Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bleachers' Brew # 2 The Stripe is A Badge of Courage

The Stripe Is A Badge of Courage
by rick olivares

Night after night they’re double-teamed, triple-teamed. Coaches, team managers, even the ballboys get into the act. And wait ‘til you hear some of the wives or girlfriends. Some have caustic tongues like you’d never believe. No such thing as homecourt advantage for them. They run the break furiously galloping down the hardwood yet whether it’s an and-one or a botched lay-up they remain impassive. Impervious to the naked and raw emotions available for all to see.

They have a game plan. In fact, during half-time they march into the dug-out to review the past 24 minutes. Were they properly spaced on the court -- hard to get in on the action when their trying to weave their way around players a foot or more taller? What were they doing right and wrong? They wipe the sweat off their faces and sip water from plastic cups. Lemon time’s over. When they march back out, it’s to a rain of catcalls and boos.

It’s tough being a PBA referee. You have to be tough. Maybe even a little crazy. Why earn the ire of thousands of screaming partisan fans when you can earn bazillions playing hoops with those selfsame fans screaming your name in delirium instead of derision?

Luisito “Boy” Cruz, the League’s only Class A referee today laughs. “Yung father ko kasi referee rin noon sa mga inter-barangay sa Valenzuela, Bulacan,” he reveals. “Mga uncles ko rin nagre-referee rin noon. Medyo maliit yung sukat natin plus the fact na nakalakihan natin nag-officiate yung father at uncles ko kaya na-engaño ako sa paging referee.”

Luis “Tito” Varela who spent a tour of duty with the famed Crispa Redmanizers is more familiar to today’s hoop fans as a referee and as an official of Caloocan. “Pagkatapos ma-kantyawan ng Toyota fans, lahat ng teams sa PBA, kahit dating teammate nagre-reklamo,” says ex-pro with a hearty laugh. “Parang walang kadala-dala! Pero interesting and kakaiba yung mag-ref.”

Not to mention it being a high-pressure job. League Technical Group Manager Perry Martinez (who played alongside Chot Reyes and Jojo Lastimosa for the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the early 80s) is always on top of every play and training. “Teams spend millions every year to play in this league. The least we can do is call the games in the best manner possible,” stresses the Martinez. “But referees are human too and can make mistakes in spite of all preparations and trainings.”

Boy Cruz recalls one game where a non-call cost one team the game. In the dying seconds of a tough and close match between Sta. Lucia and Shell, the Realtor’s high-flying swingman Kenneth Duremdes went up for a jumpshot only to be met by the Turbochargers’ Tony De La Cruz. De La Cruz’ intention was to block the shot except he hacked Duremdes causing the shot to go awry. No whistle. Game over. Shell escaped through the eye of a needle.

Almost immediately, irate players and team officials swarmed all over Cruz who tried to remain unperturbed but was sweating profusely. “Naka-align ako pero hindi ko nakita yung sitwasyon,” expounded Cruz who winced at the memory. “But alam ko na may foul.” He couldn’t sleep that night. Couldn’t eat. In fact, it took him months to get over the boner. “You just have to let go,” he added.

PBA referees are screened ever so tightly. From educational attainment right down to credit history. Working in conjunction with the National Bureau of Investigation, PBA referee applicants are screened and scrutinized much more tightly than a contestant for American Idol. They aren’t allowed to even have a favorite team. “Para pantay-pantay ang tingin,” illustrates Martinez about objectivity.

“Integrity,” points out Boy Cruz. “Is all you have. Diyan nakasalalay ang buhay at pangalan mo. Kaya yung sinasabi nila na benta yung laro… hindi pwede yun sa amin. Paano na kapag nasira ka? Saan ka pupulutin”

With game days on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, PBA referees undergo workouts on Tuesdays with lots of film viewing. Every play is dissected: good calls, bad calls, even positioning during the game is important. Thursdays are reserved for further workouts. Saturdays are their days off when there’s no out of town game. Last April 23, Cruz and his wife Raquel celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary at a PBA game. “Nakasanayan na niya yung basketball,” chuckles Cruz. “Eh, di doon na kami nag-date.”

But officiating has been good for the Cruzes. Through his hard work and dedication, he has managed to put his children through school. He wants and needs nothing outside his family’s simple home comforts. Incredibly, his children have gained instant notoriety because of their dad’s profession. Instead of being asked to join in pick-up games, they’re asked to ref the game!

“Nakakatawa,” beams the leanly-built Cruz. “Most people go to a game to watch their idols or family playing. I go to watch the referees.”

To be a referee in the PBA is tough. You have to be tough. Maybe a little crazy. But sometimes all it takes is to be a chip off the old block.

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