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, August 28, 2006

A Lipa Faith

He looked beaten and tired. What began as a season of hope ended as his beloved Maroons took its eighth beating in 10 games (with two more games left to play) and was eliminated from Final Four contention in Season 69 of the UAAP. With the game less than a minute away from its merciful end, Joe Lipa trudged over to winning Adamson Coach Leo Austria to congratulate him. As he made his way back to the UP side of the court, he had that pained look on his face. He has a three-year plan to bring the title back to Diliman by 2008 but he never envisioned his team being laid so low.

Rewind to December of 1998 when Da Nose was introduced as the Blue Eagles’ new coach during the Grand Alumni Homecoming at the high school covered courts. I felt that it was as if Ateneo had won another championship. Such was my belief (and that of many Ateneans) in the man’s capabilities. Sure he had a very good team that was on the rise (Rico Villanueva, Wesley Gonzales, Ryan Pamintuan, and Rich Alvarez) but Coach was going to elevate the team and lead them out of the doldrums of the 90s. And he led them to three straight Final Four appearances before he fell short of the title in 2001. Today, outside of La Salle and FEU, Ateneo has made the UAAP Final Four every year since.

As a freshman in Ateneo, in 1986, I watched Joe lead his Maroons to their first title in a generation with Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, and Eric Altamirano in tow. I also watched his Philips Sardine Makers (behind Jun Reyes and Paras) beat Magnolia (with Dindo Pumaren and Nelson Asaytono) for a PABL title in 1988. Then I saw him follow Ron Jacobs as coach of the national team and later mentor Shell in the PBA.

Wherever he went, his players swore by him (and I’m sure at him as well). Yet there was no denying that he got results. The Blue Eagles’ 3rd UAAP title in 2002 and 18th dating back to their NCAA days was every bit his as was Joel Banal’s.

It wasn’t so much as his success that fascinated me. He was Yogi Berra-like with his malapropisms and witticisms that made his coaching stints every bit as memorable. During one game in that historic 1986 championship run, he called for a high-low play for Paras and Magsanoc that he dubbed as the “Batman and Robin” play. When he was asked by swingman Duane Salvaterra about options should the play go awry, Lipa said without skipping a beat that they could always pass the ball to “Alfred.” The confused UP players wondered who “Alfred” was. Lipa then saw the look on their faces and pointed to “Alfred” or Joey Guanio who would be waiting in the wings on the weak side. The team broke out in laughter. In another timeout this time during a tight and intense Ateneo-UST game, he called for a better effort on the double team on Tigers’ center Alwin Espiritu. He asked who was helping out on defense from the top. Guard Andrew Cruz replied, “Paul (Tanchi) and me.” Lipa said, “Okey, Paul and me, this is what you do.” The team cracked up as coach continued with his instructions. After leaving Ateneo, lo and behold, he became the head of the UAAP’s officiating which is ironic since he’s had one too many tussles with the zebras over the years. Said the ever loquacious coach about the task at hand, “If you can’t beat them, coach them.”

When he went back to UP for his third go-around with his alma mater, I figured that he would turn things around for his squad. While he looks leaner that doesn’t mean he has been no less as fiery and bombastic. His famous “pongalalas” have made their return to the sideline. This season’s results notwithstanding, he has the foundation for a great team with some terrific rookies who should get better with more experience. He has seen what needs to be addressed and will surely make adjustments. That he landed rookies Migs De Asis and Martin Reyes out of De La Salle Zobel is no big surprise; he’s always loved his three-point shooters (Magsanoc, Altamirano, and Guanio with UP and Rainier Sison, Magnum Membrere, and Larry Fonacier with Ateneo, and he’s done wonders for Ren Ren Ritualo over at Fed Ex in the PBA). He’ll eventually land his big fella so they’ll dust off the Batman and Robin play.

His team may be in the cellar, but I don’t imagine they’ll be there for long. If you’re wondering if he’s lost his magic or he’s too old school, let me just say from someone from the other side of Katipunan (from Ateneo) that I’ve heard that said about him once to often to see that he’s always bounced back. His team’s freefall may very well fuel that drive back to the top in the years to come.

All you need is a leap of faith.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Pacman Country

Pacman Country
by rick olivares

Manny Pacquiao owns the Philippines. Okay, he doesn’t but he certainly has the country in the palm of his hand.

