The S in SM can stand for Sports

10_uaap1

(Photo by Tony Pionilla/Manila Bulletin)

Did you read the news in the national papers? The SM Group plans to build a major structure in Calamba, Laguna. No, it’s not the Sy family’s usual business. It’s not a mall, cinema or grocery.

It’s a sports academy. Yes, the first of its kind in the country and SM is investing P1 billion to build a sprawling campus on a four hectare property.

I’ve had a chance on a few occasions to meet Hans Sy. He’s the fourth of six children of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sy, who head the country’s richest family with an estimated net worth of over $14 billion.

I’ve seen Hans Sy on multiple occasions during SM mall openings in Cebu and Iloilo. I saw him in a different setting last February. It was the final weekend of the UAAP competition for tennis. My daughter Jana, representing Ateneo, was part of the collegiate meet.

The venue was the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center and Mr. Sy was invited to witness the championship matches of his family-owned National University (NU).

Since the Sy family bought majority ownership of NU in 2008, they have invested heavily in sports development. This focus has resulted into NU (founded in 1900) being a sports powerhouse. 

In basketball, the NU Bulldogs won the UAAP crown in 2014, besting FEU in its first championship in 60 years. In volleyball, the men’s squad won back-to-back trophies in 2013 and 2014. In cheerdance, they’re the three-time champions.

Tennis? The same golden result. Three months ago when Hans Sy watched, he witnessed the NU tennisters win the women’s and men’s crowns — the third straight year that NU won the two UAAP tennis divisions. The NU men’s netters were so dominant that they won their 44th straight tie — the second longest in UAAP history behind Adamson University’s 72-game winning streak in volleyball.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Hans Sy did not stay for a mere 30 minutes. He stayed for over three hours the entire Saturday morning, clapping when the Patrominio sisters collected their singles wins and cheering for Leander Lazaro’s MVP performance. Mr. Sy joined both teams inside the tennis rectangle during the awarding.

Smiling, proud, and holding aloft the trophies, Mr. Sy has grown to enjoy taste of sports victory.

You see, the Sy family are major players not only in business but in sports. For where can we find the only ice skating rinks in the country but in SM, including our very own SM Seaside City.

Sports stadium? The country’s best today — the 16,000-seater SM MOA Arena — has hosted top international exhibitions like the UFC (Edgar vs. Faber), FIBA Asia Championships, the Intl. Premier Tennis League (Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal), among many others.

And, of course, here in Cebu, there’s the road race everyone looks forward to: the SM2SM Run. Plus, the entire Vis-Min is looking forward to the construction of the SM Seaside Arena. Finally, we will have a world-class facility to precede the 1962-founded Cebu Coliseum.

Back to that P1 billion investment in sports that’s soon to rise, here’s what Hans Sy had to say a few days ago in a press conference (from an article in The Standard written by Darwin Amojelar): “The whole study is there already. We are starting to get architects to finalize. We have foreign consultants. We want to have it international standards. In fact if we can invite even an NBA team to come over to have a training program here so we can make sure all the facilities are there.”

At first, the facilities will be for volleyball and basketball.

“I think tennis is there, too,” he said. “It comes in stages. But it’s just not really going to be sports itself. That we felt that is something we should go into because of course, we want to have sports development but at the same time, (care) about these athletes. What happens to them after their prime years. We want to be able to give them certain education.”

In behalf of the sports community, kudos to Hans and the Sy family.

Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry

i

Even Hollywood, whose calls the Los Angeles Lakers as neighbor, could not have scripted a better ending.

Sixty points! 73-9!

Kobe Bryant, starting out as a lanky 17-year-old fresh off high school, played with one and only one of the NBA’s 32 teams. He’s loyal. But beyond his 100 percent allegiance to the gold-and-purple team, he’s produced numbers that will rank him among the greatest: 5-time NBA champ, 18-time All-Star, 1997 Slam Dunk winner, and 2-time Olympic gold medalist.

How about shooting 30,699 times? Yes. It’s incredible how the statisticians have kept score but they counted each one of No. 24’s shots and that’s how many he took in 20 years.

And how about that final game last Thursday morning? He rallied LA from a 15-point deficit and converted on six 3-pointers and 10 free throws. In all of sports, I don’t think there’s an ending that can rival that ending.

Of Kobe’s goodbye, the game was so in-demand that one fan reportedly paid $27,500 (P1.26 million) for a ticket. And guess how much worth of Kobe merchandise the Staples Center sold that day? $1.2 million. That’s a single-day record for any stadium in the world (besting Led Zeppelin’s $1 million at the O2 Arena in London in 2007).

Remember those moments watching Kobe, grinning ear to ear, hugging and kissing his wife, Vanessa, and daughters, Natalia Diamante and Gianna Maria? Very touching.

That was at the Staples Center. Northward, about 370 miles farther, was a game simultaneously being played at the Oracle Arena.

Which was better to watch? Steph throwing that ball almost carelessly but always finding the net, the MVP scoring 20 and six treys in the first quarter? Or Kobe scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter?

My answer: Both. I swapped channels every other minute. (But based on the TV ratings by Nielsen, the Lakers game scored more at its peak with 5.38 million viewers compared to 4.16 million for the Warriors.)

Was this the greatest day in NBA history? I think so. There are some Game 7 cliffhangers that are more thrilling — but where can you find one night (played at the same time) when the slithery Black Mamba retires with 60 and The Baby-Faced Assasin parlays an accummulated 402 three-pointers to lead the team from Oakland/San Francisco to 73 wins?

I cannot think of a day that’s more compelling and momentous. One legend retires; one team eclipses MJ and Chicago.

Speaking of the Bulls, in their 72-10 season 20 years ago, they did one thing that the Warriors have yet to achieve: win the season’s very last game. If, for some unfortunate scenario, GSW gets upset by Houston in the first round or the Clippers in the next or gets eclipsed by LeBron and the Cavs when the finals commence starting June 2, all the hoopla disappears. As high as the season unfolded, it will be recorded as a failure. And so the pressure is on; nothing less than a back-to-back trophy is needed by cast that includes Klay, Draymond and Andre.

With Mr. Curry, the overused word “Wow” is an understatement; he’s outshining the limits of greatness. As I’ve said in the past, he should win the league’s “Most Improved Player” award. This, apart from being the first in history to be a unanimous MVP.

In one word, he’s golden. Down by a percentage point (29.9 PPG average) heading towards the last game against Memphis, he scores 46 (and sat out the entire 4th quarter). The result? It pushed his regular season average to 30.1.

His jersey number? The same. Thirty. And how about the extra “1.” That’s the sign he makes, pointing a finger to the sky to acknowledge and thank God. For as the Philippians 4:13 passage that’s enscripted in his Under Armour shoe reads: “I can do all things… (through Christ who strengthens me).”

(john@pages.ph)

The state of the golden Warriors

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.18.00 AM

(Photo by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Oh, no. Given an astronomical 85 percent chance by the oddsmakers of winning at least 73 games prior to their outing yesterday against the Boston Celtics, the Golden State Warriors lost. Now, the age-old saying, “Every game counts,” is more than consequential. It’s imperative.

GSW now stands at 68-8. The math is simple: Win the next five or six and they best the all-time record set by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1996. If they lose two out of six, they equal the record. Worse than that and it’s huge, huge disappointment for the defending champions.

