1. What’s good about it is that now a few companies would approach me and say, ‘Don, meron kaming mga ganito. Alam mo ba kung may center na may need for this?’ I-connect ko na sila. ‘Yun ‘yung nakita ko na maganda on my first term (‘Don, we have this and that product. Do you know any center that may need this?’ Then I would link them up. That’s one thing positive that I experienced on my first term),” recalls Hontiveros.
The Cebuano Hotshot’s sterling performance as a first-time councilor did not go unnoticed, as he again emerged as topnotcher in the May 2022 elections. In return, he is making the most of the opportunity, especially as he is the president pro tempore of the 16th Sangguniang Panglungsod of Cebu City. He chairs the Committee on Education, Science, and Technology; the Committee on Scholarship Program; and the Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Culture. He is also the vice chairman of the Committee on Sports and Youth Development and is a member of various other committees. Among the resolutions that Hontiveros filed are those dealing with the revival of the river management board to deal with the waste which causes flooding in the city; asking for the council’s support for the revival of the Colon Night Market, located on the oldest street in the Philippines; and honoring athletes representing Cebu City in various international competitions. He also manages the scholarship program of the city, allowing qualified high school graduates to receive college or technical-vocational education. The councilor’s political life, however, has not been free from challenges. He became vice mayor in the last seven months of his first term, as the passing of Mayor Edgardo Labella made then-Vice Mayor Michael Rama the mayor. He even served as acting mayor for two weeks, which demanded heavier responsibilities from the rookie public servant, such as handling and accommodating the request of the informal settlers regarding their transfer to relocation sites by also working together with other concerned departments.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which did not come with a playbook, thrust him into managing crisis situations that strained the abilities of government to respond and posed several problems—at times beyond his control—like delays in the delivery of supplies for food packs for barangays placed under lockdown, and the surge in the number of individuals who had to be placed in isolation facilities. “I learned about logistics, that you have to really communicate. When you are told, ‘Sir, can you wait for a day or two?’ Will it take longer than that? Will the supplies be delivered on time? I remember staying at the Cebu Coliseum for almost 16 hours, since we used the place as a warehouse for the supplies, and also as venue for repacking and everything,” Dondon recalls. “I was also a part of the isolation facility team. We were the ones who received those who were to be quarantined, and we were bashed because we were not yet done cleaning the facility when they started coming in. So we really did everything that we could. I learned a lot, and part of that is you don’t make challenges a reason for you to stop working.” The Cebu-born former basketball star never resented the criticisms that are part and parcel of daily life at city hall. Even when the criticisms turn to insults and taunts, Hontiveros never lets himself get affected, except when he sees an opportunity to improve and grow.
Hontiveros says that being a public servant is more challenging than being an athlete. “More challenging because of the nature of politics, I guess,” he says as he relates one incident where he had to deal with the spectre of being “junked” by some supporters because of his initial plan of running as an independent candidate in the elections. “I and my friend, Philip Zafra, declared ourselves as independent candidates a month before the filing of certificates of candidacy. So we were judged na, ‘O, wala na ‘tong respeto sa leader (Ah, he’s become disrespectful of our leader),’ but it was totally different because we asked for permission from the mayor that we will run as independents, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be supporting him. There were even people who supported me before, saying, ‘Ah, lumaki na ulo, nag-i independent na (Ah, he’s developed such a big ego, he’s going independent).’” When things were clarified, however, Cebuanos still gave him the electoral support he needed.
Still, the then-reelectionist candidate did not escape the negative tactics employed by some groups that wanted him out of the city council. “I didn’t really feel hurt but my family was adversely affected,” he reveals. “Some people would say things that aren’t really factual, very offensive, just to sway votes [away from me]. ‘Alam mo ba, si Dondon, tumakbo ‘yan dahil wala na ‘yang pera, (‘Did you know that Dondon ran because he’s already financially down?),’ things of that nature. I don’t know if it came from a politician, but it seemed like that. They wanted to win at all costs, but it backfired on them. So, whenever I heard those things, I would think that maybe I am a threat.” After all, Dondon is no stranger to naysayers. Flashback to 1989, when Hontiveros was just 12 years old and in sixth grade. Their English teacher asked the class to write on a piece of paper where they envisioned themselves by the year 2000. “By then, I will be in the PBA,” Hontiveros wrote, as he had always been a basketball fan. This, even as he only stood at 4’11” at the time, far from the ideal height for those eyeing basketball as a career. He took all the negative comments from those around him in good stride, holding on to his dream. Doubters still came aplenty in the coming years, beginning with a grade school varsity teammate at the University of San Jose Recoletos, who told him, “Parang mahihirapan ka kasi ang liit mo (It seems like you will have a hard time as you are too short),” since it wasn’t until 4th year high school that Hontiveros grew to be 5’11” tall. Things like the above did not stop the young Hontiveros, though. Neither did the injury that prevented him from trying out in the big university teams in Manila in his senior year in high school, nor the injury he suffered on his very first game with the Cebu Gems in the MBA. Or the opinion piece he read when he was already attracting offers from PBA teams that said he would just be a small fish in the ocean if he goes to Manila, so he should just be contented with being a superstar in Cebu, where he is a big fish in a pond. “And I guess it started with somebody saying, ‘Hindi mo kaya (You won’t make it).’ I used that as motivation,” says the former University of Cebu stalwart.
