Paul Christian Zamar—son of former PBA player and now San Miguel Beer assistant coach Boycie—is making his presence felt with Mono Vampire in the ASEAN Basketball League. | Composite Image via Jonathan Asuncion/Mono Vampire Photos

In his ongoing journey home, Paul Zamar finds fame and purpose in ABL
Denison Rey A. Dalupang ( - December 31, 2017 - 12:00pm

BANGKOK, Thailand — Paul Christian Zamar emerged from the Mono29 Stadium clad in a black polo shirt, and a pair of fleece shorts and fresh sneakers. At first glance, you’d mistake the 5-foot-11 cager for a youngster trying out for a team.

He didn’t look like he was a part of the PBA draft class half a decade ago. Neither did he appear like a grizzled veteran of many pro-amateur tournaments. Heck, he didn’t even look like an integral cog of the Mono Vampire scoring machine in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL).

On that Wednesday afternoon, Zamar, 31, was just dealt with a loss that snapped his Mono Vampire's three-game win streak. But that, too, didn’t matter, especially to the kids about to approach him. What mattered was they each got a photograph with him. That they were able to get back to their homes having shaken the hands of this foreign basketball star. 

It would’ve meant the world to Paul. Only this wasn’t home.

“It didn’t take too long,” he said as he stepped on the gas. He was referring to adjusting with driving right-handed cars in Bangkok. He drove on the wide roads of the Nonthaburi neighborhood trying to remember what it’s like steering along Edsa, getting stuck there on rush hour, and dealing with rowdy drivers.

“There’s not much of a difference. Same goes with the faces of the people here. The traffic’s bad, too,” he said in jest. “But it’s nothing like ours at home.”

The thing is, Zamar could say the same about playing basketball on foreign shores and back at home.

Bangkok’s highways, in a way, mirrored Zamar’s basketball career. Wide, free-flowing, with the occasional stops along the way. Traffic, maybe. A pothole, perhaps. There’s probably  congestion at the toll gate. Lean on patience a bit more, and you’re probably going to get to where you’re headed.

Bumpy road going pro

Zamar logged five full years with the University of the East. He belonged to two famed squads that nearly captured a University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball championship. And yes, he belonged to that loaded crew that swept the eliminations — only to fall flat in the finals.

The idea of playing professionally looked like a walk in the park for Samar, being the son of former PBA cager Boycie. But that wasn’t the case. Picked in the fourth round by Barangay Ginebra in the 2012 PBA Draft, the younger Zamar was unable to crack the Kings’ rotation. He had to find a stomping ground elsewhere. 

His quest brought him to the PBA D-League, where he played for Cebuana Lhuillier. A year later, he went on to suit up for Cafe France Bakers-CEU, where he played like a man possessed. He was having the time of his life with an ace-level play. Heck, he even married Jane, his girlfriend of 12 years, within that stretch. 

By that time, it seemed like Zamar’s career was on cruise control — a smooth ride sans the road bumps. 

In that period in 2016, Zamar willed the Bakers into a finals showdown with a Phoenix-FEU side stacked with pro prospects. But he fell short. Again. Doing most of the heavy lifting for Cafe France, he was poised for a revenge tour. With a Foundation Cup performance as part of Zamar’s repertoire, the cager seemed to clear the road for a return trip to the PBA.

But Zamar had to make yet another detour. 

“Management had other things in mind,” the soft-spoken Zamar said. “Not to take away something from Café France, but they wanted to take another route — bring in new faces.” He had learned of the Bakers’ personnel plans just as he was coming back from a stint in China where he sharpened his skills with Singaporean club Tong Whye.

With his back against the wall — a livelihood on the cusp of slipping past his hands — Zamar turned to a couple of PBA teams. Blackwater told him they’re interested in him, but the Elite didn’t follow through. Kia took him in for training camp but he felt that Picanto’s “intentions were unsure.”

He was expecting a call-up from both teams. But on November of 2016, it was one from 1,371 miles away that came.

A dream... of sorts

“It’s a bit crowded in the Philippines,” Zamar said with a hint of sigh. “We needed to look for a source of living that’s why many of us embrace the opportunities overseas. Yes, I’d like to go back to the PBA but for now, as players, we try to make the most out of the chances we’re given: to improve, to play and to become visible to the public.”

Zamar is following the footsteps of Filipino cagers who were left out in the cold and tried to realize their hoop dreams elsewhere. Leo Avenido was the first in the bunch, becoming an ABL legend himself. Joining the fray are Reil Cervantes, formerly of Blackwater; AJ Mandani, previously of GlobalPort; and James Forrester, who was once a Ginebra prospect, to name some.
From left: Westports Malaysia's Patrick Cabahug, Reil Cervantes; Formosa Dreamers' James Forrester; Singapore Slingers' AJ Mandani. | Composite Image/ABL Photos

But Zamar dreamed of this, too. Playing overseas and making a name for himself? Who does not, anyway? As a young kid with basketball dreams, the sky was the limit for Zamar.

“I was watching the first edition of ABL back then,” Zamar said. “I felt like I wanted to play in there, too. I saw the competition. There were many Filipinos, there were American imports and the best of the best were sent to represent their countries to compete. I never thought I’ll actually realize this dream.”