Yesterday, when Steph Curry unleashed that 28-footer with 5.3 seconds left in the ballgame, we all believed it would land inside the hole. Wasn’t this the MVP who made six consecutive threes in the 3rd quarter?

Curry missed. He’s human. “Every one of them I think is going down,” said Curry. “But it didn’t.”

Golden State trailed most of the game. Although they converted on 20 three-point shots (imagine, that’s a total of 60 points), they committed too many errors (Curry alone made nine of the team’s 22 turnovers). Boston played well; they drove the lane often for uncontested lay-ups and played tough all throughout. They weren’t rattled, even if the Warriors had never lost at home the last 54 games (and 14 months).

The heartbreaking sequence involved Draymond Green: While he stole the ball from Amir Johnson with 30 seconds to go, in the next play (seven seconds later), it was his bad play that resulted in a steal by the same Amir Johnson.

You know the saying of marathon runners? The toughest part of the 42K is the last kilometer. It’s the same for this Californian squad. As the media questions intensify and as the world’s eyes zoom towards their history-shattering feat, the pressure rises. The opponents possess an I-have-nothing-to-lose mentality while the Warriors have everything to lose.

Six games remain and every one of those six meetings is crucial for GSW. What’s their schedule like? They play their next three at home (in Philippine time: against Portland on Monday, versus Minnesota on Wednesday, and against San Antonio on Friday) before a two-game road trip that takes them to Memphis (next Sunday) and San Antonio (next Monday) as they cap off the regular season with a final Oracle Arena game against Memphis.

The game against Portland tomorrow is all-important. Remember that the Blazers was one of a handful of teams to have defeated the Warriors. This was last Feb. 19 when GSW lost by 32 points. And, in that game, while Steph made 31, his nemesis Damian Lillard scored 51. The consolation for the Warriors: they lost that game not at home but at the Moda Center. Expect the Splash Brothers to avenge that defeat and their loss yesterday with a W tomorrow.

In GSW’s remaining six outings, we know which two are most pivotal: against the Spurs. And you know what the Warriors are hoping for? That coach Gregg Popovich will rest the starters. One player thinks this will happen.

“I think no one will play (against the Warriors),” said Tony Parker, in a recent French radio show. “To Pop, the most important thing is that the players are rested for the playoffs… We are sure we will be the second seed and we can all rest before the playoffs.”

If this happens (and given that they play four of the six at home), chances are that the Warriors will break the record. For sure, NBA fans worldwide will be glued to the internet or the TV to follow GSW’s finale.

What’s next? The playoffs, beginning April 16. For now, Steph Curry is compiling incredible numbers. One of those amazing stats is this: He’s averaging exactly 30.0 points per game. And you know his jersey number, right? What accuracy!

Here’s another inconceivable (but-who-knows-it-may-happen) theory: Curry will win a 2nd MVP award — plus the Most Improved Player trophy.

Why, Maria?

Maria_Sharapova

(Photo by John Russo)

Like Manny Pacquiao, Nike ditched her. Porsche, the German sportscar maker who annointed her their first ever female ambassador, sped away and bid her goodbye. But it’s not about the money. Maria Sharapova has plenty. She is the highest-earning female athlete on this planet. On average, she pockets $30 million each year from prize money, endorsements and her myriad of businesses.

This is about humiliation. It’s about one’s name and reputation being painted red and tainted with the ugly taste of drugs. It’s also about wanting to continue playing tennis — kicking those serves, flattening those forehands and pumping those Russian-born fists inside the rectangle.

This is embarrassing. Her fellow players now wonder: In all those 10 years that Maria digested the now-banned drug called Meldonium, was she cheating on us?

Ms. Sharapova said that, in the past decade, her “family doctor” advised her to take the medicine to cure some heart-related problems (like when she broke up with Grigor Dimitrov?). But who will believe her? It now appears that dozens of champions systematically devoured meldonium. The list includes Semion Elistratov, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in short track speed skating, and Abeba Aregawi, the 2013 world champion in the 1500-meter foot race.

“I’ve read 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since January 1st,” said Andy Murray. “You just don’t expect high level athletes at the top of many different sports to have heart conditions. If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug is meant for, then you don’t need it. You’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you and I don’t think that’s right.”

Andy’s right. “I’ve used protein shakes since I was 18 years old, energy gels on court, obviously sports drinks when I’m playing,” he said. “Earlier in my career I would sometimes takes vitamins. Now I don’t take any supplements. If you’re taking a prescription drug that you don’t actually need, that’s wrong.”

Agree. It’s clear that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) included this drug among those to be banned (effective Jan. 1) because it was being abused. I’m sure they conducted tests that revealed its effectiveness in increasing sports-related performance.

“Meldonium is added to the Class S4 (hormone and metabolic modulators) of the WADA Prohibited List 2016,” read the official letter of RUSADA, the anti-doping agency of Russia.

In fairness to Maria, prior to this year, her taking the substance wasn’t illegal. So why did she continue taking it during the Australian Open?

Negligence. I believe her when she says that she and her team did not properly read the literature. But given that she’s THE Maria Sharapova, the Golden Girl who employs a battalion of coaches and lawyers and PTs and more, syaro sad. What a blunder. Just last May at the French Open and during the 2014 WTA Championships in Singapore, I saw with my own eyes her team of hitting-partners and assistants and coaches. What an oversight and foulup.

Because of this “unforced error,” Maria risks being banned for the maximum four years. Ouch. Imagine, at the peak of your powers at the age of 28, being deprived of playing the sport that you love (where you’ve accummulated five Grand Slam singles titles) — for 48 long months?

Her press conference earlier this week, facing the world head-on, was a good move. Unlike the greatest swindler in the history of sports, Lance Armstrong, who camouflaged his injections and tricked all of us not to LiveStrong but to Cheat Strong, Ms. Sharapova has been fortright. Let’s hope the ban gets reduced to two years.

While waiting a return to Wimbledon in 2018, Maria can do plenty. She’ll recuperate from her nagging shoulder and leg injuries. And to alleviate the drug penalty’s bitter taste, she can savor and taste her sweet candy Sugarpova.

La Salle vs. Ateneo

DLSU_VS_ADMU_CNNPH

(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

Like the Crispa Redmanizers and the Toyota Tamaraws of the 1970s, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics of the ‘80s, like Barcelona and Real Madrid in soccer — there’s no rivalry in Philippine sports that rivals the one between La Salle and Ateneo.

One is green; the other is blue. One holds fort at Taft Ave. in Manila while the other is along Katipunan Ave. in faraway Quezon City. And while La Salle features a Green Archer as its symbol, who better to target the bow and arrow than the Blue Eagle?

Since their first meeting as founding members of the NCAA, the two private Catholic institutions have spiked and dribbled and swam against each other since 1924. Would you believe, that’s a 92-year-long tug-of-war.

I witnessed one such clash the other Saturday. And it featured the most popular women’s sport in the country today; the one featuring lady athletes who are celebrities. Women’s volleyball. And it was the first meeting this UAAP Season 78 between the Ateneo Lady Eagles and the La Salle Lady Spikers.

The Smart Araneta Coliseum was divided into two. In one half of the Big Dome, which seats approximately 20,000, you can see one blue color. In the opposite side are cheerers all wearing green. Drum beaters from both squads exchanged firepower. It can’t get more exciting than this.

With the help of my daughter Jana, who’s a first year ADMU student and who resides in the Loyola Heights campus dormitory named Eliazo, she and her tennis varsity teammate Jana Hernandez were able to secure tickets for their parents: for me and Jasmin and for Danny and Chu Fernandez.

