The farewells of 2016

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 31, 2016 - 12:00am

This year, the Philippines experienced so many highs and lows in sports, as if events were all amplified, as if we were all searching for greater meaning even in the most regular things. To say it was a turbulent year is an understatement. Emotionally, we have been left drained and aching from both happiness and sadness, purged of whatever excesses of energy we may have had left.

While the rash of celebrity deaths has seemed overwhelming, the toll on sports has been equally heavy. Perhaps it is also a signal of transition, as more and more of the human touchstones of our sports history from the 1970’s and 1980’s are starting to leave us, and remind us that only their achievements may remain immortal, as long as there is someone to remember them. Over the past 12 months, we have made such great strides in sports, but have also lost so many brilliant, irreplaceable minds.

This year, we lost Baby Dalupan, perhaps the greatest basketball coach we’ve seen thus far in our sports history. His passion for coaching started in the 1930’s, when an early epiphany put him on the path to coaching. He bridged the gap between our Olympic involvement, the MICAA and the formative years of the PBA. He won everywhere he went. Even more significantly, he was loved everywhere he won, by friend and foe alike. He knew talent when he saw, shored up frailty when it was needed, and made winners out of everybody he touched.

2016 also claimed the life of Ronnie Nathanielsz, who was equally colorful and far more controversial. Ronnie first came to the Philippines in the early 1960’s and never intended to stay, but then never left. He had a mouth that ran like a forest fire, but after that first blush, if you listened closely, you would find a fire that burned brighter than anyone else’s. He was the player who refused to stay on the bench, and would find a place to say what he wanted to say, because he believed it was always important. He was already warned against the rigors of travel in his frail state, but again, he let the chips fall where they may. He just loved the Philippines, sports, boxing and Manny Pacquiao that much. The risks be damned.

Sports broadcasting also lost Emy Arcilla and Benjie Castro. Emy was one of the broadcast pioneers of the PBA who didn’t mind learning on the job and making his own mistakes so everyone could learn from them. He attacked the job with a happy demeanor that some younger broadcasters have translated into their own casualness and lack of respect for the profession. He was known as a fine, dignified, humorous host and public relations practitioner. But for those of us who grew up with the PBA, he and Dick Ildefonso will also be our inseparable guides to its nascent years. Benjie, for his part, stayed the course, kept the classical broadcast mien, and was one of those who took the time to impart his knowledge on young whippersnappers (if they still use that word) like yours truly. His older brother, the late Angelo Castro Jr. was my boss, and I learned much from both of them.

Hermie Rivera was one of my first friends in broadcasting. He told stories in the way that gentlemen used to speak in the days before I was born. He knew the measure of a word, and did not throw them around recklessly like too many broadcasters do today. Superlatives meant something, and were used only on reference to those who truly deserved it. And expletives were kept in reserved, like a knockout punch. It’s funny how sometimes, you only realize how much someone contributed to your life when you haven’t been around them for a while. After Hermie had left the country, my contact with him was limited to social media, and he was my alarm, calling my attention to issues he railed against. He was a knight in service of Philippine boxing, and I wish I had spent more time with him.

Though today, words like “hero” and “legend” are thrown around like used candy wrappers, there have been men who lived up to those words’ lofty meanings, men whose accomplishments were indeed mythic. Caloy Loyzaga lived up to those standards. When what you have done has not been equaled beyond your lifetime, then that means something. When others say they attained greatness because they stood on the shoulders of giants and they are talking about you, that speaks volumes. When you lead a team to a level that no other squad on the continent has reached in more than half a century, your memory is not to be trifled with. Caloy Loyzaga symbolized an era in basketball when players were truly intrepid adventurers going off to battle, with mostly their wits and experience as their only weapons. He contributed greatness and luster to a sport that was only starting to grow in this country.

It is hard to consider that we will never be able to mine these friends’ thoughts, passion, experience and wisdom. In the case of Ronnie and Hermie, I hope their unfinished books are somehow completed and published. But let us also be thankful for their having passed through our lives and changing how we think, what we know, and how we love our sports. Then, their meaning as gifts to us will continue to endure.

May we discover more of the people around us as blessings in 2017. Happy New Year.

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