Rebound Magazine - - NCAASAMBOY - by Michael Gohu Yu

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).”

Mov­ing On

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.

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