If you traverse the length of Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare, you’d think there’s an election going on. There are no less than six huge billboards of that now famous mustachioed mug eating fried chicken, crooning on a microphone, promoting a famous beer brand, available for downloading on your mobile phone as wallpaper, and being congratulated for dispatching his latest Mexican foil. Outside the sprawling Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Philippine Army based in Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila, there’s a billboard of a Philippine soldier in a snappy salute pose. “Para sa ‘yo ang buhay ko,” (“I will lay down my life for you.”) the slogan reassures of the military’s commitment to the defense of the Filipino and his way of life; a direct lift from Pacquiao’s chart-topping single that was on the airwaves more than the Pussycat Dolls, the current pop sensations of whose beauteous lead singer is of Filipino descent.

In a country that worships its silver screen idols, Manny is the star people from all walks of life pay to watch. This young and skinny kid born to extreme poverty now has the country’s top conglomerates at his beck and call. As of this writing, Manny endorses 10 different products. Industry insiders say that any talk about endorsements begins at a minimum of PhP 10 million pesos or US$200 thousand. San Miguel Corporation, one of Asia’s biggest food and beverage conglomerates reportedly snared Pacquiao for an undisclosed amount of millions (the word is it amounts to PhP 20 million pesos or US$400 thousand -- a whole lot more than was offered the late Fernando Poe, Jr, the King of Philippine Movies). McDonald’s likewise snared the Pacman to another megabucks long-term deal. Said an executive of the fast food giant who refused to be identified, “We choose Manny because he’s an “icon” in the country. He is that Filipino everyman who has defied the odds and won.” In fact, McDonald’s campaign has since come out a winner; sales have jumped up tremendously and have made significant inroads in the shares of industry leader and business rival Jollibee Foods Corporation.

The Philippines’ has always excelled in the international sporting arena. In billiards, perhaps no country has as many successful and popular cue magicians as the Philippines. It has Efren Reyes, Django Bustamante, Amang Parica, and Alex Pagulayan to name but a few. In bowling, it has Paeng Nepomuceno and CJ Suarez. In chess, it has Grandmasters Eugene Torre, Rosendo Balinas, Jr. and the young turk currently making waves, Mark Paragua. In basketball, the Philippines’ most popular sport, the country has embarked on an ambitious campaign to regain lost glory (back when it was a world power from the 1950’s to ‘70’s) with a team powered by Filipinos of mixed nationalities.

As much as basketball is considered as the national pastime, no sport unties the country like boxing. It is the one true sport that literally stops the traffic and leaves its crowded urban jungles a ghost town when one of its boxers has a match. The second Erik Morales-Manny Pacquiao fight dubbed “the Battle II,” was the single biggest moment in the history of Philippine sports. Bigger than all the local basketball rivalries and the Thrilla In Manila back in October of 1975 when Muhammad Ali knocked out Joe Frazier in one of the greatest boxing matches in history. The Battle II broke all local television viewing records with 58.2 rating (that tallied up to 2 million households) for a 77.8 share of the market and a 30.6 rating and 8.4 market share on cable TV. Thirty-two cinemas in malls over the country carried the live feed and played to packed audiences. Business establishments, hotels, bars and restaurants were likewise tuned in to the fight. And when the final bell rang and ringside announcer Michael Buffer announced Pacquiao as the winner, the celebration spilled into the streets in a frenzy unseen before. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets for Pacquiao’s victorious homecoming parade. Politicians surrounded him at all times aware of the valuable photo opportunities of standing side-by-side with the People’s Champion. Every form of mass media in the country featured his victory over Morales. Every single morsel of information about Manny whether rumors of an illicit affair, his penchant for karaoke bars, or his reputation as a Mexican Legend Killer (with wins over icons Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera and a superb knockdown of Juan Manuel Marquez that ended in a controversial draw) was news. And the national partying that followed lasted for more than a week.

No Filipino boxer or athlete has bridged international borders the way Pacquiao has (as much as Gabriel “Flash” Elorde was an international champion, he didn’t live in the age of information technology). In fact, if you were to google Pacquiao, you’ll find more than half-a-million entries or results to his name.

Manny Pacquiao is the Philippines’ version Rocky Balboa. Only his is a story more striking and real than anything fictional; a real rags to riches story that has made him the first Filipino to truly be a cross-cultural phenomenon.

The story of this 130-pound man who carries the weight and expectations of 82 million people is best defined in three places: the streets of General Santos City, an overcrowded boat to Manila, and a dingy old gym.

