MANILA, February 10, 2005 
(STAR) By Joaquin Henson  -  Fil-Am basketball player Behn de Ocampo Gerhart is safe and now on the way back to New Jersey.

The Star rang the alarm last Tuesday to call out to Gerhart after his mother Dee Greenfield reported the 18-year-old, 6-2 cager missing to the FBI and the US Embassy in Manila.

Gerhart left Manila on board an Asiana flight to the US yesterday afternoon.

Here is what happened.

Gerhart, whose late Filipino grandfather Miguel was born in Manila, arrived here alone last Dec. 19 from New Jersey to pursue his dream of playing basketball as a career. He had $1,100 in his pocket and nowhere to go.

"I played in a Filipino league in Redbank, New Jersey, last summer and my teammates told me I could play in the Philippines as a Fil-Am," said Gerhart. "An uncle of one of my Filipino friends encouraged me to go to Manila. So I did. Itís like how blacks go to Africa to find their roots. I wanted to find my roots in the Philippines."

Gerhart played four years at David Bearley High School in Kenilworth, New Jersey, and led the varsity to an 18-0 record in his senior season. He averaged 16 points and nine rebounds as a prepster.

"I wasnít the tallest guy in our team but I got a lot of rebounds," he recalled. "Once, I had 10 blocks. Our high school isnít known for basketball. Itís big in football and wrestling. But we made it to the record books by winning the conference title in my senior season, our first championship in about 50 years."

Gerhart visited several colleges to find out if he could get an athletic scholarship but nothing materialized. He instead enrolled in a New Jersey culinary school.

When Gerhart arrived in Manila, he was approached by a certain David at the airport terminal. Gerhart was told by David to stay at the Cherry Blossom Hotel in Malate.

Gerhart did as he was told and checked in at the hotel. After a day, he wandered out to the Robinsonís mall near the hotel to buy a watch. Unable to speak Pilipino, Gerhart had difficulty communicating with a sidewalk vendor. Luckily, someone walked by, noticed him, and offered to help.

That someone turned out to be Noel Claridad, a Shell gasoline station cashier. Claridad was impressed by Gerhartís height and invited him to meet his stepson Patrick Raquel, a 6-3 former Pamantasan Ng Pasay player.

Raquel, 22, and Gerhart hit it off. They had a lot in common, primarily a passion for basketball. Eventually, Gerhart moved into Claridadís home because he had nobody to turn to.

The Claridads live in a modest apartment near Gate 3 of the Villamor Air Base in Pasay. His wife Elizabeth Balangkit is suffering from stage three breast cancer and stays home. Raquel is Elizabethís son by a previous relationship. Raquelís half-sister Carisma, 11, lives in the apartment along with two other children and Elizabethís mother. The apartment rental is being paid for by Raquelís aunt who is working in Australia and whose husband is an Air Force man assigned in Batangas.

In the bayanihan spirit, the Claridads opened their home to Gerhart.

"Hirap kaming pakainin siya at ayaw niya ng isda," said Raquel. "Nasanay na rin siya sa rice but ang lagi niyang kinakain ay peanut butter sandwich at Lucky noodles."

Gerhart couldnít believe a family would take him in with no strings attached. "Iím totally grateful," he said. "I thought they wouldnít tolerate me for so long."

Gerhart spent Christmas at the Claridads home. Then, last Dec. 27, he accompanied Raquel to Iloilo for a basketball tournament. They rode a boat to and from Iloilo. Raquel and Gerhart were away for two weeks.

"Para siyang Toni Kukoc maglaro," said Raquel. "Left-handed, may tira sa labas, malakas mag-rebound, mataas tumalon."

While in Iloilo, Gerhart lost his bag which contained his passport and $700. The passport was later returned with a P1,000 bill inserted.

With no money in his wallet, Gerhart relied on the Claridads for food and shelter. He phoned his mother, who lives in New Jersey, only onceĖlast Dec. 21. Because Gerhart never called again, his mother reported him missing.

Philippine Basketball League commissioner Chino Trinidad was contacted by Gerhartís mother by e-mail and went out of his way to look for the teenager. It was Trinidad who discovered where Gerhart stayed in Pasay.

"Destiny siguro at napunta si Behn sa amin," said Raquel. "May girlfriend na siya ritoĖsi Jacqueline de Guzman na kapit-bahay namin."

Gerhart said his mother will meet him at the airport in New Jersey. His parents split up when he was only six years old. He now lives with his father Kenny and his stepmother.

"Iíll be back in eight months," said Gerhart before leaving. "Iíll work as a cook and earn some money to pay for my trip back. I havenít met my Filipino relatives yet and I want to look for them. I could enroll in a school in Manila and play basketball. Iíll never forget what Patrick and his family did for me. I want to pay them back for their kindness and generosity."

Gerhart was in tears when Raquel brought him to the airport yesterday.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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