To some, playing basketball elsewhere — if not the National Basketball Association in the United States — is a sort of relegation into basketball purgatory. The sport’s fandom in the Philippines, after all, is off the charts. Money, stardom and comfort? It’s all in there.

Promotion or demotion?

While Zamar said he wouldn’t call his ABL stint a promotion, it certainly is not a demotion.

“I don’t think it is,” he said. “There’s a team from China, there’s one from Hong Kong — where Christian Standhardinger is playing, then there’s Chinese-Taipei,” he offered. “In a way, the ABL has upped the ante. Before it was just peppered with players from Southeast Asia. Now there’s an influx of talent from East Asia.”

“When you get to play [with] Filipinos on a daily basis, you tend to be comfortable,” he continued. “At least in here, I get to test my mettle. I get to learn my place in all of this.”

Zamar needed only six months to get used driving a right-hand car in this foreign land. But playing the game of basketball? “Around two weeks,” he said. “I was founding my groove then. Everything fell into place once I got to know my teammates.” 

The hard part of it all was traveling. With ABL teams’ home bases scattered across Southeast Asia, visiting squads are constantly on the move. “Traveling via bus is far different via plane. But once we take the floor, all of the exhaustion is out of the window.”

Zamar’s role in Mono Vampire is clearly defined. He is expected not only to play, but also to perform. That means big numbers and solid minutes that almost instantaneously translate to wins.

Looking at his numbers, one could deduce that Zamar is doing a decent job as a foreign reinforcement. In the seven games he’s played, the playmaker has steadily churned out more than 10 points.

Zamar is norming 15.6 points an outing as a heritage import for Mono Vampire in the ABL. | Image via ABL

But even before donning the Mono Vampire’s orange threads, the Filipino guard was already a force to be reckoned with. In his stint with sister team Thewphaingarm, where he served alongside former Adamson University gunner Patrick Cabahug, Zamar put up a performance for the ages. He posted 52 points to set a Thailand Basketball Super League scoring record and formalize his arrival as a foreign star.

After dropping their season opener in the ABL, Mono Vampire went on a three-game rampage. The omnipresent force? Also Zamar.

His father’s son

But while the skill-set was essential to Zamar’s easy adaptation to Thailand's basketball landscape, the cager said that a big part of it came from the pieces of advice he picked up from someone who has made hooping tours around the region: his dad.

I told Paul, “Life in basketball is not a highway. There's a lot of uphill climbs, not to mention the zig-zagging roads en route the ultimate dream. [Imagine] if he gave up a year ago. We wouldn’t have known how close we were to a door of opportunity. ABL is blessing in disguise. Imagine going around the Asian countries for 'free' while you are paid playing sport you love."

The elder Zamar is one who knows how it is to work away from home. After his stint with the Philippine national team, Boycie Zamar barged into the international circuit mentoring teams in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. He logged a total of eight years coaching overseas, including a stop in Abu Dhabi. Now, he is a deputy to San Miguel Beer’s decorated tactician Leo Austria.

“The journey was arduous, let alone mentally taxing. Being a basketball coach in those countries where football is the star? Only a few Filipino coaches who took the plunge have made their time away worth their while — the likes of the late Roel Nadurata, Bong Ramos, Nat Canson,” the father noted.

"The reason why I moved to coach abroad was because of the shortage of opportunities here," he said. "Paul and I, we have a lot of similarities. Especially with the circumstance he's in now."

Boycie and Paul through the years. | Contributed Photo/Zamar family

“I felt like I had to set an example for Paul back then,” he recalled. “The hardest opponent is always himself."

“What’s great about his insights is that they're trying to address my lapses. He touches up on the things I can still improve on, the lapses hidden beneath the good performances,” the younger Zamar said. “He keeps me on my toes. He makes it sure that I always remember that I’m playing under the microscope. ‘Remember that imports at home usually get the boot even after just one bad game,’ he said."

He added that Cabahug, who has had his share of Thailand’s limelight this year, also played a big part in helping him ease into overseas play. “Kuya Patrick taught me how to jell and play against the locals. He also said that I just focus on playing my game.”

Farther but closer

Even with nearly a year’s worth of a smooth basketball ride in Bangkok, Zamar admitted that he’d still get the episodic road bumps in the form of homesickness.

“Of course, if you get homesick, you’re toast,” he offered. “But I’m actually enjoying, ‘cause I’m in love with my craft. I grew up around it. During downtimes, I go blank. I got no one here. But as much as possible, I make the most out of the chance to showcase my wares. I’m seizing each moment where I can better myself. Work on shots, put on muscle. The staff’s at the ready to help anyway. Fellow imports are willing to share wisdom, too.”

For now, Zamar is choosing to keep his hands on the wheel and go on with the cruise. He is, after all, is still on his way.

To where? 

“Home,” he said with a smile. “My family’s there. My wife’s there. It’s hard here abroad — that you’re alone. You wake up in the wee hours of the morning and it just hits you. That you’re all alone. It’s hard, it’s sad. If there’s a chance to play in the PBA, there’s no doubt I’ll take it. 

"For now, I’ll just have to be thankful of the opportunity afforded to me in Mono. I’ll channel my focus here,” he noted.

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