Street Fighter
General Santos City in the southern Philippines has been re-named Manny Pacquiao City. Okay. It hasn’t been re-named and it still is known as General Santos City. Prior to being known around the world as the hometown of Manny Pacquiao, the claim to fame of this beautiful coastal town is being the Tuna Capital of the country and the hometown too of the Bad Boy from Dadiangas – as Gen. Santos was formerly known – Rolando Navarette himself a former world boxing champion.

It was in these city streets where Manny’s firm resolve to rise above his misery took form.

Miserable in fact was an understatement. Manny wasn’t even born yet when the odds were already stacked against him. His mother Dionisia and her two children were left by her first husband for another woman. A few years later, she remarried this time to Rosalio Pacquiao to whom she would have four more children with (of which Manny was the second). They were lucky to eat two meals a day which usually consisted of a native rice meal called “lugaw.” Despite being bright at school there simply wasn’t enough money to see Manny and the rest of the kids to secondary school. Manny almost didn’t march during his graduation from elementary school because they couldn’t afford to buy a graduation uniform. In order to make ends meet, Dionisia and her children had to sell bread, rice cakes, cellophane, peanuts, and doughnuts. Manny, barely into his teens worked too as a waiter to augment their meager earnings.

It was at the age of 13 when Manny discovered boxing. “There wasn’t much to do during our spare time,” recounted Manny. “But the one popular activity in our neighborhood was boxing.” There wasn’t enough money to go around purchasing proper gloves or shoes, so the combatants would wrap towels around their fists and fight barefoot.

“Manny was a natural,” said childhood friend and longtime trainer Buboy Fernandez. “He took to the sport like a duck to water. Even then he had that mean left hand. He would even beat boys who were older than him. I don’t recall him ever losing a fight back then.”

“At first, I wondered why Manny would get up from bed real early,” recounted Dionisia of those early morning jogging sessions. “He became secretive because he knew that I would disapprove.” Dionisia didn’t think her son’s fascination to the sport would amount to anything so she thought that the time was better off spent trying to earn a living.

But it was too late. As much as Dionisia tried to dissuade him from becoming a boxer, the young man who had known hardship all his life knew that his best chance out of the mean streets of nowheresville was through boxing.

Like a Moth to a Flame
Manny Pacquiao took one last look at his beloved General Santos City that was quickly disappearing in the horizon then turned the opposite way. His heart and mind were awash in a sea of tortured emotions.

Not too long ago, his mother found out that his father who was working in a farm in another village now had another family. The whole family was devastated; more so with his mother who was now struck twice by a lightning of the unluckiest kind. Now at 16 years old, Manny felt all the more convinced that if he were to get ahead in the world, his fortunes lay in that glittering city of hopes and dreams for millions of Filipinos… Manila.

For many of the 83 million Filipinos, Manila is like New York. It is where dreams are fulfilled and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, and if you make it there, you can just about go anywhere else in the world. Not only is it the country’s capital but it is also the hub of business and politics, culture and the arts, and athletics and the sciences. The grandeur and allure of Manila ensures a steady pilgrimage of the hopeful and the hopeless from the provinces.

“I told myself that going to Manila was not only going to help further my boxing career,” explained Pacquiao who bristled at the painful memory of those formative years. While talking about past is generally taboo, Pacquiao keeps it close to his heart for it is what fuels his desire to achieve and succeed. “But it was also going to help me cope better with the pain of my parents’ separation.”

The moment he stepped on board that crowded passenger ship as a stowaway with nary a peso in his pockets he knew that there was no going back. Manny knew that it was the only way if he wanted to make good on his dreams.

“The boat was crowded,” remembered Pacquiao. “But you could see in everyone’s faces that the great adventure was about to begin. It was exciting and at the same time… frightening.”

Million Dollar Baby
Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club on the 2nd floor of a two-story building in Vine Street at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is just one of Tinseltown’s many attractions. When one of Roach’s fighters is in session, tourists, well-wishers, and media-types pack the small gym that after a while with all the sweating bodies it’s hard to tell the boxer from the visitor. It is here where Pacquiao now trains under the close supervision of Roach, a one-time featherweight boxer himself. Those who know Manny will say that Pacquiao is like a wild stallion that isn’t easily cowed by anyone; he worships Roach for his intelligence and for molding him into a polished and feared fighter.

