PBA film: A gift of passion

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2015 - 10:00am

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, the full-length feature documentary “PBA: A Nation’s Passion” finally screens at all SM Cinemas nationwide. It has been a long-drawn creative process among the Philippine Basketball Association, this writer and Caelestis Productions. The last five years from conception to production have had their challenges, and it was a great feat of coordination with PBA Properties and all the personalities involved. Filming took place in Metro Manila and Cebu in the Philippines, and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Irvine in California over a very short period of time. Principal post-production was done in Boston. It is, in simple terms, a gift of passion.

As a journalist, I have been constrained by a certain code of ethics when broadcasting. It’s hard to talk about friendships and admiration. One is constantly thinking whether or not a personal bias would appear in the course of work, particularly if your closeness with someone is well-known. I began as a news- person, covering military, congress, Malacañang, police and sports beats, so our guiding principles have always been strict. But when dealing with something as iconic, familiar and entertaining as the PBA, your passion for both the game and people can’t be helped.

When we first got our feet wet filming “Pinoy Hoops” for the National Geographic Channel in 2010, it was very rewarding, though internally daunting due to stringent protocols needed to safeguard against legal entanglements. The final product yielded satisfying results: 12.8 million hits on Twitter the month it aired in 2013, an Asian Television Awards nomination in 2014, and favorable fan reviews. The three-part documentary on Filipinos’ illogical love for basketball is far from comprehensive (no treatise on the subject ever could be). But it was a significant seminal work.

For PBA, this writer asked for editorial freedom, with each cut of the film being personally approved by top PBA management. This writer also had to fill in some gaps in the history of basketball in the Philippines, since all the eyewitnesses I had interviewed almost three decades have passed on. Thankfully, then-commissioner Chito Salud saw the value of having not just a historical perspective, but one from the heart. That is what has fueled this project from the start. I proposed this five years ago primarily to honor my own personal heroes, many of whom I am fortunate to call friends; men who are, at the core, even better people than they were remarkable athletes. And that is a great compliment I’ve never kept to myself.

All told, “PBA: A Nation’s Passion” includes 74 of the 78 interviews conducted, current and former players, team owners, league pioneers, media, fans and those who have been around the game for decades. Traditionally, documentaries include only 30 to 50 percent of all interviews. The rest are either used as research material, or are considered anecdotal. But as I said to our post-production team, this is the Philippines, and this is basketball. They knew what I meant, and we retained as many interviews as humanly possible. What kept me up many nights was figuring out what was significant and unique from each interview. Many people told the same stories, some from even the same perspective. Each had to have something fresh to contribute.

To be honest, walking through the first 40 years of the PBA with all these people gave me an indescribable thrill. People who know me know that I don’t take photos with the people I interview, and that includes presidents, foreign dignitaries, Olympians, celebrities, and of course, the greatest athletes in the world. But for this project, I was a kid in a candy store. This opportunity may never come again. You never know what the future will bring. In fact, my first draft of the script was five hours long just to include whatever I could. Trimming it was agonizing. It was like amputating the limbs of your child. But at the end of the day, you have to find a point when you can say this is enough and balances the stories out.

There are interviews that, for me, are indelible, though the audience will only see painfully short fragments of them. Sitting in Baby Dalupan’s living room sent electricity down my spine. I was a Crispa fan long before I became a journalist. The love and admiration that people have for him is so genuine. We were also fortunate to interview Samboy Lim mere weeks before he was struck down by a stroke. His message of humility and determination will always inspire me. The simple yet incisive thinking of Danny Florencio was also striking. We hold the distinction of being the first to ever interview this all-time great on-camera, which I found surprising in itself. And I can never get enough of listening to Tim Cone’s love and respect for the game. 

Some of the interviewees were overcome with emotion and broke into tears during our interviews with them. Sean Chambers, now an educator who has changed the lives of hundreds of middle-school children in Sacramento, still can’t help but get teary-eyed talking about his memories of playing in the PBA. Johnny Abarrientos shed tears describing how playing professionally turned his relationship with his father around. Alvin Patrimonio still tears up in gratitude for what the sport has done for him. These are just some of the warriors whose lives were forever changed by the PBA. I have had the best job in the world, seeing many of them unfold their greatness before our eyes. So many were enlightening and heartwarming: Robert Jaworski, Arwind Santos, Mark Caguioa, Jimmy Alapag, Benjie Paras, Hector Calma, Ricky Brown, Francis Arnaiz, Abe King, Nikki Coseteng, Danny Floro’s grandson Bones, and my elders in the profession Quinito Henson and Recah Trinidad among others. I learned so much. I wish I could show you everything to everybody.

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