Finally, PBA documentary opens

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - August 2, 2015 - 10:00am

On Aug. 12, at long last, the full-length feature documentary “PBA: A Nation’s Passion” will be screening at all SM Cinemas nationwide. Fifty-one cinemas will be the platform for the public to hear firsthand the oral history of Asia’s first professional league, from many of the men who helped mold the sport’s history itself. It was a long, intense labor of love for the PBA, this writer and Caelestis Productions, but the final cut was all worth it. It is a rare privilege to be able to honor the men who steered the course of our favorite sport for the last four decades and more.

It is a humbling experience to be allowed to document the dramatic story of a league that started as a rebellion, and has become such an integral part of daily Filipino life. During the course of production, we walked the corridors of power in the business world at one end, and spoke with our differently-abled brothers who have been inspired to play basketball on wheelchairs by the PBA at the other. In a brief 90-minute period, the entire spectrum of Philippine society will be represented. And, unusual for an international project of this size, we made sure every significant person interviewed appeared in the film at least once. All in all, there are 76 different voices that will be heard throughout the documentary. Some of the interviews were two hours long, with the subjects appearances distilled into seconds in the final cut.

When production first started early in 2014, we ran at a frenetic pace, doing no less than two interviews a day for over a month. In fact, it took 12 transcriptionists three weeks to set all the words down on paper from just that first batch, and it took this writer more than a month to draft the first version of the script. Unfortunately, since it was written by a basketball fan, the script was five hours long, definitely beyond the length for public consumption. It was a painful experience to trim that original piece of work down. It felt like cutting off the fingers of my child, but it had to be done. Ninety minutes is the prescribed length for international releases.

For the foreign audience, there is a brief introduction to the Philippines, and an explanation of how basketball got here. Ironically, Filipinos first thought hoops were a sport fit only for girls, and we had to establish that visually through archive photos. Luckily, we were also able to find film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first time basketball was played at that level. A couple of years after, the Manila Inter-Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) was born, a playground for wealthy company owners. Players held down day jobs, punched clocked, then reported for practice in the evenings. I can only imagine how hard – but also how much fun – that must have been.

There were, of course, some interviews that personally stood out for me. We were fortunate to get to sit down with Samboy Lim three weeks before he was struck down by illness, and he told the tale of the tough choice he had of joining the Philippine team or staying with Letran College to win more NCAA basketball championships. Coach Baby Dalupan, whose status in the basketball world is unassailable, talked to me about how, as early as his grade school playing years in the 1930’s, he realizes that he was not that good a player and that perhaps coaching would be his destined path. I actually had a moment of panic during that interview, worrying where I could find footage of basketball that far back. But for any basketball fan, Baby Dalupan always lights up the room. Of course, sitting in former senator Robert Jaworski’s living room and seeing a room full of trophies from beyond my time is also special. And we also got the first-ever on-camera interview with Danny Florencio, one of few players who suited up for both Crispa and Toyota.

Our small team took a whirlwind five-day trip to California, where we drove all over the state to hear stories from Sean Chambers, Francis Arnaiz, Abe King, Vince de Guzman, Naning Valenciano and Ricardo Brown, some of the men in the game I respect the most. Sean took two hours to tell the tale of how he came to the Philippines, and a special Alaska Milkmen promotional trip wherein, in his words, they would literally “shut down cities”. Abe King recounted how, as a very young player, he was asked to guard imports, who were mostly much NBA veterans and almost always much larger, prior to the institution of a height limit for foreign reinforcements. And of course, The Quick Brown Fox recalled how he wanted to play for the Philippine team, almost played for Crispa, and wound up with Great Taste Coffee, instead. And Vince gave one of my favorite quotes of all, “The PBA to the Filipino is like rice. It’s a staple in their lives. Rice.”

We also flew to Cebu to sit down with four-time league MVP Mon Fernandez. It rounds out the story to hear from players from the south like Mon and Manny Paner. And even though I can say I’ve been around the game for almost half a century, it is a thrill to hear the experiences of the men who have loved the game longer than I have.

One common thread that recurs throughout this experience is how these amazing gentlemen were inspired by the previous generation. Jimmy Alapag was inspired by players like Johnny Abarrientos, who in turn could not believe he would play against his own idol Hector Calma. Ranidel De Ocampo used to mimic Alvin Patrimonio, who himself was a chess player who was drawn to Purefoods by his childhood hero Mon Fernandez. Just recalling these stories again gives one goosebumps. Former Galerie Dominique team owner Nikki Coseteng revealed how she struggled to keep the team afloat during the economic crash of the 1980’s just to keep her father Emerson happy until he passed away from illness. Bones Floro talked in glowing terms about his grandfather Danny’s passion for the fans, and how it kept Crispa going through difficult times.

When this writer first approached PBA commissioner Chito Salud about a first-ever PBA documentary, it was simply to honor my own personal heroes, then players who pioneered the PBA of my childhood, and to record their experiences for history. In Salud’s own words “We’d better do this while all of them are still around.” I am so grateful that we did. This is something that I can leave behind for my children, something that shed light and understanding on the roots of our mad love for a tall, American game that we have made undeniably Filipino. It is a gift best shared.



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