Monthly Archives: September 2017

Star Wars

Only LeBron James can call the U.S. president “U Bum” and be considered a hero. Voted by his peers as “The Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team,” only LBJ can manufacture a “3 in 1” deal: absorb the shocking loss of Kyrie Irving and emerge with three replacements: Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Dwayne Wade.

D-Wade? Yes. It’s no secret that the former Miami Heat teammates are best friends. For four years while together in Florida, they made the trip to the Finals each season and won twice. Can D-Wade’s reported entry into the Cavs elevate this squad to rival Golden State? Absolutely.

What we’re seeing is the beauty and defect of the NBA. The strong become stronger while the weak turn powerless. There’s GSW. Has there ever been a stronger bunch in the league’s 71-year history than the formation of Steph, Klay, Draymon and Kevin? Probably not. I’d rank this gang higher than MJ-Pippen.

The NBA has 30 teams. The idea is to distribute the talent so no one team dominates completely. But we know the world doesn’t operate this way. Some have more money. Others have the clout of a Magic Johnson who can lure a Lonzo Ball.

The NBA has entered the era of the “Super Teams.” Of the 29 U.S. cities plus Toronto competing in the NBA, these “super teams” are a handful of squads whose roster includes at least three superstars. And unless you’ve assembled such All-Stars, you’re doomed.

This 2017-2018 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder has emerged as a super team. Joining the MVP Russell Westbrook is Paul George. And if that one-two punch isn’t potent enough, Carmelo Anthony leaves New York to form their Big 3.

The Houston Rockets is another. James Harden is joined by Chris Paul. How about the New Orleans Pelicans, with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis? My question is: Why the lopsided strength of the Western Conference? GSW, OKC, Houston, Spurs. And there’s the Minnesota Timberwolves with Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins.

The East? We might as well proclaim the Cavs as East Champs because of their lack of competition. It’s unfair and lopsided, this West vs. East pendulum.

As for LeBron and Wade, their bromance started in Miami and is continuing in Cleveland. But these two aren’t young; LeBron turns 33 in December and Wade celebrates his 36th birthday the month after.

“I would love to have D-Wade a part of this team,” James said of his 12-time All-Star best friend. “I think he brings another championship pedigree, championship DNA. He brings another playmaker to the team who can get guys involved, can make plays and also has a great basketball mind.”

Come October 17 when the NBA’s first regular season game kicks off and, perfectly-scripted, the Cavs face the Celtics, LeBron’s face will be smirking at Kyrie as if to say, I got Isaiah, Derrick and my man D-Wade to replace you, boy!

Fast forward to the 2018 NBA Finals, imagine a line-up featuring Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Iguodala against James, Rose, Wade, Thomas and Love. Like the intergalactic movie series, I can’t wait for this real-life Star Wars, Part 4.

President vs. El Presidente

Last month, when Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano resuscitated our nation’s bid to host the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, I thought that unity in sports would follow.

When the DFA chieftain sat in front of the table with the Philippine Sports Commission chairman in one side and the Philippine Olympic Committee president on the other, I thought that partisanship and bickering had ended.

I was mistaken. Politics in sport is lousy. Sport brings unity. (Just don’t ask Donald Trump!) Sport does not care if you’re black or white or Filipino or Spaniard or Roman Catholic or Muslim. Sport transcends all divisions and focuses on a human being’s capacity to endure physical and mental suffering to triumph.

That’s the beauty of sport. It connects people. It joins different personalities and the outcome — who’s the fastest or stongest — is determined by one’s heart and not color of skin.

So I was happy to learn of our SEAG hosting two years from now. We were at the brink of informing our Asean neighbors that we were backing out.. only for Cayetano to assume the chairmanship and say, Yes, we’re hosting.

Now, the question: Given that politics in sport is distressing and ugly, is the latest move headed by PSC Commissioner Ramon Fernandez a good one? Last Wednesday, the 6-foot-5 Cebuano who won four PBA MVP crowns and 19 championship trophies led the community in demanding one outcome: Oust Peping.