DLSU vs. ADMU: Who was I cheering for? Although La Salle Bacolod was my school in elementary, I have since transformed into a blue-blooded parent, thanks to our only child. And so we were seated in some of the best seats in the Ateneo corner. Before the game started, I greeted Rene Almendras, who watched wearing blue.

Ateneo was expected to win. They won last season. They won the season before. In both of those final encounters, Ateneo defeated La Salle. In all, they carried a 24-match winning streak and La Salle was supposed to be an easy victim as the Lady Eagles closed the UAAP first round.

But, no. Alyssa Valdez was off. On multiple occasions, Ateneo would miss a serve and hand La Salle a free point. While Ateneo expected a quick victory, the result was reversed.

013_DLSU_VS_ADMU_CNNPH

(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

First set went to DLSU, 25-22. In the second set, things got worse. La Salle scored the first eight or so points and steamed through the set, 25-14. Finally, in the third, it was the same, 25-18, in favor of the all-jumping and ecstatic La Salle.

I can’t wait for the playoffs, when these two squads hopefully meet again in the championships.

TENNIS. But this wasn’t our only La Salle-Ateneo experience the other Saturday. Earlier that morning, in the tennis courts of Rizal Memorial when the UAAP tennis season finished with the mighty National University Bulldogs winning both the men’s and women’s titles, another duel occured.

In the fight for 2nd Runner-up in the Women’s Division (NU was champion while UST was first runner-up), the scores were tabulated and you won’t believe what transpired.

Ateneo and La Salle were locked in a bout for the trophy. It was one meeting apiece (ADMU won in their first round while DLSU won in Round 2). It was five sets won per team. When the number of sets were computed, it was 10 sets per team. Finally, down to the last figure (the number of games won per team), it was 79-79. A tie!

During the awarding ceremony at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center, it was a beautiful sight. The DLSU ladies in green on the right and the ADMU ladies in blue on the left. Archrivals standing side by side as equals. One trophy shared by two teams.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 10.54.04 AM

Can Manny win our first Olympic gold?

Rio 2016 Logo

Ever since the Philippines competed in this once-every-four-years intramurals called the Olympics (in 1924), we have failed. By “failed,” I mean we have not triumphed at claiming the ultimate prize: the gold medal.

Onyok Velasco reached the finals of the 1996 Games in Atlanta but lost in the men’s light flyweight division. Same with Anthony Villanueva in 1964. In totality, we have accumulated two silver medals and seven bronze medals.

Will this year be different? When, finally, after 92 years of wait, Senator Manny Pacquiao will raise his General Santos-bred arms in Rio de Janeiro, applauded by over 100 million of his fellow Pinoys?

If we look back eight years ago in Beijing, the flag bearer of our nation then was Pacquiao. But he didn’t compete. Will he participate this August?

Manny Pacquiao Beijing 2008

(Getty Images)

Maybe. A massive piece of news erupted just a few days ago. For the first time in Olympic history, boxing is considering the entry of professionals.

If we examine the other sports, they all include professionals in their rosters. Take basketball. It was in 1992 when the entry of the NBA stars was allowed. That’s when the “Dream Team” was formed and Michael, Charles, Larry and Magic annihilated the competition, besting all enemies by an average margin of 44 points per game.

Today, every sport invites both amateurs and professionals to compete in the Olympics. Remember Lionel Messi representing the team in blue-and-white stripes to win the gold for Argentina in 2008? For golf, which will be reinstated in the Olympics, the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy will battle on the Rio links.

The only sport that excludes pros? Boxing. And so the International Boxing Association (AIBA) has proposed a radical move to include the pros in Brazil. This ruling is not final yet. An AIBA congress will be convened in the next few months and a final decision on this matter will be conducted.

But one man is pushing for its inclusion: the AIBA president Dr. Ching Kuo Wo.

“We want the best boxers to come to the Olympics,” said Dr. Wu in a recent Phil. Star article by Quinito Henson. “It is AIBA’s 70th birthday and we want something to change, not after four years but now. It is an IOC policy to have the best athletes in the Games and of the international federations, AIBA is probably the only one without professional athletes in the Olympics.”

Granted it gets approved, no less than Dr. Ching Kuo Wo himself has offered the 37-year-old Pacquiao a wild card (direct) entry — not having to pass through the tedious qualifying process — in the main draw of the Rio Olympics.

Will he compete? Maybe. Maybe not. But if he does, there appears to be two divisions that he can choose from: light welterweight (141 lbs.) or welterweight (152 lbs.).

Olympic boxing, as we’ve observed on TV in the past editions, is vastly different from pro boxing. During the tournament proper (to run from August 6 to 21), Olympic boxing does not involve rankings or seedings. The competitors are paired off at random and it’s a knockout system. You lose and you’re out. Each fight consists of three rounds and each round has the same three minutes.

Previously, the scoring involved five judges who would hold electronic buttons and they’d press each time a boxer connects with a hit. When three out of the five press the button, a score is counted on that boxer. All the points are tallied and the highest-pointer wins.

Not anymore. Since 2013, it’s a 10-point must system (similar to pro boxing) and the scores of three of the five judges (randomly selected by a computer) will be chosen at the end of each round. Head guards, previously a must-wear item, will no longer be used. Is MP open to competing?

“OK naman,” he said, in a GMA News interview with Mav Gonzales two days ago. “Pinag-aaralan pa kung pwede tayo (We are still studying it if it’s possible).”

Now, just imagine with me for a moment: Imagine if Manny wins next month in Las Vegas, wins in May as one of the Lucky 12, and trains to join and wins gold in Rio.

All dunks and all 3-pointers among all stars

What an NBA All-Star Weekend! First, the 3-Point Shootout. Who would have bet that it wouldn’t come down to a Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother contest? It did. Steph Curry buried 23 points in the final and, with the pressure on the sweet-shooting hands of Klay Thompson, the 6-foot-7 son of former pro Mychal Thompson did not disappoint. Klay converted 19 of 25 in the final round for a record-tying 27 points. In all, he shot a whopping 74 percent. Incredible.

The Slam Dunk Contest? Wow. Have we seen a more electrifying mano-a-mano than the one we witnessed last Sunday morning? While defending champ Zach LaVine was the favorite, nobody expected Aaron Gordon to flutter his wings, drift on air and swoop down for those monstrous slams. (In an online survey which pitted LaVine/Gordon against the 1998 rivalry between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the oldies got clobbered: they garnered 11,000+ votes while last Saturday’s high-flying skirmish scored over 30,000.)

I don’t know about you but I thought that the 6-foot-9, 20-year-old from the Orlando Magic won. One article penned it just right: “Aaron Gordon is the greatest dunk contest loser of all time.” That sums up my sentiments, too; and my wife Jasmin’s, who sat beside me in jaw-dropping awe at his acrobatics.

Gordon scored a perfect 50. That singular dunk — sprinting to steal the ball from the green magic dragon’s spinning hand, swirling to a 360-degree turn, holding his left hand at the back of his head and slamming the ball one-handed — that lone move has to rank as one the greatest of dunks since Larry Nance won the first Slam Dunk competition in 1984. But, no. Zach LaVine matched his 50. And, after several more make-shift, on-the-spot acrobats, LaVine defeated Gordon. Too bad.