WELL-PREPARED FOR PUBLIC SERVICE
Although professional basketball seems far removed from public service, Hontiveros’ 20 years as a professional baller still gave him some preparation for life as a local government official. “However prepared you are going to a game, sometimes there are unexpected things, and you have to adjust right then and there. You can do that if you prepare for everything, like [being ready for any eventuality]. Good thing, I played for two decades, I had a good grasp of the game. But it’s a different scenario in politics, in public governance because sometimes you do something and it offends a sector. Sometimes you extend help, pero parang kulang pa rin, at kailangang tanggapin kahit anong sinasabi nila (but it seems inadequate, and you have to accept all their comments),” says Hontiveros.
And like in his previous career, Hontiveros turned to his teammates to help in the adjustment and used his moral compass and humility as tools to allow him to use the negative remarks to render even better service. “I learned from my colleagues. As experienced councilors, they’ve heard a lot. You just keep on doing what you think or believe is best for the community. But you also have to put yourself in their situation, bakit sila naging ganoon (why did they end up like that)? So, sometimes, marami na kasi silang nalapitan, hindi pa sila natutulungan (they’ve asked help from so many people, to no avail). And you find ways to really connect with them,” he says. As a leader, Hontiveros believes in being flexible—being authoritative at times or being democratic, depending on the situation. The adaptability that he says he learned from his basketball coaches, along with his easygoing personality and inclusive brand of leadership, proved to be beneficial in presiding over the council (for instance, reaching out to the minority and harnessing their common goal of public service despite political differences). “They say that the majority rules, but you have to give an opportunity to the minority. You give them that platform to explain their side. I think it’s important to hear both sides. And I remember as a player that you can still compete without offending others or making it personal. And you just prove a point, it should be like that during sessions. So, sabi nila, yung mga session, na-handle ko well (they’ve been saying that I do well during city council sessions). It’s how you interact ba,” he says.
“They have good plans for the city. Sometimes, we don’t agree with each other, but as somebody said, ‘Lahat naman papunta doon sa dagat eh. ‘Yung iba dito lang dadaan na river, iba-iba lang ‘yung direction [sa una] (Everyone is heading for the sea, anyway. It’s just that some have sailed through this river, while others have taken another direction initially).’ Knowing you’re thinking about the city, you find ways to compromise and be part of the solution,” Hontiveros adds. “Ayoko sabihin na I have knowledge on everything. Of course, parang kapal naman ng mukha ko [to claim] that I know everything, especially I’m just at my 4th year. But swerte ako I have Congressman Edu Rama, Councilor Philip Zafra, and Councilor Joy Pesquera who always give me advice. Sasabihin nila ‘Don, maganda ‘to,’ parang ganoon, and I learned a lot from them. Even from the opposition party, natuto ako sa kanila (I don’t want to claim that I know everything. It would be so thick-faced of me to claim such, especially since I’m just in my fourth year as councilor. But I am lucky to have Congressman Edu Rama and Councilor Philip Zafra who would always give me pieces of advice. They would tell me ‘Don, this is good’, like that, and I learn from them. I also learn even from the opposition party).” More so, as councilor, Hontiveros knows his role, which is to follow the lead of Mayor Rama. For him, his successes is part of a team effort. For instance, with Cebu City reaching its vaccination targets, he gives glowing praise to everyone who was involved. “Mayor Mike set a good direction and I would say that because of his leadership, with regard to vaccination, we were able to achieve our goal. So on Feb. 24, he declared the program’s success because we reached the target number of vaccines due to our shared responsibility and I was grateful to be a part of it. Of course, we got the support of our barangay captains, and the vaccination program, the administration of booster shots, are still ongoing,” says the councilor, who also shares the mayor’s goal of making Cebu City to be a Singapore-like City and turning the city into a tourism hub and sports hub.
Asked about his plans of running for higher office, Hontiveros admits he still wants to be active in basketball, as he also serves as an assistant coach for PBA team Phoenix Super LPG. In this capacity, he takes part in selecting rookies and imports for the team and attends the coaching staff’s online discussions, while he prioritizes his obligations as local legislator.
But Hontiveros is not counting out the possibility of heeding the call—if that’s what the team asks of him.
“To be honest, when I won as No. 1 [councilor], a lot of people told me, ‘You could run for Congress.’ And I received pledges of help if ever I would decide to run for Congress. Of course, I always abide by the decision of the head of our party, who is Mayor Mike Rama. There were even talks about the possibility of me running for vice mayor, but never did I demand such a position. Again, Mayor Mike Rama knows that I still want to be involved in basketball. Besides, Congressman Edu Rama, our South (2nd) District representative, is doing good, deserving and fit for the post, as he has been with the legislature for five terms already. I feel that I am just lucky that I became No. 1 twice. With that, many supporters encouraged me that the next position [I should aim for] should be a higher one,” he reveals. “But then again, it will be up to the party.” Indeed, Hontiveros has gone a long way from being a hardcourt idol to an important member of the Cebu City Council. In both roles, he has shunned personal glory in order to achieve his team’s bigger goals.