It’s El Presidente against the POC President. The PBA’s all-time leading scorer with 18,996 points and all-time rebounder with 8,652 rebounds against the 83-year-old Jose Cojuangco, Jr. who has been the all-time longest running POC president.

My opinion on this battle? As much as I am for peace and unity, especially in sports, I am supporting Mon Fernandez. So are a vast majority of people, including athletes.

Why does Peping want to hang on to a position that has given our nation poor results and where he’s being lambasted by almost every sector in our sports community?

Power. That’s the only reason I can come up with. It can’t be “because I want to improve sports.” He’s had three full POC terms (totaling 12 years) and the results are worsening. He’s presided over seven SEA Games and, counting the total medals by Team PHL, we’ve won… 291 medals (in 2005), 228 (2007), 124 (2009), 169 (2011), 101 (2013), 131 (2015), and last month, 121 medals. Notice the deteriorating pattern? It can’t be “because I promise change.” He and his cohorts cannot win this argument because he is much older than, say, Ricky Vargas, who ran against him in last year’s POC elections.

Power. Given that the Cojuangcos are out of political power, he just wants to hang on to this power, via sports. It’s unfortunate, selfish, unpatriotic.

There’s still time. We are at the early stages of preparing for SEAG 2019. If there’s any good time for a change in leadership, it’s now. If he wants to be remembered as a good sportsman, he should do the right thing. The question begs: Is Peping willing?

Sweet 16

I set the alarm at 4:30 a.m. yesterday but only got up an hour later. When I switched on to Fox Sports (channel 758 in SkyCable), Rafael Nadal was leading 6-3, 4-2. An hour later, dressed in black with pink Nike trimmings, the Spaniard had defeated Kevin Anderson.

Prior to the 2017 start, did you ever think that Rafa and Roger Federer would win all four Grand Slam singles titles? Before January, Roger was ranked No. 17 and Rafa was barely inside the Top 10. Both were over 30 years old and had not won a major in years. That was then. Now, they’ve alternated victories: Roger in Melbourne, Rafa in Paris, Roger in London, and Rafa in New York.

R & R own 35 majors. Comparing tennis with the same individual sport that also has four majors per year, golf has Jack Nicklaus with 18 majors and Tiger Woods at 14. That’s 32 for golf vs. 35 for tennis. But the big difference: Nicklaus is 77 years old while Tiger, who sat in Rafa’s box over the weekend to watch his fellow Nike endorser, is no longer going to win the big ones. Roger and Rafa, while aged 36 and 31, are getting better and will add to their harvest.

Speaking of harvest, Rafa pocketed $3.7 million for winning seven matches at the U.S. Open, the largest purse in tennis. Overall, including endorsements from Kia Motors, Richard Mille and Tommy Hilfiger, Rafa is estimated to have earned over $90 million.

(Photo: AP/Julio Cortez)

With his New York victory, you can say that Rafa is also lucky. Juan Martin del Potro dispatched of his biggest threat, Federer, and he never had to face an opponent who was ranked No. 24 or higher. Since the seedings were increased from 16 to 32 in 2002, this is the first time that a major winner did not face a top-20 seeded player. Also the first time for Rafa to win a Grand Slam trophy without facing Roger, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka.

The main cause for this less-difficult-to-win Slam for Rafa? One word: injuries. None of the Big 3 (Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka), winners of the four majors in 2016, joined the U.S. Open. Added to the list of non-participants were Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

Nadal took advantage of this lack of competition and, excluding two four-setters in the earlier rounds and his first set loss to Del Potro, he played near-flawless tennis.

Anderson, who himself came back from injury, praised the 16-major champion, saying, “I know we’re the same age but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life… You’re one of the toughest competitors in the game and one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”

I agree. I’ve been following tennis for over three decades now and there is no one with more fire and competitive spirit than Rafa. In my assessment, his 10 French Open crowns (the Paris major is the calendar’s toughest event) is one of the sporting world’s most incredible achievements.

Rafa and Roger, No. 1 and No. 2, will continue to battle for that year-end top spot until the season ends. As for 2018, how exciting can it get? Novak, Andy and the others are returning, well-rested. Plus, there’s Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev. And, having just given birth, Serena Williams will win the Australian Open in January.