ALL-STAR GAME. Finally, Valentine’s Day in North America, it was the most awaited game — possibly other than those played in the NBA Finals.

The setting was historic: Toronto, Canada. Although it was the first-ever All-Star hosting for a city outside the U.S., this I didn’t know until yesterday: Canada invented basketball. It was Dr. James Naismith, born in Canada, who invented the game of basketball in 1891. And this you probably also didn’t know: the first NBA game (on Nov. 1, 1946) wasn’t played on U.S. soil but in Toronto. And so the 65th staging of the All-Star Game was a homecoming.

What a scoring exhibition! You thought the Slam Dunk and 3-Point Shootout contests were conducted Saturday night? No, it was Sunday night. Dunks reverberated inside the Air Canada Centre as Chris Paul lobbed balls to Anthony Davis for the slam, as Dwayne Wade flew on air for a millisecond before tossing the ball to a soaring LeBron James for a ring-destroying boom.

Fifteen-footers were disallowed. All shots had to be dunks and three-pointers. From beyond the arc, what a shooting display by these best of the world’s best. By game’s end, the East converted 20 three-pointers while the West made 31. For the West, can you imagine scoring 93 points in a game — just on 3-pointers? Curry shot six, James Harden shot seven, Chris Paul made four, Paul George made nine and Russell Westbrook coverted on seven — and these are just 3-pointers.

On Westbrook, this guy is buaya. He attempted 40 times. (By comparison, Kobe Bryant only attempted 16 shots.) Sure, Westbrook topscored with 31 — but he’s too much of a one-man act. He wanted to repeat as MVP and he got it. My choice? Although the East lost, I’d have chosen Paul George, who scored 41.

The game was so fast-paced that when I switched to the next TV channel — Solar Sports showing a replay of the Gilas vs. Kuwait game — it felt like slow-motion. The All-Star Game was fast-forward, all offense and no defense. Another statistic that’s unbelievable: The East shot only 3-of-5 from the free throw while the West made 1-of-2. Nobody was fouling; nobody wanted to get hurt. Overall, it was pure basketball entertainment. My only regret? The East not scoring 200.

This Valentine’s, a lovefest for Kobe Bryant

kobe-e1421801971103-1940x1091-900x506

On the 20th anniversary of his NBA career, Kobe Bean Bryant is saying farewell. His 37-year-old body is battered. His pro career began on Nov. 3, 1996 when, at the age of 18 years and 72 days, he became the youngest ever to dribble a basketball in the world’s premier league.

Fast forward two decades later, Kobe has amassed so many records that it would fill the entire Sun.Star sports section: League MVP (2008). Five-time champs with the Lakers, 2000-2002 and 2009-2010. Eleven times All-NBA First Team. Nine times All-Defensive First Team. Slam Dunk winner in 1997. Two Olympic gold medals (Beijing and London). Twice the league’s scoring leader, in 2006 and 2007. And possibly the achievements that stand out the tallest: 18 times an NBA All-Star and four times the All-Star MVP.

Speaking of All-Star, you know what’s happening this weekend. It’s that one moment of the whole year when all the world’s greatest basketball artists gather to dunk, slam high-fives, laugh and clap and celebrate each other’s greatness.

And no greater star shines brightest this weekend than the retiring Mr. Bryant. He amassed 1.89 million All-Star votes (besting Steph Curry’s 1.6M). It’s Valentine’s and all the love is showered upon the Los Angeles luminary whose stardom in the city that houses Hollywood rivals that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.

Over 750,000,000 TV viewers are expected to watch the various activities of the NBA All-Star and all eyeballs will be centered on this shooting guard who played all his 20 years with the same squad. Yes, think about it: In this era when LeBron James jumped from Cleveland to Miami and back, when players hop from one city to another based on who offers the largest millions, Kobe has remained loyal to one and only one gold-and-purple team.

Of his longevity, Kobe said this the other day: “I’m looking around the room and I’m seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like 4 for my first All-Star game. How many players can say they played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations? It’s not sad at all.”

Amidst the standing ovation when the NBA All-Star Game unfolds tomorrow morning at 9:30 (Phil. time), let’s see if Kobe doesn’t shed a tear of sadness and fulfillment.

This weekend, in effect, is not a time to honor the dozens who’ve trooped to Canada — it’s a time to honor one man who’s called by many names: KB24, Black Mamba, Kob-Me, Lord of the Rings and Mr. 81. The last nickname refers to that time when Kobe scored 81 in one game — the second-highest in NBA history, after Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. Coincidentally, those 81 points were scored 10 years ago in Toronto.

Of Toronto, the host of the All-Star Weekend, their welcoming all guests at the Air Canada Centre is historic — the first time ever for a city outside the U.S. to host.

The All-Star, as we know, is not only about one game. There are dozens of side events that culminate with the East vs. West finale. There was the Celebrity Game between Team USA and Team Canada. It featured a dunk by Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic. Another attraction was the Rising Stars Challenge featuring Team World versus Team USA. Fil-Am Jordan Clarkson scored 25 points, leading the US to a high-scoring 157-154 win.

Today (Sunday, Phil. time), we can witness three exhilirating events: the Skills Challenge, the Three-Point Contest and the Slam Dunk competition.

Everybody is waiting for Zach Levine’s gravity-defying second act; he’s hoping to become the first back-to-back Slam Dunk champ since Nate Robinson. But the most anticipated contest is the one “from downtown.” It’s the long-range shootfest that will feature eight beyond-the-arc experts, among them Stephen Curry, his teammate Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, J.J. Redick. Last year, Curry scored 27 (the highest ever output since the contest started in 1985). Can he repeat? Let’s watch the action today at 9 a.m. Then, tomorrow, it’s the All-Kobe Show.

Down Under, hot is cool

If you follow this sport that entails slicing backhand shots and smashing forehand drives, then you know what’s at stake this weekend: the Australian Open finals.

Played on hard courts in Melbourne, the Oz Open is the year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament. It’s also, literally, the hottest; on-court temperatures often reach 45 degrees Celcius. But as the event’s saying goes, “Hot is Cool.” Australians are cool people. They’re often relaxed, shorts- and sleeveless-wearing buddies who call themselves “mate.”

The 2016 Australian Open runs two weeks long and the tennis has been blistering and boiling.

First, there was the first round exit of 2009 champion (and 14-slam winner) Rafael Nadal. His five-set loss to Fernando Verdasco — featuring two lefty Spaniards — was shocking not only because Verdasco owned a “lowly” ranking of 45, but also because Nadal has had a resurgence of late. After a career-worst season in 2015, he’s played much better heading to the Australian continent. So that loss was stunning.

Among the other men, almost all the top seeds advanced as expected. The other major surprise was Stan Wawrinka’s loss to Milos Raonic. But, to me, that wasn’t too much of a disturbance. The 6-foot-5 Raonic delivers one of the strongest serves.

How about Novak Djokovic? One word I offer to describe the Serb: unbeatable. In the most-hyped match of the 14-day event — his semifinal encounter against Roger Federer — he toyed with the Swiss in the first two sets, as if the initials RF meant “Recreational First-timer.” As good as Roger and Rafa were during their prime, the 28-year-old appears to elevate his game to even higher levels. He has zero weaknesses. And against Andy Murray in the finals (scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Philippine time tonight), very few give the Under Armour-wearing Scot a chance against the Uniqlo endorser.

