Farewell to Bong
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - November 13, 2019 - 12:00am

The last time I saw Lucio (Bong) Tan Jr. was when UE beat La Salle, 89-88, in the UAAP at the MOA Arena last September. It was the Warriors’ first win of the season and also marked Bong’s first victory as titular head coach with Lawrence Chongson as active coaching consultant. I walked up to Bong after the game and embraced him at midcourt. “Congratulations for a well-deserved win,” I said. I will never see Bong again.

Last Saturday, Bong walked off the hardwood with his team PAL leading Exile, 35-28, in the second quarter of the Pinoyliga Cup Finals at the Hoops Center on Shaw Boulevard then collapsed. His long-time buddy Gerard Cantada rushed him to the Cardinal Santos Medical Center. He died Monday morning.

There have been other incidents where players collapsed during a game and died. In 1990, the leading NCAA scorer and rebounder Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount was 23 when he went down in the first half of a game between the Lions and the University of Portland. Loyola was up, 25-13. Gathers collapsed a few yards away from Portland guard Erik Spoelstra, now the Miami head coach. Gathers was brought to a nearby hospital where he died.

In 1988, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer Pete Maravich was 40 when he collapsed and died of heart failure on the court. He retired from the NBA eight years before and became a born-again Christian evangelist. In 2014, PBA legend Samboy Lim was 52 when he collapsed on the bench after playing six minutes in a game at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig. He was brought to the Medical City and survived the ordeal but is now wheelchair-bound, unable to see or speak.

Last year, Star Lifestyle editor Millet Mananquil did an insightful profile on Bong and asked if I could say something about his passion for sports. This is what was quoted in her story: “Bong Tan, the basketball player, has always been known as a lights-out shooter. He is also an ideal team manager. Under his leadership, Tanduay Rum won multiple championships in the PBL in the late 1990s. He is very passionate about sports and he has this desire to see our athletes excel.”

I’ll never forget meeting Bong over lunch at Century Park Sheraton arranged by our common friend Gerard. That was in 2014. All Bong wanted to do was to talk basketball, a sport that we both love. I learned a lot about Bong in that meeting. An interesting story was he was once offered by Robert Jaworski to be Ginebra San Miguel’s top draft pick in 1995. Bong was back in Manila after earning a civil engineering degree with minors in math and Chinese Mandarin at the University of California Davis and often joined the Stag team practices. Stag was Tanduay’s PBL team.

“We were neighbors with coach Jaworski at Corinthian Gardens and sometimes, we would bump into each other jogging in the village,” said Bong. “I felt I could play in the PBA. At 29, I was at my peak. But my father (Lucio, Sr.) wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t want me to become a professional player. He wanted me to concentrate on the family business. My draft never happened. Instead, Ginebra picked Dodot (Jaworski) in the draft that year.”

Bong had another close call in playing high-level hoops in 1995. He was in the 15-man pool for the Southeast Asian Games with coach Joe Lipa and assistant coach Alfrancis Chua. “I would’ve loved to play for the country,” said Bong. “But Mike Orquillas, one of our players, was about to turn pro and wanted the chance to play so I gave up my slot in the pool for him. No regrets. I would gladly give up the chance for somebody else whose goal is to become a professional player.”

Twice, Bong scored 100 points in a game. Once, he did it with Triton in the Philippine Stock Exchange league in 1996 and another time, in the St. Jude alumni league. Bong’s ability to score from long range was widely known in basketball circles. Even as Bong became immersed in business, he somehow managed to make time for basketball.

In 2017, Bong signed a two-year contract for Tanduay to become an official partner of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA and a title sponsor of the Tanduay Rum Club on the mezzanine suite level of the Oracle Arena. It was the first and only partnership between a Philippine brand and an NBA team.

I remember Gerard recently texted to mention that Bong and he were watching a PBA game I was covering on TV. Gerard, a golf pro, often engaged Bong on the greens and in 2013, they faced off over 18 holes with Bong winning, 55-57. Bong’s passion for sports is legendary. He will be missed not only as a stalwart in business but also as a sportsman.

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