52: Meaning and purpose
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 7, 2017 - 12:00am

“It’s true what they say: the greater the adversity, the greater the accomplishment. And for me, whether it’s the size of the waves or stepping into the unknown, that’s where I want to be.” – Ian Walsh, big wave surfer

I usually write reflective pieces on my birthday, primarily to honor my mother Lirio, who passed away in 2011 due to a condition that really had no cure. She kept the family together and I loved her more than anything. Truth be told, the past year has been filled with all sorts of endings and beginnings, and it can be quite scary. It reminds one of all the athletes who face the end of their careers due to age or injury, as they teeter on the precipice of the unknown next chapter of their lives, too old to play at the same level, but still young enough to become something new altogether. We all ask the same question: what is my purpose?

Purpose has always been an elusive concept. I came to grips with the fact that my biological father John Schöen was never going to be an integral part of my life, and not just because his life was in the US and mine was in the Philippines. It was due to the fact that he did not really want to be part of my life to begin with. I was an unwanted inconvenience which his parents never knew about. So I concluded that he had served his purpose in my life as a donor of genetic material, and that was it. I last saw him in 1989; he had moved since then without leaving a forwarding address. When my mother passed away, I searched for him, and found his phone number in California. He hung up on me. Ironic, since I gave up my basketball career to search for him.

There are instances in our lives when we feel much like a young Kobe Bryant, aching to get off the bench, knowing in his heart that he could already be better than anyone out on the floor, whether that was true or not. Sometimes, you’re on a team that doesn’t need you or doesn’t realize that it does. Sometimes, things are already okay, so change is unnecessary. But when things are merely “okay”, they really aren’t, are they? Sometimes we see it when nobody else does, and it hurts to be the only one.

Sports metaphors abound in our lives, and pardon me for using a few trite ones today. We seek purpose as part of belonging. Are you a starter or a sub? Does the role you want to play agree with what you’re really capable of? I always think about Rey Evangelista, who made a living out of his left-handed quarter-court jump shot. I once tried to put together a highlight reel of him, but every shot was the same. He was a fixture in the PBA, always reliable, always contributing. He wasn’t a star, he was a... constant. Which is a good thing to be in the fluid world of sports. Am I a constant anywhere? That’s a good question to ask while standing in front of the mirror.

Age is another constant, which seems to put us on a path that always undulates to places we never thought we would find ourselves in. You could be an athlete today, a trainer or coach tomorrow, then who knows what. It seems to be a common path. You could be a boxer about to fight for a world title one day, have a retina damaged or detached, then end up passing on your knowledge to younger, healthier boxers. That was what I learned from world-champion maker Joel Diaz last November. You have to find something to do with all the experience you’ve accumulated. It makes no sense to hoard it. It’s like energy; it can’t be created or destroyed. It just changes form and direction.

At the end of the day, what does it mean to have tens of thousands of points, millions in the bank, and all that renown? Is it the end-all of everything? Records will be broken, even the ones we once thought unassailable: 49-0 in boxing, the four-minute mile, nine Olympic gold medals, and so on. The numbers will never add up to enough, and actually mean more taken on their own individually, because they each represent transcendence. We all crave breaking through limitations. That’s why we watch sports. A Julius Erving or Michael Jordan would do something we consider magical, and it was worth the price of admission. It resonated with those of us seeking breakthroughs and the breathtaking in our lives.

Leo Rosten said, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.”

So what is that difference? How do we make a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs recommended? What scale will be enough? Will we be content making a difference in our neighborhood, alumni league, city or province? Do we share ourselves within the country or outside of it? More and more Filipino coaches and trainers are making their impact felt in basketball, martial arts, mixed martial arts, football and other sports around the world. Some of them will never make the sports pages here, and that’s okay. They matter where they matter.

I mentioned mortality, which comes uninvited into your mind when you’re over 50. My dear friend, colleague and mentor Joe Cantada died at 49. I wonder how many people still remember him, and it bothers me. My mother died at 68. Some of my teachers are still changing students’ lives well into their 80’s and 90’s. So you wonder. Like the end of your sports career. Sometimes, you know when it’s going to happen, but generally, you don’t.

You just pray you find your purpose and meaning first. And that’s a great thing to wish for everyone on your birthday.

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