In stark contrast, the Lainez-Mondejar (L&M) Gym in Sampaloc, Manila is that stereotypical dive of a boxing gym unlike the new jack clubs where the sport has become a means to workout. The dingy gym located in the heart of Manila’s squalor has that rank smell of leather, sweat, piss, and stuffy air to it that it’s hard to believe that it has nurtured some of the best fighters to come out of the country. It is here where Manny Pacquiao took his first steps in his journey to glory. “I want to become a boxer,” he meekly told the man behind the desk. Rod Nazario who was operating that gym then and would later manage Pacquiao thought that the skinny kid with a provincial accent was a joke. “Does your mother know you’re here? Go home,” said Nazario who can only chuckle at his gruff dismissal and chance first encounter with the lad who would one day be the face and future of Philippine boxing. “But who knew what was to come, eh?”

Although he left the gym, Pacquiao was unwavering in his desire to become a boxer. He found a job as a construction worker for Polding Correa who aside from being a building contractor ran his own stable of young and up-and-coming boxers. Just as it was back home in General Santos City, Pacquiao had to hold two jobs with his other income from selling cigarettes in the streets. The big difference this time around was that he knew he was close to fulfilling his dream. He did make it back to L&M Gym where he trained on his way to a sterling amateur record of 60-4.

In January 22, 1995, Manny returned to the south for his first professional fight. He outpointed Edmund Ignacio in a four-round match for his first win. He would string up nine more wins before falling to Rustico Torrecampo in a fight that he came ill-prepared for. The loss was jarring but it served notice that the chips weren’t going to fall for him all the time – he had to work hard for it.

And he did.

The World on a String
Manny Pacquiao has compiled a sterling 42-3-2 record with 33 knockouts on his way to six world titles. He has come back to silence his critics by destroying some plenty tough Mexican boxing legends. While working in New York City, when my Mexican and Puerto Rican neighbors and officemates would find out my ethnicity, the first thing they’d say was “Manny Pacquiao!” accompanied by a thumbs up gesture. His bell-to-bell all-out action style has captivated audiences everywhere. The stale and plodding heavyweight division has given way to the lightweights where the action has been fast and furious. Nowadays, he’s mentioned as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

He’s lived months away from home and family in his quest for world titles and redemption. But for all his success and high living, Manny Pacquiao at 27 years of age still remembers his roots.

He still lives in General Santos although not in a ramshackle home. His palatial estate is like a tourist attraction periodically drawing people from all over whether he’s home or not. He has a foundation that sends poor children to school. He’s been a godsend to friends and family with his generosity. During his birthday, he throws a party where practically all the townsfolk show up. Not only are they in for a free treat but they get to be entertained by Pacquiao himself who’ll strap on a guitar and sing or wail away to a karaoke which is something he enjoys tremendously.

His success has single-handedly lifted the state of Philippine boxing to another level as well as the self-esteem of Filipinos all over the world. More and more Philippine fighters are being introduced in the world stage. Tony Aldeguer’s famed ALA Gym in Cebu recently signed a contract with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Productions to showcase the talents of fighters like Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista, Z Gorres, and Jimrex Jaca. All have given props to Manny whose mere presence has caused the spotlight to shine their way.

In a recent interview after outpointing another Mexican in Oscar Larios in a fight that surprisingly went the distance, Pacquiao declared his intention to retire in two years’ time. But before any serious talk of post-career plans, he fights one last time this year against Erik Morales this coming November 18 in what is the final chapter of this epic trilogy. After their first encounter, Morales dismissed any talks of a rematch as he claimed that Pacquiao was nowhere near his caliber. But the fight got underway and the great Mexican was knocked out for the first time in his hall-of-fame career. With all the pre-fight trash talk (Pacquiao says he’ll knock Morales into retirement while Morales claims he’ll force feed his erstwhile conqueror a fistful of leather down his throat). This early, the Philippines (as is Mexico) is girding for the mother of all battles.

His family is set for life. If anything, his last two years in boxing are just to cement his place in history of the sport although his last ring exploits could have a huge bearing on that. New athletic sensations with similar rags-to-riches stories are said to be the Manny Pacquiao of their sport. His face has launched dozens of advertising campaigns. At the peak of his career, his life has been adapted into film and his everyday life is tabloid fodder. There’s even talk of him running for the Vice Mayor of Manila (of which he will surely win in this country starved for heroes and star power).
Even when he retires it seems that great adventure he looked forward to in what seems a lifetime ago is just starting.