TREAT HUEY. One player that we know well who’s played well is Filipino-American Treat (pronouned as “Tret”) Conrad Huey. He’s come to Cebu on numerous occasions when Plantation Bay Resort and Spa hosted the Davis Cup. You’ve seen his 220-kph left-handed service aces.

Treat partnered with Max Mirnyi in the men’s doubles and they reached the quarterfinals. Seeded 14, they upset the fourth-ranked pair of Rohan Bopanna and Florin Mergea in Round 3.

In the mixed doubles, the 30-year-old Treat reached one step further: he and partner Andreja Klepac of Slovakia, unseeded, reached the semifinals — the first time ever in his storied doubles career that Mr. Huey has reached the Final Four of a Grand Slam tournament.

“It was a good run here,” he told CNN Philippines, “getting to the quarterfinals of the men’s doubles and reaching the semifinals with the mixed doubles with Andreja (Klepac).”

Though the mixed doubles result doesn’t count with his ATP world (doubles) ranking, his current spot as world no. 34 will surely improve after this week.

iptl-trit-huey

(Photo by EC Toledo IV/Phil. Star)

Why is Treat’s ranking important? During the Peugeot Open event held at the Cebu Country Club during the Sinulog week, I spoke to Francis Casey (“Niño”) Alcantara and he revealed to me why it’s important that the Fil-Am does well in the coming months.

“If Treat’s world ranking improves to No. 15 or better by June or July,” said Niño, “then he’ll be invited to join the doubles competition of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.”

And if this happens, chances are that Treat’s doubles partner will be Alcantara. (Niño reached the ATP Challenger men’s doubles final in Rizal Memorial in Manila the other week and, back in 2009, he won the Australian Open junior doubles crown.)

This means that the Philippines will have one more pair of athletes who’ll be heading to Brazil — and Treat’s quarterfinal finish a few days ago was a major step towards achieving that target.

Fire the coach when you’re No. 1

If you look at the NBA standings, out of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, one squad stands tallest. It’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sporting a 30-11 win-loss record (that’s a 73.2 percent winning clip), they lead the second-placers Toronto Raptors by three games. The Cavs carry an impressive 16-2 record when playing at “The Q,” their Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland.

Their last 10 games? They won eight. And who can forget them reaching the NBA Finals last season, leading the Warriors two games to one before losing 4-2. Impressive numbers, right? Absolutely.

Well, not exactly. In a bold, decisive and, to many, shocking move, the Cavaliers management have fired their head coach David Blatt. What? Yes, despite leading the conference and getting poised to trample upon the much-weaker East, they tore apart his $5 million annual contract that was stipulated to end next season.

Perplexing? Yes and No. First, “The Loss.” This, to me, was the final episode that tipped the Cavs owners to make the astonishing decision. “The Loss” means that game between Cleveland and Golden State last Monday. After the two finalists played on Christmas Day in California (with GSW winning 89-83), it was revenge time for the Ohio team.

What transpired was more than shocking. It was embarrassing. The Cavs trailed by 30 in the first half and the deficit reached 43 after halftime. At game’s end, the scoreboard read 132-98 for the Warriors. Can you imagine, all game long, the frustration and shame felt by the Cavaliers fans and their owners? Now that the Triple Threat (LeBron, Kevin and Kyrie) was complete, they get disgraced like this? At home?

Never mind if, in the next two games after that horror, the Cavs defeat the Nets and the Clippers — the decision has been made: something drastic has to be done.

David Blatt… you’re fired! So, this is both shocking and not-so-shocking. In a piece by Nate Silver entitled “LeBron’s Cavs Are The Best Team Ever To Fire Its Coach Midseason,” the author writes: “Coaches don’t usually get fired when their teams are playing well. But Blatt’s Cavs haven’t just been good; they’ve been on the verge of great. The team’s current ELO rating is 1669, far higher than that of any other team when it fired a coach mid-season.”

True. But it’s all about expectations. To many, leading the East and garnering a 73 percent winning percentage is excellent. But to LeBron James & Co., that’s not good enough. They want more. And they’ve assembled the James-Love-Irving triumvirate not merely to reach the playoffs. There’s only one goal and that’s to win the NBA season’s very last game.

Why not wait, some are asking, for the season to end before deciding on Blatt’s fate? No, no. The Cavs are impatient — as they should be. And it appears that, behind the scenes, the Cavs were not as cohesive as they need to be.

Amin Elhassan of ESPN Insider says this of the change: “Good move. There had been friction between Blatt and the locker room for most of his tenure. That makes his winning percentage sort of irrelevant because if the team isn’t fully invested, nothing else matters.”

Who’s the replacement? Tyronn Jamar Lue is the new coach. A former NBA player (who won two rings in the ‘90s with the Lakers), he was the Cavs’ assistant coach before moving up the corporate ladder. Based on my readings, Ty Lue is well-liked by the players, especially by the NBA’s four-time MVP, LBJ.

ESPN’s Elhassan’s take on the 38-year-old Lue? TBD, he says. To be determined. “In the short term, it’s a good move in that he has the ear and respect of the locker room, so buy-in will come much more easily for him, especially considering players typically want to play well for a well-liked, respected assistant coach in his first head-coaching gig.”

My take? Given the embarrassment LeBron faced against Steph Curry, this move is necessary. But the burden’s on Coach Ty. He ought to remember this: Blatt was the third coach to be fired in the last four seasons.

Pacman’s finale: calculated, brilliant — but boring

The last time Manny Pacquiao climbed the 20’ x 20’ boxing ring, he lost. That was last May against Mayweather. The last thing Manny Pacquiao wants to happen when he enters the boxing ring for the last time in his career — this April — is another loss.

Against a Junior named Floyd, he lost. That’s why he picked another Junior to win. Thus explains the safeguarded, humdrum, please-not-a-third-time decision to fight Timothy Ray Bradley, Jr.

The choices were plenty. There was Adrien Broner, an American like Bradley who’s fought 34 times, won 31 times, with 23 of those Ws by knockout. He’s the WBA super lightweight champ. There was Amir Khan, the 29-year-old Briton who won the 2004 Olympic silver medal in Athens. And exactly like Broner, he’s climbed the stage on 34 tries and won 31. Finally, Terence Crawford. Nicknamed “Bud” and only 28, he’s the WBO light welterweight champion.

Didn’t Bob Arum himself proclaim last November that the choice had narrowed down to either Amir Khan or Terence Crawford? In the end, familiarity wins. Caution is the parent of safety, a proverb goes. In this case, caution won.

Why risk Manny’s last act to an undefeated 27-0 Crawford? Why risk the last time we’ll remember him shirtless, sweaty and bloodied on the MGM Grand stage to Adrien Broner, who’s Ring Magazine’s No. 6 in the pound for pound rankings?

And so here we are again and again, our Pambansang Kamao facing Desert Storm — their third meeting in Manny’s last seven fights. Why? Maybe Arum has this penchant with even numbers: MP-TB met in 2012… in 2014… in 2016. It’s an every-other-year date.

What do the cynics say about April 9? Ha-ha. Brutal. It ranges from “Morales: Manny Pacquiao Choosing Timothy Bradley Not Thrilling” to “PB3 Would Continue The Wrong Tradition” to “Pacquiao vs. Bradley III: A Fight For The Delusional.”

Arum himself admits that this will be a difficult sell for his Pay-Per-View (PPV) numbers. Coming from Pacquiao’s last outing which generated over 4.4 million buys (majority of whom were very disappointed), the expectations this time are lowly.

