The champions we need
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - September 10, 2018 - 12:00am

The WBO World Super Flyweight title is still vacant, as Donnie Nietes and Aston Palicte battled to a split draw Saturday evening in California. In many observers’ opinion (including this writer’s) Nietes should have won on points, for a world title in a fourth weight class. Nietes started slowly, and moved and boxed better against the younger, taller, longer-armed opponent. Nietes has not tasted defeat in close to a decade. But that was not the most remarkable thing about the disputable decision.

What is most impressive is how calm, unperturbed and unmindful Donnie is about the bad decision. Not even a sarcastic shrug of the shoulders or angry frown. Nietes, in all his dignity, said it was part of boxing and that no one – not even legends like Manny Pacquiao – are impervious to bum calls. For Nietes, it is a part of the life he chose as a professional boxer. That mind-blowing serenity cements Nietes in my mind as true sports royalty. The champ is a man’s man, no doubt about it.

Think about how uniquely and refreshingly detached his response has been to all the hullabaloos about the decision. It doesn’t bother him that after all his hard work and self-denial, the risk he put himself through, the one thing that he wanted the most was unfairly denied him. In this day and age, we see so many athletes whining about the referees when they’ve lost, and taking shots at opponents even after they’ve won. For Nietes, there is none of that. No sour grapes. No entitlement. All I can say is... wow.

Nietes was a former janitor at ALA Gym, who was the only one brave enough to clean their snake cages despite having been bitten. Soon, he was the snakes’ master, and wore them around his neck like living bling as he walked into the ring. Can you imagine the thought process of his opponents. And the Mexicans had never heard of Zuma. 

With all of that on his resumé, Donnie would be allowed to have some swagger when he enters a room. But no. He still has the same quiet, unostentatious bearing, the deep, iron confidence of a man who had nothing, made himself something, but does not let that define him. 

In a similar vein, that seems to be the attitude that the new Team Pilipinas men’s basketball squad. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

With only nine days of preparation, the patchwork team placed a respectable fifth in the Asian Games, blowing out two opponents and scaring the living daylights out of freaking China along the way. And even if people try to mitigate our happiness by saying “Well, they had Jordan Clarkson, so there,” remember that they won without him and lost with him. So there. What a “what if” story that is.

What is startling is the sudden galvanization of the basketball community. Yeng Guiao is now the head coach of the program, not just a sub. And all the players he wished for rushed – in complete attendance – to join practices, even an injured Junemar Fajardo and a suspended Japeth Aguilar. Every single one, even those who previously had personal or professional reasons to decline. Honestly, the sight of all of them together was touching.

Asi Taulava gently – but firmly – reminded the public that this was now Yeng Guiao’s team, and that they were “Team Pilipinas”. No modifiers or brand names a prefix. That shows very loudly the new spirit of this team.

It all boils down to Guiao. For the most part, Guiao has chosen to do more with less, a shocking policy given the boundless boon of kapampangans. Coach Guiao has made superstars out of nobodies. He has mastered the ability to get his players to play physical just south of the line to roughness. He finds a way to get the job done. No complaints, no comparisons. Though he comes from the political elite, he has carried himself like the street kid who made good, someone who will go to war with you, because it is the right thing to do. No complaints. No excuses. A man’s man among men, yanking greatness out of them.

These are the champions we need. Damn glad we have ‘em.

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