After all, he’s got the country in the palm of his hand.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The NFL (No Fun League)

Why do you watch the NFL?
Is it because of those spectacular touchdown catches?
Is it because of the fourth quarter drives that result in Hail Mary passes?
Or is it because of those leggy cheerleaders who supercharge you in ways that Gatorade can never dream of?

For me it’s all that and then some.

I live to see those touchdown celebrations. I live to see the spike. The slam dunk over the crossbar. I live to see a shuffle and when players launch themselves into the end zone with their arms stretched getting ready for that Sportscenter highlight. I live to see the Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Chad Johnson entertain fans with his creative celebrations. I loved it when putted the pigskin using the end zone pylon. I laughed out loud when he tried CPR on the ball. Did you see when he handed out a sackfull of autographed balls after a recept? How about proposing to a cheerleader after a great TD catch? Mondo hilarious, effendi!

I’ve seen Ickey Woods shuffle, Terrell Owens pose like Mr. Universe, Steve Smith perform calisthenics, and Joe Horn call his mom on his cellphone in the end zone after a TD! I’ve seen Deion Sanders high-step, Shannon Sharpe salute the crowd, and Robert Brooks jump into the stands in Green Bay. Yes, that Lambeau Leap. Invented by former safety Leroy Butler – yes, a defensive player who was the recipient of a lateral pass off a fumble recovery that lead to a 25-yard TD run -- it has become a tradition since the Packers’ return to respectability in the 90’s.

Sadly, all that might be a thing of the past now.

The No Fun League of Paul Tagliabue has just taken a huge dip in my coolometer. As part of the No Fun League’s new rules for 2006-06, they passed this moronic statute:
Individual players are prohibited from using foreign objects or the football while celebrating. They are also prohibited from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground. A celebration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate after a warning from an official.
In the name of sportsmanship they say. C’mon. That’s like outlawing the dunk in the NBA. Or taking away the post-goal celebrations in football. Nigeria’s Super Eagles have some of the funniest and most creative goal celebrations the world has ever seen.

It’s these acts that add color to the game. It’s a form of expression of joy with some creativity in it. A little display of emotion never hurt. If it’s construed to be in the vein of trash-talking then they best way to prevent Chad Johnson from making the highlight reel of the game is to have those safeties or LBs tackle him.

Get in with the program, you geriatric buffoons. You were young when Elvis shook the foundations of a staid music scene. Moptops and long-hair was how you responded to change.

To the fogies who run the NFL, if you think that the post-game dances slow down the game, then maybe you should cut down on those lengthy commercial breaks. Maybe you should take a look at the officiating – and this despite instant replay – which still sucks. All those false starts and holding calls slow the game to a crawl.

If the opposing team feels slighted that Chad Johnson has put one over them again they should be more upset that someone blew their man-to-man coverage somewheres. Or maybe their quarterback has the mobility of those party-poopers who just passed that rule so getting picked off for a TD return by a defensive player warrants a jig or some nifty routine.

A 15-yard penalty if someone celebrates? Ok. There’s a verbal warning first but nevertheless that sucks. Way too much, amigos!

Personally, I am a Denver Broncos fan but I enjoy watching the Bengals and now the Cowboys (because TO is now there if only to see what he will do when he gets to the end zone). I’d love to see the players get down with it after a score; not just to get up and walk away.

In the pre-season game between the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals the other day, as Chad Johnson was being interviewed about what he has in store for fans this coming season, teammate Kelly Washington scored on a 34-yard TD strike from Doug Johnson. Washington did a dance that Johnson described as “sweet.” So when pressed as to how he intends to deal with the ban on TD celebrations, he simply teased. “It’s a soap opera,” said Johnson now sporting a blond mohawk. “So you gotta join us for the whole year to find out.”

And so will the No Fun League officials led by Paul Tagliabue up in their skyboxes.

The NFL will be shown on Solar Sports this coming September.

Monday, August 14, 2006

All the World Is a Stage: The 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championships

To paraphrase the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, “all the world is a stage and we are merely players…”

And so the stage is set for basketball’s biggest event – the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Japan from August 19-September 3, 2006. 24 teams from every continent on the globe will be vying for basketball’s biggest prize. Teams will renew acquaintances or the hardcourt as there will be new rivalries. But perhaps the most perplexing question to this tournament concerns the US Men’s basketball team.

“The days of US dominance in basketball are past,” so declared Argentinean hoops star and San Antonio Spur Manu Ginobili as his Athens Olympic champs prepared for the FIBA World Basketball Champions in Japan slated to start in a week’s time.