“Will we do the same numbers for the first two Bradley fights?” Arum asked. “Probably not. We’re going to try to come as close as we can, and hopefully exceed it, but I understand what we’re up against. I’ve run my numbers and I have done my math. I’m not out here with my head up my ass.”

As charming and smiling as Bob Arum is in person (my dad Bunny and I met him in Macau two years ago), he’s the most astute and cunning of sports promoters.

The 84-year-old Arum knows his figures. The 2012 Manny-Tim bout raked in 890,000 PPV buys. Two years later, it went down to 800,000. This time, 700k? Maybe less? Arum can trumpet the contest this way: Bradley is the new Bradley; he has a new trainer in Teddy Atlas and he KO’d Brandon Rios in the 9th round last November. Plus, this is Manny’s last fight.

As to the rumors circulating that Pac-Man will fight one last time after Bradley — a rematch against Mayweather? I doubt it. It’s possible but very, very, very unlikely.

The month after Pacquiao defeats Bradley to cap an outlandish career that saw him earn billions and win the hearts of millions, he’ll win as senator of the Philippines. By then, Pacquiao’s total focus and time will be centered on another type of slugfest: the political circus.

My take on all this? Like I mentioned before in previous articles, I wished Manny would have ended his career fronting his fellow Pinoys inside the 55,000-seater Philippine Arena. But money talks. And the voice of money is, to Arum, louder than Manny’s. And it points to Las Vegas, not Bulacan.

This Bradley move, years from now, will end up to be an excellent choice for Sen. Pacquiao. He pockets $20 million. He ends his career with a bang — from his Cleto Reyes gloves. And he gains free advertising as all ears and eyes will be fixated on his victory a month before May 9.

Three shockers and a superstar

Seven days have passed since that 13-seconder of a bombshell when Conor McGregor one-punched Jose Aldo into tears and, watching the replay videos and reading the post-fight commentaries, the UFC 194 clash is still talked about as arguably one of the most shocking of fight nights.

Jose Aldo, to the non-MMA follower, is near-invicible. Or, shall I now put it, was unbeatable. He not only won 25 of his 26 fights before last weekend — he was considered the No.1 pound for pound fighter in all of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (minus the loud-mouth) of mixed-martial arts. And, for the past 18 fights spanning 10 years, he had never lost.

To be embarrassed and subdued and to crumble to the ground with his head wobbly and dazed in the shortest UFC championship fight in history makes that victory as one of 2015’s most incredible of stories.

Did the antics and mind games played by McGregor infiltrate the steely mind of the Brazilian? Definitely. Their clash was supposed to happen last July — until Aldo backed out because of injury. Since then, when McGregor defeated Chad Mendes, the Irishman has unleashed one verbal punch after another, insulting Aldo and taunting him. There’s no doubt that the once-inpenetrable brain of Aldo was pierced and wounded even before they stepped into the eight-sided ring.

What’s amazing was how McGregor looked so loose and relaxed, as if this were some rock concert in Dublin where he’d sing and dance while everyone clapped. This was the biggest Saturday of his life. And while many questioned his showboatmanship and moviestar-like publicity stunts prior to Dec. 12, after UFC 194, nobody will question his talent and gift.

It’s like that advertisement: “Blood. Sweat. And Respect. The first two you give; the last you earn.” Surely, given the years of sweat that McGregor has poured, he’s earned our respect.

What’s exciting about McGregor is his personality. While some superstars are reserved (Aldo) or gentlemen-like (Federer and Nadal; thus, not attracting controversy), the 27-year-old, 5-foot-9, 145-lb. featherweight champ is all about hoopla, hysteria and notoriety. That’s why he’s labeled The Notorious.

Sport is entertainment. And this man, to match his skill inside the octagon, is a wild beast of an entertainer whose body is littered with tattoos and whose English accent spews invectives. His being articulate is a huge plus for his appeal. Interviewed by Joe Rogan, the new champ delivers seven words onstage that should be memorized by every fighter: “Precision beats power and timing beats speed.”

As McGregor was ready for the win, he, too, was ready with that quotable quote. His conquest was massive. It goes beyond the personal triumph of a former plumber turned MMA celebrity; it was a major score for UFC’s popularity.

Speaking of upsets — as this was an upset win over Aldo — who would have pictured the all-red, all-swollen, all-demolished face of Chris Weidman. He looked smaller than Luke Rockhold. He looked less confident; his kicks stung less than the challenger’s. He was totally outclassed. Where was Anderson Silva’s tormentor? Given that bloody mess that carved Weidman’s face, Herb Dean should have stopped the bout at the end of the 3rd. Maybe the referee had too much respect for Weidman, thinking that the previously-undefeated New Yorker would resurrect himself? Maybe. Still, that was too brutal and grisly an ending.

The worst upset of all? The previous UFC event (UFC 193) held in Melbourne. Who’d have expected Ronda Rousey to be downed in Down Under. Wasn’t she the person whom Joe Rogan called, “Once in a lifetime doesn’t apply to Ronday Rousey. It’s once EVER in human history?” Those words were a bad omen. (On RR, you should read ESPN’s exclusive story, “Rousey Says She’s Down But Not Out,” her first interview since that embarrassment.)

Aldo. Weidman. Rousey. What does this teach us? “To never let success get to your head and to never let failure get to your heart.”

Will the Golden State Warriors ever lose?

Ha-ha. Of course they will. The NBA regular season stretches to 82 games per team and, thus far, we’re wrapping up the first quarter; 24 percent of the games have been played and GSW has been spotless.

“After coming off a championship run, one would think that the Golden State Warriors would still be hung over from winning it all,” said Jonas Panerio of Cebu Daily News, in an email yesterday. “But no; fuelled (or more like, angered) by naysayers and doubters who threw shade on what they did the past year, the Warriors took what already was a well-oiled machine and turned it into an unstoppable juggernaut, winning 20 in a row behind a beautiful brand of basketball that have made them the biggest draw in the league.”

Twenty-zero. Since their first game last October 27 until today, they’ve faced 15 different squads and defeated each one. When they met the Brooklyn Nets last Nov. 14, the team from New York led by three points with 10 seconds left. But a long-range missile from Andre Iguodala tied the game, sent it to OT, and after 34 total points from Mr. Curry, the Warriors smiled at game’s end, 107-99. Against the LA Clippers days later (Nov. 19), the Clippers led by as much as 23. In the 2nd quarter, the score posted at the giant screen of Staples Center was 50-27, in favor of Griffin & Co. But like Houdini, GSW escaped and clawed its way back to snatch the prize, 124-117.

“When will they lose?” asked Panerio. “Nearly 20 teams have tried. All have failed. Pundits are saying that they will at some point during their current seven-game road trip. Your guess is as good as mine.”

At 6 a.m. today (Phil. time), GSW’s record-breaking run is again under threat when they face the Toronto Raptors (who possess a 12-8 record). This is their second meeting. Last Nov. 17, the squad from Canada came close, losing 110-115 after 37 points from Steph Curry.

After today’s trip to Toronto, it will be four more visits for Golden State (in Brooklyn, Indiana, Boston and Milwaukee) before they play five straight at home. We all know, at some point, that the Warriors will lose. But we can’t help but root for their perfect run. When this golden episode ends, Panerio adds tackeld GSW’s next target: “The talks have been ripe of the possibility of touching or even breaking the 1995-96 Bulls’ regular season record of 72-10.”

