LEARNING TO SKYWALK
THERE IS A WEALTH OF AVAILABLE RESOURCES ON SAMBOY LIM’S PBA CAREER BUT HIS FORMATIVE COLLEGE YEARS HAVE REMAINED A MYSTERY… UNTIL NOW. IN THE PROCESS OF PIECING TOGETHER THE PREQUEL TO HIS PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS, REBOUND DISCOVERED WHY HE IS IDOLIZED NOT J
Many of us still feel shortchanged by the retirement of Avelino “Samboy” Lim, one of the most popular players in Philippine basketball history. We cling to every grainy online video of his days on the national team and in the Philippine Basketball Association. And those who are patient enough to keep digging through Youtube’s virtual collection of moldy Betamax tapes will also unearth a fairly generic documentary on the Skywalker.
The Youtube feature pretty much summarizes the public’s collective memory of Samboy’s basketball timeline. He lost his father at age 13, was discovered on the courts of Phil-Am Life Homes in Quezon City at 15, and then soared his way to a successful – albeit injury-riddled – career. He burst onto the national scene as an explosive guard/forward of the Northern Consolidated Cement team. He took his high-flying game to the PBA as a loyal soldier of San Miguel Beer and was an integral part of that team’s historic grand slam. Incredibly, he never played out a full season due to persistent and nagging injuries and has
earned the dubious distinction of being the best player never to have won a league MVP award.
What the documentary breezes through, however, is Samboy’s life in the NCAA, for which it shares just one widely known fact: that he won a championship in each of the three years he played college ball at Colegio de San Juan de Letran. The dearth of knowledge on his playing days with the Knights shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though. The games weren’t televised regularly in that pre-internet and -cable TV era and print coverage for the NCAA always played second fiddle to the UAAP and the PBA. Still, depending on the year, the league hung on to a membership of five to six schools with rabid fan bases. There were still games to be played, championships to be won, heroes to be raised onto hardcourt pedestals.
Thankfully, the NCAA did not fold. If it had, then the tale of Samboy’s passage from anonymous streetballer to Hall-of-Famer may not have been told; an inspirational story that would knock his trademark knee-high socks off.
Preparing for Takeoff
Knowing what we know about Samboy today, it almost seems blasphemous to mention that he failed to secure a place on teams that have highly successful recruiting track records: San Beda, San Sebastian, Philippine School of Business Administration, and a few others that he could no longer recall. Eventually, he made it onto Letran’s Team B under the tutelage of Coach Larry Albano. Samboy realized that given his skill level at the time, he was fortunate to have found a school willing to take him in at all.
“ Hindi pa ako gaanong kahusay para makasama sa isang team. Mas maraming magagaling na mas angat sa akin. Kaya nag-weights ako, nag-practice arawaraw, binuhos ko‘yung panahon ko para gumaling. Ang swerte ko naman, nakasama ako sa 1982-1984 (seniors) team.”
The way Samboy described his elevation to Team A, you’d think he sat at the end of Albano’s bench. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one of seven rookies joining one-time league MVP Romeo Ang, Samboy made an immediate impact by scoring 22 points in the team’s first game of the season, a win against Trinity College. His weight training and practice sessions had obviously paid off, although what he casually described as luck was much, much more than that.
Tino Pinat, assistant coach of the current Letran team and Samboy’s closest buddy on the 1980’s squad, speaks fondly of the Skywalker’s work ethic. “ Kakaiba ang attitude ( ni Samboy) sa ibang player. Until (today), wala pa akong nakitang kasingdedicated at focused na katulad niya.”
The dedication that Pinat refers to is evident in Samboy’s intense training regimen. He was always
the first one out of the team dorm at five o’clock to do his laundry (just to get the chore out of the way so he can concentrate on drills). He would then practice shooting on his own until classes began at 8 AM. By one in the afternoon, he was back on the floor either shooting by himself or challenging someone to a game of one-on-one a full hour before the rest of the team would march into the gym for formal practice. How fascinating it would have been to witness these daily pick-up games because according to Pinat, this is where Samboy developed his repertoire of magical shots.
“ Maghahanap talaga siya ng kalaro. Naging habit na niya, hanggang nagpro siya, he comes an hour before (practice) para mag one-on-one. Sasabihin niya,‘Sige nga, bantayan mo nga‘to.’ Tapos bibilisan niya nang bibilisan hangga’t nakaka-imbento na siya ng mga bagong moves.”