  

United States Open

There’s no city on earth like New York. Neon lights blink at noon, yellow cabs zoom past Times Square, skyscrapers touch the clouds, and Broadway shows are $450 real-life movies. The city that never sleeps is forever awake, hungry and restless.

It’s fitting that the United States Tennis Open is not located in sunny Florida or relaxed California but in the Big Apple.

I’ve been blessed to have visited the U.S. Open grounds twice, first as spectator and second as passerby, and it’s humongous. Flushing Meadows in Corona Park, where the 22 courts inside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are found, is sprawling wide at 46.5 acres. At the center looms the 23,771-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the 1968 Open champion who succumbed to AIDS in 1993.

Today, it’s the Women’s Singles final (at 4:30 a.m., Philippine time) and the organizers could not have choreographed a better finale. Two American ladies face each other in the only major fought on North American soil.

“Having four Americans in the semi-finals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now,” said Sloane Stephens, who defeated Venus Williams in the semifinals.

Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys. Who are they? They’re the finalists. (I wouldn’t be surprised if had not heard of them prior to today.) They’re no Sharapova or Bouchard or Halep or Pliskova or Kerber.

The story of Ms. Stephens is incredible. At the U.S. Open last year, she withdrew because of a foot injury. Last January, she watched the Australian Open on TV while her leg was covered with a large cast. When she was able to move, she swatted tennis balls while seated. After 11 months, she returned to Wimbledon ranked 957th. Since then, she has won 14 of 16 matches and is en route to her first Grand Slam trophy. 

“I have no words to describe my feelings and what it took to get here,” said Stephens. “When something gets taken away from you, you kind of are forced to deal with your situation. Having surgery, being on that peg leg, not being able to live my life the way I wanted to, I don’t know if it was like a humbling experience, but it was more of just like—how do you say that—realization? I just needed to just appreciate all the things I had in my life.”

Madison Keys has an equally powerful story to tell. She started playing tennis at the age of 9 at the Chris Evert Academy in Florida. Now 22, she also got injured early this year, missing the Melbourne major when she had surgery on her left wrist. She’s back and, ranked 16, is slightly favored to beat Stephens.

The all-American final is a first not involving Serena and Venus in 33 years, when Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1984. You can say that these two are lucky because Serena Williams just gave birth, carrying her own prize in the form of a baby girl (whose name has yet to be revealed).

For the men, Rafa Nadal’s path to a 16th major was cleared by Roger Federer when the Swiss lost to Juan Martin del Potro. After watching Nadal annihilate the Argentinian in the semis yesterday, it’s hard to see the Spaniard losing to Kevin Anderson. In basketball, yes, the 6-foot-8 South African wins. But this is tennis and Nadal is the old king of New York.

Manny in Manila

Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao will turn 39 this Dec. 17. That’s very, very old for an elite boxer. Having fought 68 times in his pro career, he has been a recipient of thousands of uppercuts, body-blows, jabs, head-butts. Given his age and the accumulated physical barrage that he’s absorbed, Pacman is down to his last one or two fights. Why spend these final moments in Brisbane or Las Vegas?

Manny’s request for his next fight to be on Philippine soil is fantastic. This is no longer about money. It’s not about accummulating more belts (he’s the only fighter to win 11 world titles in eight different weight divisions). It’s about giving back to the Philippines.

Of the three times that I have watched Pacquiao fight in person, twice was in Manila. The first was in The Fort in Dec. 2004. Manny was only 25 years old then and coming off upset wins over Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez. In that bout, I recall Manny unleashing a barrage of punches that had Fahsan 3K Battery of Thailand flying on the Taguig open air.

In 2006, Pacquiao entered the Araneta Coliseum and faced Oscar Larios of Mexico. It wasn’t an impressive win but the crowd was still noisy and proud. MP won by unanimous decision.

