Farewell, Ronnie

TINAGSIP - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

It is the irreversible end of an era in Philippine sports. With the passing of my old friend and colleague Ronnie Nathanielsz, we have lost a bridge to the richness of the glorious days of Philippine sports. Ronnie encompassed the time of Flash Elorde and Muhammad Ali to Manny Pacquiao. He connected Joe Cantada and today’s generation of sports broadcasters. He told tales of sports gods from firsthand experience not hearsay, and we sat around like kindergarteners feeding on a bedtime fantasy. He was colorful, controversial, disliked by many, loved by more. But he was someone you wanted in your corner, because he always told his truth, unburdened by the crippling Filipino weakness of trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Above all, he was a fighter.

I had known Ronnie for almost 30 years, and we first worked together in the early 1990’s at Vintage Enterprises, covering the PBA games. At least I was. Just a few years removed from the EDSA revolution, Ronnie was still too hot a personality to be put on camera. He could be polarizing, opinionated, blunt. However, there were no layers to peel away. You knew where you stood with Ronnie, and therefore, you avoid doing something about it. He always had something to say, and he would say it to your face, not behind your back. For this, he paid the price of having many people dislike him while simultaneously being envious of the power he had in sports. People reacted to his views, because he said what many of us merely thought. He never held back, whether it was his opinion, his experience, his wisdom or his love for those of us he worked with.

And now he is gone.

We worked together again in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Strangely, it was the first Olympic coverage for both of us. He was his usual acerbic self, animated, funny, a kid in a candy store. He introduced me to Teofilo Stevenson, the Cuban heavyweight who won three Olympic gold medals in boxing, and would have beaten Ali, Frazier and even Foreman, had he not been in a communist country. Ronnie admired the steadfastness, a trait he possessed to an extreme degree. He was loyal to the Marcos family even when it was outright dangerous to be. He loved Jaworski and Ginebra, even when they were losing year upon year. If he was your friend, there was no taking that back. You were in it together. He closed the door behind him and threw away the key. And you never realized what a privilege that was. I certainly didn’t.

In 2005, Ronnie called me from out of the blue, commending me on a piece I had written criticizing the padlocking of the offices of the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) over misinformation regarding a meaningless tournament the Philippine team had joined. He said, “You’re smarter than I thought.” I found it mildly insulting, and later revised my opinion, realizing he meant that I was more courageous than he expected. As a consequence, we were both banned from the television coverage of the succeeding Southeast Asian Games in Manila, a punishment that still stings me to this day, but the type of reaction that Ronnie lived with all the time. It was the price for speaking his truth, and he was never afraid to pay it. Beyond that, also as a print journalist, Ronnie went to the games anyway, particularly determined to see if he would be ejected from the games venues, as well. He never backed down from anyone.

A decade ago, we were covering a Michael Katsidis fight in Cebu, with AJ Banal in a title eliminator on the undercard. Ronnie suddenly grew pensive, almost sad. I asked him what was wrong. He gave a small smile and said he remembered covering a Flash Elorde fight in that same venue in 1962. He muttered that he missed those days, and he never muttered. Perhaps he missed all the people he had lost. He was writing his memoirs on 50 years in the Philippines when he died.

Though he had been silently battling cancer for years, he never showed it. But I realized something was wrong in February of 2015. We were covering a Pinoy Pride event in Davao. I was partnered with now-Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol. Our dressing room was at the top of two long flights of stairs. Ronnie went up for our pre-production meeting, then went down to talk to the boxers. He never made it back up those stairs. His body could no longer handle it. Earlier this year, he was advised by his doctor not to travel, particularly to the Donnie Nietes title defense in Bacolod. Frankly, I missed his wit. He was like a shot of black coffee, a little bitter to the taste, but strong enough to make you alert to the world around you. Ronnie often spoke about his father, and how he admired him despite some resentment. He was trying to make peace with his life, but never by compromising his beliefs. He was a very un-Filipino Filipino, and I pray a little of that courage rubs off on more of us.

Like the immortal Howard Cosell, Ronnie was a prodigious writer, and this got him into trouble with his editors at another newspaper. He had a lot to say, and demanded space to say it. He tirelessly fought for what he believed was right, regardless of who was committing the sins against his principles: employers, colleagues, friends. His values were cast in stone. Wrong was wrong. There was no compromise. If you messed up, he would call you out on it. And heaven help you if you were messing up on purpose, or had a malevolent agenda. You’d have a fight on your hands.

In an interview for a magazine, I once said Ronnie made people uncomfortable. But so does growth. He made us see things we refused to look at, acknowledge when the system was broken, and he would take the hit for us. The first one through the wall always gets bloodied, the saying goes. That was Ronnie. He lifted our sensibilities and cut through the lies we tell ourselves. And now, we no longer have that voice, that polished, well-educated, sage voice, telling us we have to step forward and join the fray, to make things better for the Filipino race. He took the slings and arrows for us. Now, we have to grow up, and face them ourselves. We have to take a stand.

God bless you, old friend. And thank you.

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