That took care of his shooting skills. But playing as an undersized big man, he was being outmuscled and out-jumped on a regular basis, effectively negating the progress he was making on offense. To counter this, he pursued what Pinat described as an almost maniacal strength conditioning routine that benefited not only Samboy but the rest of the team as well.
“ Papayat-payat (si Samboy) dati. Nakita niya na kailangan niya magpalakas dahil binabangga siya, kaya nagbubuhat siya religiously. At kahit na tapos na ang practice namin at laylay na kaming lahat, si Samboy, dunk pa rin nang dunk kasi gusto naman niya tumaas‘yung talon. Lalabanan niya ang pagod at sasabihin niya sa sarili,‘Hindi pwedeng matapos kasi lalakas ako kapag dinagdagan ko pa’.
Nanonood pa lang kami, napapagod na kami (sa kanya). Pero niyayaya pa rin kami maglaro. Pati kami tuloy, nag-iimprove. Dahil sa kanya, pati‘yung mga guards namin nakaka-dunk. Hindi lang ‘yon. ‘Pag pagod na siya, maghahanap siya ng tao na kaya pang mag-push sa kanya. He will try to win again kahit na laylay na siya. Sinasabi ko nga sa kanya,‘Sira-ulo ka na ‘ata eh!’”
The effort that Samboy put into improving his game is not lost on his brother, Bon-Bon, who didn’t flinch when he compared his Kuya with other more prominent hoops superstars. “ Laking bagay talaga ng attitude at commitment n’ya. Parang sina Kobe Bryant at Michael Jordan, may sariling practice bukod sa (team). At pare-pareho silang nagsasabi na kapag pumasok sa court, walang makakapigil sa kanila. Mayroon talaga silang confidence at love for the game.”
It turns out that the comparison to Michael Jordan is highly substantiated because there is one particular experience that both he and Samboy share. Jordan’s “Flu Game” in the 1997 playoffs is touted as one of the most outstanding performances in NBA Finals history. Not many are aware, though, that Samboy had an equally inspiring finals story of his own – one that enhances the Skywalker’s mystique that much more.
The Asthma Series”
Bon-Bon summed up quite well what Samboy’s mindset is whenever he enters a game: patay kung patay. And in two out of three Finals games against San Sebastian College in 1983, it came extremely close to being just that as Samboy found himself
hospitalized for asthma at the time. He pleaded to team officials for him to be released from confinement and allowed to play. Even with the emotional boost his presence provided, they lost Game 1 of the Finals by one point on a last second shot by Baste’s Nani Demegillo. But the Knights wouldn’t surrender as Samboy would be fetched from the hospital again to score 12 points in a Game 2 rout before scoring 20 for an 89-85 victory in the one-and-done knockout match, a game marred by exploding firecrackers set off by overzealous fans.
“ Dumaan talaga kami sa butas ng karayom. Tinalo kami (ng San Sebastian) sa Game 1. At hindi naka-practice si Samboy kasi naka-dextrose siya due to asthma. Sinundo lang siya sa UST (Hospital) para maglaro (sa championship),” Pinat gushed with a sense of admiration. “ Pagkatapos ng game, binalik siya sa ospital at sinuwero ulit. Grabe, nakakatindig balahibo ang ginawa niya. Pakamatay talaga.”
Pinat’s choice of words was quite apt. Just a few weeks before the championship series, Benigno Aquino Jr. had been assassinated, rousing a nation from its political stupor. Ninoy had famously proclaimed that the Filipino is worth dying for. Evidently, Samboy felt that his alma mater’s glory was worth the same price as he, too, risked his own health to rouse Letran and help it garner a second straight NCAA crown.
Champion On and Off-Court
There is a point at which the similarities between Jordan and Samboy begin to polarize. While Jordan coupled his personal drive with an infamous reputation of alpha-
male intimidation (his uncomfortable Hall-of-Fame acceptance speech comes to mind), Samboy channeled his energies towards playing the game the way it should be played. No trash talking, no stare downs. Just images of the Skywalker either sprinting like a thoroughbred to get back on defense or tumbling onto the floor after one of his airborne drives.
“ Grabe ang tirahan sa kapanahunan na ‘yon,” Bon-Bon shared. “ Pag nag-drive ( si Samboy), lalagyan s’ya ng paa sa ilalim. Pero ‘ no fear’ pa rin siya. Dinuduraan siya, tinutusok ang mata niya, pero sabi niya‘Kapag gumanti ako, ako‘yung talo. Babawian nalang kita sa puntos.’”