That was Manny’s last fight on home soil… 11 years and two months ago. Since that Quezon City bout, he has traveled to fight in the Alamodome and the Cowboys Stadium in Texas, in Nevada, in Macau twice, and the latest one last July, at the Suncorp Stadium. His last 20 fights have been conducted on foreign soil. It’s about time Manny comes home.

“It will not push through there in Australia,” said Pacquiao. “But we are bringing the fight here in the Philippines.”

Manny is adept at negotiations. He’s been at this game for decades and knows that he has the upperhand. He’s the crowd-drawer. He dictates. The complication, of course, admitted Bob Arum, is in the contract. Prior to the Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight, their agreement called for a rematch clause that would be held in Australia.

Manny doesn’t care. He wants to reverse that stipulation and bring the 29-year-old Brisbane native to Manila. Will it work? I’m sure. If it doesn’t, Pacman has other options.

“This will be good for our country’s tourism,” he said.

Absolutely. While we have been bringing to our shores world-class basketball action (LeBron James was here), our most famous Pinoy has not been seen in real-life action in 11 years.

“We have lots of friends who are supporting us including our tourism department,” he added. “The president is giving his all-out support.”

I’m sure Pacquiao is looking forward to that moment when Pres. Rodrigo Duterte will be seated in the front row to witness him fight and for him to climb the ring to hand him the championship belt in front of 55,000 boisterous fans in the Philippine Arena.

And while the reported $1 million that the City of Brisbane shelled out to finance the “Battle of Brisbane” is too much for the Phil. government to shoulder, we should still sponsor a sizable figure. As for Jeff Horn, if the Aussie’s unwilling to come, why not invite Conor McGregor?

Maria Sharapova

Forbes has named her the “world’s highest paid female athlete” for 11 straight years. Since turning pro in 2001, she has earned nearly $300 million. But as wealthy and famous and beautiful as Maria Sharapova is, has she received the esteem and respect of her colleagues?

No. The reason: Last year, she failed a drug test. She had been taking the drug “meldonium” for many years when it was legal. But when it was banned effective Jan. 2016, she still took it.

Positive! That’s the bombshell that shocked the 6-foot-2 Russian. Maria was banned for two years. While away from tennis, she wrote her autobiography and enrolled in Harvard Business School. She was an intern at an ad agency, spending a week with NBA’s Adam Silver and another at Nike HQ. She promoted her candy business, Sugarpova. “It was just a different way my mind was working for a few months,” Maria said, “and I loved that.”

Her 24-month suspension was reduced to 15. And when she returned last April at the Porsche Grand Prix, her counterparts voiced opposition. Eugenie Bouchard complained: “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again.. I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.”

Ouch. In reply, Sharapova said she didn’t want to listen to the negative talk and called the women’s locker room “my least favourite place in the world.”

At the US Open in New York, controversy has once again followed the 30-year-old five-time Grand Slam champion. She was given a “wild card.” What’s that? It’s a direct entry into the main draw that’s chosen by the tournament organizers. Ranked a lowly No. 146, Sharapova was given a wild card at the US Open. (At the French Open a few months ago, they denied her that privilege.)

This exemption has troubled some critics. Chris Evert, the 18-major winner, said in response: “I don’t necessarily think that in the grand slams, she should be given a wild card, no.”

Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told CNN, “If someone gets caught for doping, this person shouldn’t be helped to come back faster to the top of the game.”

You can’t blame the US Open organizers. Ms. Sharapova is the biggest draw among the ladies, especially with Serena pregnant. She’s one of the few who can outrival the popularity of a Roger or Rafa. What has angered other players was how they’ve accorded her extra privileges.

In Sharapova’s first three matches, including last night’s win over Sofia Kenin, she played at the Arthur Ashe (main) Stadium. In contrast, Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 5, was relegated to an outside court.

“Putting out a schedule where the number five in the world is playing on court five, fifth match on after 11 p.m., I think that is unacceptable,” said Wozniacki. “When you look at center court, and I understand completely the business side of things, but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court I think that’s a questionable thing to do. It doesn’t set a good example.”

I agree. Life is unfair. But Maria is Maria. I’m sure her WTA players would like to sing the Sound of Music song, How do you solve a problem like Maria?