A night for a lifetime
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Tuesday night was one of the most unforgettable nights in Philippine sports, the launch of the Philippines Yearbook’s “The 50 Greatest Filipino Athletes of All Time” at the ballroom of the Sheraton Manila Hotel. Over 300 luminaries from the diplomatic corps, business, politics, print and broadcast, and sports paid homage to the immortals of sports. The event was covered by various media, who sensed the rarity of this year’s edition. Since 1936, this is the yearbook’s first sports edition, in time for the Tokyo Olympics and last year’s resounding triumph in the Southeast Asian Games just last month. It was a singular honor for yours truly and fellow The Philippine STAR columnist Joaquin Henson to co-author the book. This collector’s edition will not happen again in our lifetime.

Of the 50 living and deceased legends profiled, more than half attended or were represented. Five-time PBA June Mar Fajardo, the youngest athlete in the book, arrived early, and stood shyly in a corner, as if there was any way he could be incognito with his size. Like many of those athletes present, he was both hero and fanboy, getting autographs from his fellow featured athletes. At 90, Tony Genato of the 1954 World Championship team was the oldest attendee. Allan Caidic represented the all-professional 1990 team to the Asian Games, where he and Samboy Lim were named to the Mythical Team. Basketball was obviously a huge part of the book, with three Philippine teams and five players included. And yet, it was the toughest part of the list to trim down.

Almost all of the bowlers featured were in attendance. Four-time World Cup winner Paeng Nepomuceno was a magnet for autograph and photo seekers. Nepomuceno, a Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) awardee in the late 1970’s, is in his sixth decade of competing. Four-time world champion Bong Coo, the first Filipino athlete in the Guinness Book of World Records, also graced the occasion. World champion billiards player Rubilen Amit was likewise in attendance. Ironically, her elders profiled in the book, Efren Reyes and Django Bustamante, are abroad competing. 

Boxing was also heavily represented. Cover athlete Sen. Manny Pacquiao sent MP Promotions chief Sean Gibbons in his stead. Donnie Nietes, the country’s longest-reigning world champion, flew in from Cebu for the event before flying on to Singapore for a short vacation. Two-time world champion Gerry Peñalosa stayed late, enjoying the atmosphere. Meanwhile, mixed martial arts champion Eduard Folayang made the drive down from Benguet to attend. Landslide will be fighting in the One Championship card at the Mall of Asia Arena on the 31st.

Many of the athletes were effusive in their gratitude. Ageless sprinter and long jumper Elma Muros just soaked everything in, partly in disbelief.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We don’t even know if we’ll still be here,” she said. “An honor like this is really unforgettable.”

Olympian swimmer and 1991 SEA Games Outstanding Female Athlete Akiko Thomson Guevara was a picture of elegance and another fan favorite. Perhaps among all our subjects, she and Folayang were the one that our magnificent photographer Joel Garcia had the most photos of. Joel and his wife Ma-Anne did such a great job, it was painful to see all the photos and know only one or two of each would make it into the book. 

There were so many personal favorites for this writer that will now simply be archived. A tinted photo of Akiko in front of an unforgiving clock. Jet Dionisio lying on a black background surrounded by a rain of bullets. The double exposure of chess giant Eugene Torre playing against himself. Asia sprint queen Lydia de Vega running with a Philippine flag draped around her shoulders. Bodybuilding master Dondon Cortuna gritting his teeth while pumping iron, looking larger than life. Donnie Nietes posing patiently with his albino python. Elma Muros flying through the air. For a sports fan, there’s nothing better than moments like these. Davis Cup veteran Felix Barrientos with all his tennis medals and trophies. We could do a second book.

Given how much was distilled to fit “The 50 Greatest Filipino Athletes of All Time,” the stories themselves are also very touching. Mona Sulaiman’s foster family talked about her adamant stand against amputation, even when diabetes was consuming her. In Cebu, Chuck Canete recalled with fondness his memories of his grandfather, arnis Supreme Grandmaster Ciriaco Cañete, who laid the foundations for the sport from the 1930’s until his death a few years ago. Amit recounted the struggles she underwent before finally committing fully to her sport. Alvin Patrimonio recalled the wonder with which he discovered basketball after dallying with chess. 

All of these struggles became strength, resilience, inspiration. It resonated with millions, birthed succeeding generations, inspired writers like me. Collected and beautifully arranged, the marriage between word and image are indelible. Thanks to Grace Glory Go and Vernon Go for the trust, Nic Angeles for staying on the ball, Quinito Henson for the synergy, Joel and Ma-Anne Garcia for their brilliance, and all the staff for their sharpness. It was a rare privilege to work with you all.

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Order your copy of “The Fifty Greatest Filipino Athletes of All Time.” Call 83327452 or e-mail philsyearbook@gmail.com. Delivery is free within Metro Manila. Tell them you read it here.

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