One lucky father-and-son tandem who recently saw the Warriors was Dr. Ronald Eullaran and his son Ron Ryane.

Cebu’s top rheumatologist, Dr. Ron attended a conference in San Francisco and for one week bonded with his son. They toured the headquarters of Google, Apple and Facebook. And, to celebrate his 13th birthday during the trip, one stop that the young Ron “Yani” Eullaran requested was a trek to Oracle Arena. The date was Nov. 9. The Eullarans arrived at the venue so early that Yani was interviewed by the local TV station. He spoke about flying to America and making sure he watches his favorite, Steph Curry.

Of the 27-year-old, 6-foot-3 MVP, whose nicknames include “Baby-Faced Assasin” and “Golden Boy,” Panerio writes: “Sports writers, talking heads and analysts are quickly running out of adjectives to describe the daily devastation that the golden one is wreaking upon the league. With a Player of the Month award already tucked in his belt after averaging 31.6 points, six assists and five rebounds, Curry is quickly rewriting common basketball convention with a framework he calls his own. I mean really, what can be done with a guy who strikes while you’re still setting the defense up, often from ranges you don’t even cover?”

SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal adds: “Stephen Curry doesn’t just excel at basketball. He affronts our customs for presenting and enjoying basketball. If Steph wrote a movie, the good guy would kill the bad guy in the opening credits. Steph dismantles the structure on which an entire production is built. He breaks every rule the rest of us are trained to follow and flourishes just the same. It’s not fair.”

NBA 2015-2016: Here’s what to expect

This Wednesday morning (Tuesday 8 p.m. in Chicago), the 70th season of the NBA unfolds. What a first game awaits us, basketball fanatics: it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbling against the Bulls at the United Center — a stadium immortalized by the high-flying acrobatics of MJ.

The NBA regular season begins on Oct. 27 and ends on April 13. That’s 169 days. Within these five and a half months, 30 teams will compete for 16 slots to qualify for the Playoffs.

We all remember the NBA Finals last June 5 to 17. The Cavs — limping without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but subsisting on the broad shoulders of LeBron James — led the series 2-1 before disintegrating in the next three games to hand the trophy to the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry, who visited Manila last Sept. 5, was the league’s MVP.

That’s the past. What are the predictions for this season? One of the most awaited of surveys is the one that the league itself conducts prior to the start. It’s called the NBA.com GM Survey.

GM, obviously, stands for General Manager — and each of the 30 GMs is asked by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann a list of 49 assorted questions ranging from “Which team will win the 2016 NBA Finals?” to “Which active player will make the best head coach someday?” (answer: Chris Paul) to as tough a query as “Who is the toughest player in the NBA?”

Golden State will not repeat as champs! That’s the overiding message of the respondents. Cleveland ranked first, garnering 53.6% of the votes, followed by San Antonio (25%), with the Warriors a distant third with 17.9%. (For comparison, last year’s pick was San Antonio at 46.2% — and we know that they lost Game 7 in the first round to the Clippers after that last-second layup by Chris Paul.)

The Top Four teams, according to the GM survey, are: in the East, it’s Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami and, in the West, the four include Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the LA Clippers.

MVP? Same as last year, the GMs picked the 31-year-old Akron, Ohio-native who stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 250 lbs. Mr. James got a 39.3% rating followed by Anthony Davis (25%) with Kevin Durant and James Harden tied in third at 10.7%. Surprisingly, the reigning MVP (codenamed “The Baby-Faced Assasin”), got only 7.1%, tied with Russell Westbrook.

I rattle off a few more significant results:

Best center: Marc Gasol, 65.5%. The Spaniard is also the top pick in the “NBA’s best international player” query, defeating his older brother Pau.

Best power forward: Anthony Davis, scoring 82.1%.

Rookie of the Year? The 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor, who’ll play center for the Philadelphia Sixers. He out-pointed 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns, 44% vs. 34%.

Top coach? Garnering an almost-perfect 93.1% score and who was recently named Team USA’s coach: Gregg Popovich.

Most fun team to watch? Warriors, getting the nod of 28 out of the 30 (there’s no “perfect” score because a team can’t vote for itself).

Most athletic player? 1) Westbrook; 2) LeBron; 3) Zach Lavine, who won the slam dunk contest last year; 4) A. Davis.   

Best pure shooter: Curry (who else?) at 79.3%, followed by Kyle Korver (10.3%), Klay Thompson (6.9%) and Anthony Morrow (3.4%).

Best passer: Chris Paul. (CP3 also won “the best basketball IQ” contest, besting LeBron and Steph.)

A few more compelling finds: Dwight Howard is nowhere in the list. While he was named in last year’s survey as “the best center,” this time, he didn’t extract a single vote. Andre Iguodala of the Warriors was picked “the bench player who makes the biggest impact when he enters the game” and Tony Allen of Memphis gets the nod for the “Toughest player in the NBA” plum.

Finally, the GMs pick for that Mythical Five: Curry, Harden, M. Gasol, Davis and James. They’d be the starting five to represent Planet Earth if we got involved in an intergalactic Star Wars.

Lamar Odom’s sad but unsurprising fall

The 6-foot-10 former LA Lakers forward was close to dying. Found unconscious and vomitting blood and “white stuff” from his mouth and nose last Wednesday, he appears to have awoken from coma and is responding. This is terrific news. It would have been tragic had the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year (in 2011) died at the young age of 35. Odom, if you remember, helped the Lakers win in 2009 and 2010. His NBA career spanned 14 years.

This recent nosedive by Odom is sad. It appears that he overdosed on cocaine and other pills. This type of story among top-caliber athletes, though, is not uncommon. After experiencing the highs of stardom and money, when such athletes (or movie actors and entertainers) retire and are no longer in the limelight, they fall. They escape. All their lives, they’ve played the game so well — and now they don’t know what to do. With their money. With their not being the star.

That’s why we often see these aged, long-retired superstars make a comeback. They miss the applause and camera clicks. They’re no longer mentioned in Twitter. Video clips of their acrobatics no longer proliferate in YouTube. Some come back. Some do drugs and destroy their lives, like Lamar.

But Lamar’s not the only one to squander wealth and success. The list is long: Michael Vick (NFL), Marion Jones, Vin Baker (to alcoholism), Tiger Woods, and the worst example of all, Mike Tyson, who transformed his $300 million income to $30 million in debt (plus a battery of charges that include domestic violence and sexual assault).

This is sad and bad. But plenty have also done good. Others, after retirement, have turned to mentoring the youth. They coach. Some build their own academies and training camps.

I’m reminded of Andre Agassi. The winner of eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, when Andre retired from tennis because of severe back pain, he turned productive.

He became a businessman. While still world’s No.1, he capitalized on his good name, forming “Official All Star Cafe” with fellow stars Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey, Jr., Monica Seles, Joe Montana and Shaq. He invested in several more business ventures. (Another excellent move by Andre: he married Steffi Graf!)

But ask Agassi what he’s proudest about and he’d probably answer this: the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. Investing $35 million of his personal funds, he built a school in his hometown of Las Vegas for at-risk children. Starting with only three levels, the school is now a full K-12 institution. Said Andre: “Early on, we concluded that the best way to change a child’s life was through education.”

As heartbreaking as Odom’s latest episode unfolds, people like Andre inspire. They give back. One example is his group “Athletes For Hope,” a philantrophic and charitable organization represented by top athletes. Among Agassi’s companions include Muhammad Ali, Alounzo Mourning and Mia Hamm.

