World champions spurned by basketball
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - June 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Granted that the Philippines is fanatical about basketball. The numbers indicate that in terms of intensity and content consumption – but not yet purchasing power – Filipino hoops fans are right up there with North America and China. The country watches the most basketball among all its neighbors, and follows some NBA teams more than any other nation except the US, which is expected. Basketball fans in the Philippines know their history and current events in the sport, and that will not change.

But what if you envisioned a career in basketball, but it wasn’t meant for you? Do you live a mediocre life and live vicariously through others, becoming a rabid screaming courtside fan? Or do you go on to find your own path, your own greatness? 

That’s exactly what world champions and good friends Rubilen Amit and Biboy Rivera did when basketball did not work out for them. The two found their true paths to the top of their sports.

Before moving to Luzon for high school, Bingkay Amit was a huge hoops fan in Cebu. She even played and trained with her cousins and close friends, the three Sumalinog brothers, sons of former University of the Visayas star Hermes Sumalinog, Sr. The three would have solid collegiate careers in Metro Manila: Michael (Micmic) suited up for UST, Chris (Oping) won UAAP titles with Ateneo; and Hermes Jr. played for Mapua. Amit would even join their drills at their home, and partake of their after-workout ritual of drinking Royal Tru-Orange with raw egg.

“Protein!” Rubilen laughs at the memory. “It was my number one sport. I really wanted to be a basketball player.”

Unfortunately, where the Sumalinogs were blessed with height, Amit was not. She was already playing billiards for fun, thanks to the persistent encouragement of her father. But she saw herself in the corporate world, as a CPA and lawyer. She continued to follow basketball, watched her old playmates in the PBA, and was friends with many women’s players. Realizing that billiards – like basketball – likewise featured a ball going into a hole, and seeing how it could help the family, Rubilen committed to it. After several financial struggles and nearly quitting, she embraced her sport. After a runner-up finish in 2007, in 2009 Amit became the WPA World Ten-Ball champion, the first Filipina world pool queen in history. She did it again in 2013.

Biboy Rivera was more fortunate with basketball. Although he had been exposed to commercial bowling leagues early on and was seen to have natural talent and power, he still preferred the fluidity of playing five on five.

“My first sport was basketball, at the age of seven,” Rivera recalls. “I played for Don Bosco Makati until high school.”

But when he went to college at UST, he realized he wasn’t tall enough or strong enough to play for the powerhouse Growling Tigers. The sport he loved didn’t love him back. But bowling had also become popular. There were highlights on TV, monthly tournaments, and he often saw his idol Paeng Nepomuceno, Bong Coo, Tito Sotto and the stars of the time in action. He didn’t need height or brawn to compete at that high level. In just two years, Rivera won the Asian Youth Championship.

In 2002, Biboy was at the Asian Games in Seoul. He needed one last strike to win the gold medal in men’s singles. All eleven of his teammates already had golds and silvers. Shockingly, the ball hit his foot and rolled into the gutter. That one mistake dropped him to fourth. No medal.

The next season, Rivera determinedly made himself mentally stronger, and his game got better and better. In 2006, he was part of one of the strongest teams in Philippine bowling history for the WTBA World Tenpin Bowling Championships. There was only one problem. The tournament was in Seoul, in the same place where he had collapsed spectacularly four years before. A camera crew was also filming the Philippine squad every day. The pressure was incredible.

But Biboy was pumped. Every match-up went to a deciding fifth game. He even came back from the brink of elimination in the quarterfinals. In the final, the Filipino needed to win the fifth and final match to clinch the World Championship. 

Biboy hurled a perfect game 12 thundering strikes, giving him the Masters championship, and ending the Philippines’s 15-year medal drought in the event.

“At first, you’re thinking, did this really just happen?” he says. “Sweet revenge for what happened to me four years before.”

So much for basketball.

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