Samboy’s refusal to retaliate is but one of the manifestations of a person who lives by a strong set of values both on and off the court. Jimmy Go, his close friend of many years, refers to him as a humble, down-to-earth man who keeps his feet on the ground despite his accomplishments. “ Walang ere talaga,” he mentions. An unintentional – yet strangely appropriate – dig at how different he is versus the man referred to as His Airness.
Carl Vendicacion, a partner of the Samboy Lim Player Development Academy (SLPDA), also speaks highly of the Skywalker’s character. He proudly explained how the SLPDA was never envisioned to be a for-profit endeavor. Samboy started it to give back to the game that has made him who he is, taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to train the students personally and mold future Samboy’s who are, as the SLPDA motto states, “ basketeers and gentlemen”. No kidding. What other basketball camp are you aware of that sets aside time for its students to hand out roses to their moms on Mother’s Day? It wouldn’t be a surprise if that was Samboy’s idea because situated at the root of his passion for life – beyond the long hours in the gym, the packed stadiums, the accolades – would be, quite simply, the love for his family.
Samboy isn’t afraid to admit that it was the death of his father that triggered his pursuit of excellence in sports. And he practically beams when talking about his teenage daughter’s success in her own chosen sport, karate. “ Sobrang ibang feeling, proud na proud ako. ‘Nung nag gold medal siya sa 12-13 (years) division ng World Championship, mas higit pa ang saya sa mga championship at pagkapanalo ko sa basketball.”
Those close to him admit as much. Coach Pinat shares that during the angstfilled, unguarded moments all teenagers go through, Samboy confided about how difficult it was for him to accept that his mother was the sole breadwinner for him and his four siblings. “ Na-realize ( ni Samboy), ‘ayokong maging pabigat sa nanay ko at siguro dapat tumulong ako’,” Pinat reminisces. “ Kaya dito na sa Letran nabuo ‘yung dream niya na makapasok sa PBA.”
And being Samboy’s brother, BonBon is probably the best authority on familial ties. “Although bumilib ako sa paglalaro niya, ang pinaka-biniliban ko ay‘yung pagkatao niya. Hindi ko‘to sinasabi dahil kapatid ko siya, nakita ko talaga. Napaka-humble, hindi niya pinabayaan ang pamilya. Siya ang naging breadwinner namin. Pangalawa lang ang
basketball sa hinangaan ko sa kanya. Kung kailan naging superstar, doon pa siya (nagpakumbaba).”
When asked whether he missed the days of playing above the rim when he would electrify his thousands – daresay millions – of fans, Samboy turned philosophical. “Although nagpapasalamat ako na may nag-a-appreciate sa mga past achievements ko, hindi ko na-mi-miss ang paglalaro. Chapter by chapter ang buhay ng isang tao at hindi ko na pwedeng balikan ang nakaraan. Natutuwa ako at maraming magagaling na bata (ngayon). I’ve had my time, sila naman ngayon.”
By closing that chapter of his life, it seems as if Samboy had saved one final, breathtaking parting shot for all of us. Granted, failure to put together a complete career profile for a player of his stature is a severe injustice (and hopefully, this story fills the void somewhat). However, wouldn’t it be equally severe to get stuck in that past and lose sight of what the present – and future – hold? Maybe this is the reason why he claimed that he couldn’t remember any of his past heroics and deferred to his family and friends to tell his story. Maybe the trap for someone as accomplished as him is that if he kept returning to his glory days often enough, the magnitude of his achievements could quite possibly force him to stay there. He could have easily become the athlete who kept holding out for just one more adrenaline rush, refusing to accept that it was time to move on.
Close to 15 years after hanging up his bum-hugging short shorts, the skywalking hasn’t stopped for Samboy Lim. He is a successful PBA team manager, businessman, teacher and father: all because he was mature enough to realize how much higher he could soar beyond the four baselines of the basketball court. And maybe one day we, too, will realize the irony of it all – that we actually have to pry our eyes away from old and blurry Youtube aerial highlights to learn how to walk on air. For those interested in the SLPDA, the next academy will be on August 1, 2011. Please call 5317554 or (0916) 6989489 for details.
TRIPLE CROWN. The trophy of the 1984 championship – their third straight – holds a
special place in the Letran Hall of Fame.
IF THESE STAIRS COULD TALK. This staircase leads to the team dorm where Samboy stayed during his college years. It is now used as a storeroom. Flying higher and higher: Samboy improved his scoring average every year he was with the Knights.