One unfortunate co-member? Like Lamar, a member of the “Fall from Grace” athletes club? Lance Armstrong.

What’s wrong with Novak Djokovic?

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.50.15 AM

(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you examine his game, there are zero weaknesses. Traditionally, the backhand is the weaker side. Take a look at Nadal or Sampras or Federer or McEnroe. The one area of vulnerability in their arsenal is the backhand. Not Djokovic. His two-handed strike is one of the all-time best. He can smother it on-the-rise crosscourt or he can lambaste a down-the-line stunner. He serves 125-mph aces. His forehand topspin is offensive and offers a wallop. He has a deft dropshot touch and his defensive skills, turning a losing point into a winning shot, is peerless.

Few players in history have had a better season than Novak’s 2015. He triumphed in Melbourne during the Australian Open. He outsthone the competition on grass at Wimbledon. He conquered Federer’s SABR (long-named Sudden Attack By Roger) to prevail in New York’s U.S. Open. And, at the French Open — where my own bare eyes got to see his magic at Stade Roland Garros — he won his first six matches and was nearing his first clay-court Grand Slam title when he was disquieted by Stan Wawrinka.

Still, when you win 27 of the year’s 28 Grand Slam singles matches in a 64-win, 5-loss season — that’s outstanding.

Why, then, the title (above)? Because as fascinating as Novak Djokovic’s record shows, he’s not as celebrated and loved as his two main tormentors named Roger and Rafa.

Ask any tennis fan who among the Big Three they idolize and chances are the reply will either be R or R. Why not ND?

Firstly, the Serb still trails the Swiss and the Spaniard. When we talk of major titles, Roger Federer leads the pack with 17 .That’s followed by the 14 of Rafael Nadal. Plus, through the years, Roger and Rafa have developed a special and emotional bond with their fans. Both their games, to start with, are different. One is right-handed; the other, a lefty. One attacks with flat, offensive strikes; the other, with a looping uncontainable spin. And so for so many years, Novak has been the Supporting Actor in a tennis movie that starred two Leading Actors.

Not anymore. Two nights ago, when I arrived home past 9 p.m., I turned-on the TV set and pressed “701.” It was the championship game of the China Open in Beijing. This site brings back memories because it was in 2008 when they unveiled the tennis center during the Beijing Olympics. Eight Augusts ago, Jasmin and I watched Nadal win the Olympic gold.

Last Sunday, he looked like tarnsihed gold. Against Djokovic, he was getting clobbered. When I watched, the score read “6-2, 4-1.” Nadal, who did not win a single major title this year (the first time it’s happened since 2004), has been playing dull and subpar tennis this season. Having won 9 of the previous 10 French Opens, he lost in the quarters in Paris (to, who else, but Novak).

Rafa whipped his forehand, sliced that backhand, spun and swerved his serve — all to no avail. Two games later, it was over, 6-2, 6-2.

It’s not like Nadal, who, at 29 is a year older, played badly. It’s just that Djokovic is the Ronda Rousey of tennis. He’s unbeatable. Looking at the statistics of the Novak-Rafa match, it offered extraordinary numbers: Novak scored 7 aces to zero for Rafa. His first serve percentage stood at 82 percent. He amassed 16 winners to only 7 from Rafa and won 62 vs. 43 points.

“I know today Novak is not in my league,” admitted Rafa. “He has been on a different level to me this year.”

In the whole China Open, just examine the scores accumulated by Djokovic (6-1, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2) en route to winning his sixth China Open title in as many tries.

But going back to the “Roger and Rafa are more loved than Novak” line, the Serb is just as nice and is trying hardest to be loved by fans. Moments after his win last Sunday, he scribbled a Chinese character on the TV screen. Then, in the post-match interview, he spoke a few words in Chinese — to add to the five languages that he speaks (Serbian, English, French, German and Italian). What a world No. 1.

Suggestion for Senator Manny Pacquiao

Congress

There is little doubt that, come May 9, 2016, when the elections unfold, the planet’s most famous Filipino will be admitted entry into the Senate. It’s not a question of “if” Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao will be victorious but by what ranking among the Top 12.

In the 2013 elections, Manny wanted to run as senator but he was then ineligible. He’s now 36 years of age — leapfrogging the barrier that states that one has to be 35-and-older.

Having fought a total of 65 fights in his professional career, sporting a 57-win, 6-loss and 2-draw record, Manny is nearing the end of his boxing career. You and I know this. He’s lost three of his last six and has not knocked-out an opponent since Miguel Cotto in 2009. At 36, one’s physical state is in decline. Manny knows this and he knows that he has, at best, one career-ending skirmish left in his career.

My suggestion for Pacman? Stage that finale in Manila! Do it for your Pinoy fans. Manny doesn’t need the money. He grossed $150 million when he faced Floyd Mayweather, Jr. last May in what was billed as the highest grossing fight of all time. In his career spanning two decades, he’s amassed billions of pesos.

Do it for us, Manny. You know when the last time was when Manny fought on Philippine soil? I saw that contest inside the Araneta Coliseum against Oscar Larios in July 2006. It will be 10 years next year since he’s last fought before his fellow Filipinos. The ideal time for Manny to don those gloves and fight once more is before the May elections. When he becomes senator, he said that he wants to treat it seriously and not be absent, like he’s often been as congressman. Would you believe that, as Sarangani representative, Pacquiao was present in Congress only four times in 2014?

“I will have to give up the other things that require my attention. If you are a senator, your focus should only be your job and your family,” Pacquiao said in an interview.

This admission offers an insight into Manny’s plans: Once a senator, he’ll give up boxing. “I think I’m ready (to retire). I’ve been in boxing for more than 20 years,” he said on ABS-CBN. Now that Manny’s rotator cuff tear injury appears to be healed, the target date for his next fight is February or March. It can’t be later than that because Manny still has to campaign for at least a month before we go to the polls.

Bob Arum confirmed his ward’s plans in an interview last month with Dan Rafael of ESPN: “He’s not going to run for re-election to congress. Instead, he’s running for senate, and in the Philippines, the senate is a national election. So he wants to fight and then concentrate on the campaign. It’s very important to him. I’ve spoken to Manny a couple of times (recently), and he is more interested in talking politics than boxing.”

Against who? ESPN’s Dan Rafael, one of the most respected boxing writers, said Arum revealed five possible opponents. Wrote Mr. Rafael: “The list includes leading candidate Amir Khan, a former unified junior welterweight titlist and top welterweight contender, welterweight titleholder Kell Brook, junior welterweight titlist Terence Crawford, junior welterweight contender Lucas Matthysse and Juan Manuel Marquez, the Mexican great Pacquiao has waged four outstanding fights against, going 2-1-1 but finishing the fourth fight on his face as the result of a gargantuan sixth-round knockout in December 2012… England’s Khan (31-3, 19 KOs), passed over multiple times by Mayweather, who continually mentioned him as a leading candidate only to fight somebody else, knows Pacquiao well. They sparred together when Khan was trained by Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s longtime cornerman.”

To me, the most riveting is “Pacquiao vs. Amir Khan.” The only problem? Arum wants it in Las Vegas. Not again, Bob!

Instead, come March 2016, Manny’s last boxing fight should be inside the Philippine Arena. What a farewell — and a perfect campaign rally consisting of 55,000 screaming fans all cheering for the future senator.