We’ll always have basketball

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

My Dad, Luis Velasco Jr., was laid to rest yesterday. He passed away a mere four days past the second death anniversary of my mother, Lirio. He was 82. We had a dramatic, tempestuous relationship, which grew cold in later years. In all honesty, I can lay responsibility for this squarely at my own feet. But looking back, there were also many good memories, all coming back in sharp focus in my mind.

It’s funny how we sometimes feel we have nothing, but when we change filters and look for moments to be grateful for, we realize we’re wading in riches. On hindsight, I can say the same of my relationship with the man whose surname I will always carry with more meaning now.

I should have known from the start that our relationship would be unusual. After all, he married Mom when I was a skinny, sickly, hyperactive Caucasian seven-year old, and he was a 41-year old would-be lawyer working in the government. I was free-spirited, artistic, constantly seeking. He was raised by a strict, stoic father and a very intense, overbearing mother. Mom was tutoring me in both languages, and opening me to the world. I was the first grandchild of a generous, wealthy grandfather for whom I could do no wrong. He was trying to fit in with the same man who was his father-in-law.

Our relationship was a roiling sea. There were times he was amused with me, more times he wasn’t. His energy shifted after my brother Luis was born eight, and even more when my sister, Lizette came into the world four years later. He also endured quite a bit when I became a rebellious teenager trying to find his place in the world, especially when Mommy, oblivious to the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry, transferred me from La Salle Greenhills to Ateneo. All I can say now is man, that was a trip.

But the one thing we had in common was basketball. My love for the game started at age five, when my mother’s youngest brother started playing in community leagues and later Lourdes School Quezon City. Basketball was our haven, our Switzerland, a no-fight zone, where he always tried to educate me about the game, even when I was a professional broadcaster who had covered every major league in the Philippines. Thinking about that now makes me smile.

Daddy was a big Toyota fan. Loved Jaworski, and imbibed the belief that the concepts of “abilidad” and “diskarte” could take you anywhere. I adored Crispa, just worshipped them. There was a flow to their game that I found mesmerizing. I’ll never forget the nights I was allowed to stay up and watch PBA games in those early years, and Dad was fidgeting and jerking all over his armchair, as if jolts of electricity were zapping through his rear. His eyes were aflame, his voice loud and passionate, every bad call a crime worthy of beheading.

I was sold. Basketball was it for me.

As I entered high school, I became more aware of the NBA. We hung up a wooden backboard and rim in the garage, and I was Julius Erving, complete with his bright red Sixers jersey. I know, wrong color, wrong everything. But I didn’t care. In my mind, I hit the game-winning acrobatic dunk to seal Game 7 of the Finals, over the outstretched arms of a menacing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, my chosen bogeyman.

But the 1983 Sixers triumph would be my only nirvana. Dad and I started watching the Lakers-Celtics rivalry unfold, to the surprise and frightened tears of my little siblings, who couldn’t fathom what all the shouting was about. But this time, we ganged up on Mom, who was a devout Celtic fan and probably thought of carving us up with a kitchen knife when Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale lost and we gloated. She would have probably asked me to introduce her to Bird and McHale when they were here recently. Later on, my brother and I would play in the garage and patio, never mind that one floor was a step higher than the other. He was a miniature Ricardo Brown with the jumpshot I coveted. It would not be until 2002 before we joined forces in a championship team in our alumni league.

Gradually, the divide between me and Dad grew. I found my biological father when I was 23, but that didn’t work out either. I guess it hurt him that I still needed to search even though he was already around. I understand that now. I was becoming my own person, starting my own family, forging my own strong opinions. But we managed to lay down our arms when basketball and sports in general were involved. I remember his eyes glinted with unspoken pride when I had the privilege of covering the PBA over 20 years ago. Men of his generation didn’t gush. Of course, he couldn’t resist giving me a piece of his mind, especially when he strongly disagreed with Joe Cantada. Later on, it was Ginebra that he allotted his allegiance to, riding on every exploit of Jaworski, Rudy Distrito, Billy Ray Bates, Michael Hackett and the rest of those rowdy rebels. He would fall silent, then explode off his seat with every big play. I sometimes found myself watching him instead of the game.

Even very late in life, Dad took care of himself, with a simple but incredibly consistent regimen. When time and distance kept him from playing pelota, he would just do his walling against the garage, keeping a steady rhythm until he was drenched in sweat. Or he would spend a few minutes stretching, swinging his arms around, then head out for a daily jog. I hardly remember a day when he didn’t exercise. 

He loved consistency and stability in his daily life. I gave him a pair of basketball shoes in 1996. When he wore them out, he resoled them, twice. Until his passing, he still had the cap I gave him from the first season of the MBA. He would look at the front page of the newspaper for a moment, seeing what new bad news had befallen the world. Then, like a student cheating on a book review, he would flip to the back, the sports page of The STAR. There was always good news for him here. As fate would have it, he would eventually find me here, too, and was rarely reserved about his opinions on my writing. We had some lively discussions, which often ended with me agreeing to disagree.

Death brings its own blessings which are sometimes hard to see. Dad is at peace and with Mom now, and his passing left me the gift of resolving the issues which I cultivated when he was around. And though now I will not be able to thank him personally for all these rediscovered memories, I choose to believe that he is in a place where explanations no longer matter, and only understanding and healing reign.

Besides, we’ll always have basketball. Enjoy the games Dad, until we meet again. You’ve got the best seat in the house.

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