Paras attacking challenges

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star
Paras attacking challenges
Benjie Paras

Two-time PBA Most Valuable Player Benjie Paras has a natural impulse to take on difficult challenges. He clearly remembers the first time he was asked to join a basketball team in a barangay league as a tall, powerful-looking adolescent who stood out from the crowd.

“They asked ‘Do you play basketball?’, I said no. ‘Do you watch the game?’ No. ‘Have you tried it?’ I haven’t. ‘We’ll put you on our team,’ Benjie remembers. “I was tall, so people would look. I preferred to sit down. I didn’t like walking around, because people would stare.”

This started Paras on his journey into basketball. Spotted at a San Beda College clinic in his community, he was referred to legendary high school coach Ato Badolato. After a series of tryouts, he made the NCAA junior squad, at 13 years old. All he wanted was a scholarship and some free food to fulfill his promise to his mother that he would graduate. On a powerhouse team that would include Ronnie Magsanoc, Eric Altamirano and Macky de Joya, he still stood out. When San Beda bolted the NCAA for the Metro Manila Basketball League (MMBL), Benjie earned the MVP trophy in his last two years. This triggered a flood of college recruiters fawning over him. But University of the Philippines head coach Joe Lipa had a different approach, which stunned and challenged the young center when he inquired why he should play for UP.

“I feel sorry for you,” was the coach’s reply. “You think you’re good, but you’re not. If you play for UP, you’ll get better.”

Taken aback, the 6’4” teen joined the Maroons, and discovered that he wasn’t talented, just tall and strong. But he evolved, and helped the school win a UAAP title. It reached a point that he was practicing and playing for three teams: the national youth team, Philips Sardines in the defunct PABL, and the Maroons. He was constantly eating but not gaining weight, and felt burned out. Ironically, even though he was still relatively young, he declared for the PBA draft class in 1989 as a way to get some rest. But he had an army of doubters. He was too young, too raw, not ready.

“The coaches, some of the players, they were telling me, hey, they’ll eat you alive. You should stay in college one or two more years. Nobody believed in me,” the Tower of Power recalls. “I said, let’s make it simple. I promise you that I will be the first Rookie of the Year MVP.”

Benjie fulfilled his promise, topping what is considered the strongest PBA rookie batch in history. He went on to join the first-ever all-pro team to play internationally, led the Shell franchise to championships and a fiery rivalry with Ginebra San Miguel, then saw the dawn of the Fil-Am invasion. Players were technically more advanced, and bigger, bigger than even him. Once again beating the odds, he won another Most Valuable Player trophy a decade after his first.

“It was harder. But maybe I lacked motivation,” he admits. “Then came the Fil-Ams and some Fil-shams, the fake ones. That’s what motivated me to work harder and to improve even more. So that when I came to play, I was ready for them.”

Today, the Tower of Power is more commonly referred to as “Papa Bear” in reference to one of his most memorable TV roles, and has expertly taken on two new challenges, those of an experienced actor and comedian, and broadcast commentator. His life story – in his own words – will be featured on “Masters of the Game,” at 8 p.m. Sunday evening on PTV.

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