It wasn’t too long ago when such a bold statement meant the person had a case of dementia or was in denial such as perhaps like 1992 Angolan Coach Victorino Cunha who said that the Americans played no defense (perhaps he was still in a daze after his team got shellacked 116-48).

Nowadays, you’ll perhaps get a sneer if you suggest that. In the former states that once comprised Yugoslavia, you’ll find arguably the best place for hoops outside continental USA.

The seeds of the evolution of the world game were sown in 1970 in the war room of the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks were then in the Western Division (as were the Chicago Bulls). Atlanta behind Butch Beard, Walt Bellamy, and Jim Davis finished first in their division but lost the conference finals to the Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. Seeking to address their scoring sock as they were rudely swept out of the play-offs by the Lakers, GM Marty Blake drafted the first foreigners ever in the NBA – Italy’s Dino Meneghin and Mexico’s Manuel Raga. Both players never suited up for the Hawks as the team couldn’t pay for the expensive transfer fees required to acquire them (it then cost $35 thousand dollars). It was an intriguing move, but it didn’t register in anyone’s radar screen until Munich.

While the Munich summer games will always be remembered for three things: 1) Nadia Comaneci, 2) the infamy of terrorist activity of Black September which forever changed the games and huge sporting competitions, and 3) the blatant rip-off job done on a US team. If any Russian tells you otherwise then chances are he hasn’t had a drop of vodka yet otherwise his loose tongue will admit to conspiracy theories and that Alexander Belov committed an offensive foul in those fateful final seconds. But the loss and Russia’s subsequent gold medal put things in motion.

Quinn Buckner was in high school when the USSR took that controversial gold medal. He vowed to himself that when he made the Olympic team, he’d take back what was rightfully America’s. And he did just that. In his last year with Indiana University, Buckner led the 32-0 Hoosiers not only to the NCAA title but also to the gold medal (against Canada) in the ’76 Montreal Olympics.

In 1984, Buckner’s IU mentor Robert Montgomery Knight coached arguably the finest amateur basketball team in history to the gold medal game. It wasn’t as sweet as he envisioned since the Russians boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in return for America sitting out the Moscow Games but a gold medal was still a gold medal. As Michael Jordan and company began to lift Knight for the traditional coach’s victory ride, Knight insisted, “Coach (Hank) Iba first!” Iba was the coach on the star-crossed ’72 team.

The return to glory was short lived for the Russians once more took the gold as US team that was bereft of any zone breaking outside shooting (once Bradley University’s Hersey Hawkins went down with an injury) finished with a bronze. It was an embarrassing finish for the US and with it the call went out for an all-pro team was sounded. Eight months after the Olympic debacle, FIBA voted to allow NBA players a chance to play in the outside their professional league.

It took the Dream Team (which had three players from the ’84 squad in its line-up) to reclaim supremacy and to put those upstart Euros in their place. But that team’s success likewise set the stage for disaster. Following Barcelona, more and more players migrated to America to show that they belonged on basketball’s biggest and grandest stage among these were Croatia’s Toni Kukoc (Chicago Bulls), Drazen Petrovic (Portland Trailblazers), and Dino Radja (Boston Celtics).

It seemed that all it took was to put a USA basketball uniform on NBA players and they’d roll over the opposition. But as it is, exposure and experience playing against and with the best players in the world elevated the game of Europeans and the South Americans. More and more foreigners were making huge strides and an impact in the NBA.

USA Basketball continued to send patch-work squads who didn’t have the time to prepare more so take the opposition seriously. Teams thought that their mere star power and athleticism would be enough to win the day. But against a better prepared rest-of-the-world, it was a recipe for disaster. The came the debacle in Athens and Indianapolis. The cloak of invincibility that the NBA players wore was now stripped clean. Russia since weakened by the break up of the Soviet states wasn’t now their rival. Serbia & Montenegro and Argentina both playing fundamentally sound basketball was whipping the US soundly. And more and more they were remaking NBA rosters and the game itself.

When the 2005-06 season opened, there were 82 international players from 38 countries in an NBA uniform. The rights to another 43 players were likewise held by different teams.

