Monthly Archives: October 2015

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.

A tall order, Gilas falls short

Gilas-vs-Japan-October-2-2015-2

(Fiba.com)

To win gold, we knew what we had to do: Play near-perfect basketball. And for the first four minutes last Saturday night, we performed like we did against Iran.

Jayson Castro scored two in the 50th second. Dondon Hontiveros unleashed an intercontinental ballistic missile against Beijing that detonated in Changsa. We were up 5-0 after 90 seconds. Then, after an avengeful three from Y. Ding, our Gabe Norwood uncorked a jumper to move us forward, 7-3. Back to back threes from both squads advanced the score. We led 10-6. Then, 12-10. And after Norwood converted on a surprising three-pointer, our beloved Pilipinas, after 3:58 elapsed in the game, commanded a 15-10 lead!

Was it going to be this easy? Were we flying to Rio de Janeiro, our first Olympic trek since the 1972 days of Bogs Adornado and Manny Paner? As “prize,” were we going to claim the Spratly Islands?

Too bad, our luck evaporated. The Chinese accelerated on 12 unanswered points. Within minutes, our advantage disappeared and, by the end of the first quarter, we trailed 23-19. We would never draw closer — trailing by as much as 16 before the final score, 78-67.

What happened? Simple. Had we played like we played in those first 3:58 minutes, we’d have claimed victory. That was the only path. Our 31st-ranked Philippines battling the world’s 14th-ranked nation, our average old age (31) versus China’s youthful average of 24, our height disadvantage, with the Chinese averaging 6-foot-8 — the only way to beat the world’s most populous nation (our 100 million-strong population versus their 1.3 billion) was to play like we did in those first 238 seconds.

We did not. We couldn’t sustain it. Here’s the most telling statistic: Castro scored five quick points after the game’s first two and a half minutes. You know how many more he scored in the rest of the game? Three. In all, Castro attempted 14 times and converted only thrice for a lowly 21.4% clip. There’s no way we’re going to win if Asia’s best point guard scores a measly eight points.

And we blame poor officiating for the loss? Come on, guys. We lost because we played perfectly for four minutes and subpar and unsatisfactorily for the next 36.

Here’s another disappointing statistic: our free throw percentage. In one stretch, Calvin Abueva missed four in a row and five out of six. In those moments when no seven-footer is fronting us, we miss. In all, we missed nine free throws while making 15. (Reminds me of the three straight free throw misses of Kiefer Ravena in last Sunday’s Ateneo loss to La Salle.)

Overall, our field goal percentages were lowly: We shot 6-of-24 from three point range (25 percent) and 23-of-65 total for a 35.4% field goal percentage.

Why such a terrible outing — possibly our worst showing apart from that loss to Palestine — on the tournament’s most important game?

I’ll answer this query based on my experience as a tennis player. There are moments when, faced with a weak opponent, I’m scoring winners and playing like Roger Federer. But when up against, for example, a Johnny Arcilla, I may look like a beginner, losing 6-0.

My point? It depends on the opponent. And the Chinese were unstoppable. First, their height. They possessed double twin towers: two 7-footers in Yi and Wang while Zhou stood at 7’1” and Li at 7’2”. When those long legs jump and those long arms outstretch, to a 6-footer like Terrence Romeo, they look like a forest packed with giant Sequoia trees.

Andray Blatche, standing 6’11”, soared tall against the likes of Japan and Lebanon. He received the ball at the top of the key; he’d back up, cross-dribble, turn and sprint towards the goal for an uncontested two. In previous games, he dominated with his height. Not against China, where he was intimidated to penetrate, getting blocked by gangly Chinese arms.

Our one-two punch consisting of Castro and Blatche inflicted only jabs instead of uppercuts. They scored a combined 25 points (compared to 44 against Iran). Not good enough. Good enough for silver — but not gold.

For Gilas, a clear path to the finals

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I like that quote. Here are two more: “If you run after luck, you will spoil many pairs of shoes” and “Success is simply a matter of luck; just ask any failure.”

Are we lucky? Gi-swerte ta that, from the quarterfinals all the way to the championship, we are able to avoid the likes of Korea, Iran and China?

No and Yes. If we didn’t beat the giants of FIBA Asian basketball last Saturday, clobbering the seemingly-unbeateable Iranians by 14 points, we wouldn’t have reached the No. 1 spot.

That’s not luck. That’s Jason scoring 26, Andray blocking four shots, Terrence zigzagging his way past a maze of defenders. It turns out, that win was more than a W: It didn’t just qualify us to enter the knockout playoff stage, it allowed us to stay clear of hazards. It cleared the treacherous path for us to reach the finals.

We battle Lebanon tonight at 9:30. Everybody will watch! While we finished a high 4-1 in the preliminary round, Lebanon’s grade stood at 2-3.  And while we’re 31st-ranked in the world, the Lebanese linger just three ranks below at 34. Last week, they lost to two notable countries: against Korea, by 14 (85-71) and got schooled in Chinese dribbling by the hosts, 90-72.

On paper, this isn’t only a must-win for Gilas but a ballgame that we ought to win. We’re favored. At game’s end, we’re expected to high-five and beam toothful smiles.

Tomorrow, it’s either Qatar or Japan. Qatar is a small nation of only 2.2 million. In the preliminary round, they performed well to subdue Lebanon (105-100) and Korea, 69-63. Facing China, though, they got humiliated, 89-65. Since this is a crossover stage, it will be their first tournament meeting against Japan, an exciting game whose victor we will face in tomorrow’s semifinals.

The next three days will be one of Philippine basketball’s most important. It’s a new month; a new path to the Olympics.