When the 2006 FIBA tournament unfolds this August 19, all eyes will be on the US team. Bannered by its class of 2003 in Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade, they’re out not only for redemption, but also what US Coach Mike Krzyzewski says would be “changing the way America looks at the basketball.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s great for the game that it isn’t so one-sided anymore. The stage is set for a battle royale between 24 countries and some 300+ plus players. Now it’s really what you can call a world championship.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Brian Viloria: the Natural

The kleg lights’ white heat was on and the cameras zoomed towards his cool and unperturbed face. A dozen more digicams of the personal kind were thrust in his way and the muzak droned in the background like a headache that refused to go away. As he made his way onto the floor, the shrieks got louder and the tall lanky man in his way who has been the show for years on end suddenly flashed a toothy grin and said, “Welcome to Eat Bulaga, Champ.”

After defeating Juan Antonio “El Jaguar” Aguirre, WBC Champ Brian Viloria quietly slipped into Manila as part of Solar Sports’ promotions of this highly-touted Fil-Am boxer. As much as Brian loves adobo, Jollibee, and tapsilog, he’s still perceived to be as American as apple pie, the NFL, and Limp Bizkit. Solar COO Peter Chanliong and VP for Sports Marketing Jude Turcuato figured that it would be a good for Brian to do the noon time and talk show circuit and go about town so that Filipinos would see him, recognize him, get to know him, and adopt him as one of their own (and hopefully in the vein of the Pacman). With the popularity of boxing and our new legion of ring gladiators at an all-time high, Brian who is an actual world champion is also at the forefront although left of center from the National Fist out of Gen San who is clearly in the man right now. He recognizes his celebrity but doesn’t revel in it. He’s more at home in front of a Playstation console and listening to music while lying down in bed. But he knows his duties and responsibilities and his heritage. “I am a product of both America and the Philippines,” he says to clarify any attempts to swing his national loyalties. “America raised me and has been good to my family, but my culture, heritage, and roots are from the Philippines.”

While walking around the tiangge capital of Manila (Greenhills), dozens of young students from nearby Xavier and ICA recognized him and greeted him. The people we came across had to do a double take and rub their eyes if it was truly Brian Viloria right in front of them: all 5’4” of him. “Nice going, champ,” said one man in a barong tagalong as he pumped Brian’s powerful fists. Another had her fist autographed and swore she would was her hand for the rest of the day. A motorcycle cop asked if Brian needed police escort (the Hawaiian Punch politely declined).

The Eat Bulaga stint for all its slapstick humor and penchant for fun and games hardly worried Solar’s executives. Brian has always had this ability to quickly adapt to sudden changes; a trait he’s learned in the ring. He joined the regular Bulagaan: sang, danced, clowned about, and handled himself at the mike quite well.

A day later at Mario’s in Timog, members of congress, sports personalities and media folks who were minding their own dinners were surprised to see that the young man tickling the keys was none other than the WBC Light Flyweight Champ himself!

During Pacman’s second go-around with El Terrible, Brian helped provide ringside commentary that was every bit as incisive and revealing showing a young man with many talents outside his chosen profession.

The Northern Michigan University Communications and Film student (he set aside his studies for his pro boxing career) who was the captain of his high school tennis team and who plays 14 different musical instruments would love nothing more than a career behind the cameras once he hangs up his gloves, but for now, he has set his sights on being a great boxer.

At 19-0, Viloria will put his title on the line for the second time this coming Friday (August 11) against Guadalajara-native Omar Nino Romero (23-2-1) who is currently in the midst of a four-win skein. The match will be Viloria’s first as the main event of his career when the Thursday Fight Night at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada gets underway. Should Brian successfully defend his title, he hopes to go up against Mexican icon Jorge Arce in what he describes will be a “mega-fight” (unless Arce moves up a weight class). But what could possibly happen before that is a confrontation with Thai boxer Wandee Singwancha who recently beat our very own Juanito Rubillar in a controversial decision.

But for now, it’s Viloria versus Romero. Brian has shown his devastating power especially in his savage knockouts of Sheldon Wile, Antonio Perez-Ontiveros, Ruben Contreras, and Eric Ortiz. His injured hand has healed. He’s game and excited about hitting the ring something that he took to “like a duck to water” as he described his love for the sweet science.

The kleg lights will burn and the cameras will roll this Friday as they will long after his career in boxing is over (thanks to his many natural and prodigious talents). When Brian Viloria comes home, welcome him back. It’s always nice to be treated to someone of such rare form.

The Viloria-Romero fight will be shown over Solar Sports/RPN9 Friday, August 11, 2006 at 10a.m.