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Final Four

Final Four

Houston, Golden State and Cleveland were expected to reach this semifinal stage. How about Boston? With Gordon Hayward injured in their first game and Kyrie Irving out during the playoffs, nobody expected the Celtics to advance this far.

What are the odds among the Big 4? The Warriors are -130. The Rockets are next at +247. The Cavs are pegged at +552 while the Celtics are +2070.

In the East, had Kyrie been healthy, this Batman vs. Robin face-off with LeBron would have us salivating. As their series unfolds tomorrow (3:30 a.m., Phil. time), it’s obvious that the Cavs are favored.

Mr. James has been Mr. Jordan-like this post-season, averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9 assists per game. And who can forgot that buzzer-beater in Game 5 against the Pacers or that one-handed, sideways-facing dagger in Game 3 versus Toronto? Cleveland in 6.

I’m more excited about the Wild Wild West. During the regular season when they met three times, Houston won twice. And, as if it’s a premonition of what’s to come, the two met during the regular season’s first game. The outcome: 122-121, with Houston victorious.

Was that result on the NBA’s opening night a sign of what we’re about to witness next week? Yes. This series will be close and will be absolutely thrilling.

Steph Curry was the MVP in 2015 and 2016 while James Harden is expected to win the coveted 2018 title. Houston stole the league’s best regular season record from Golden State, winning 65 against the 58 of GSW.

The usual trash talk and war of words was unleashed a few months ago when Clint Capela of Houston boasted that they’re superior to the champs.

Draymond Green’s reply? “Now you’ve got to play the game,” he said. “You wanted us, now you’ve got us.”

The players know each other well. In an NBA.com article, author Sekou Smith wrote: “Harden, Paul, Green, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson all won gold medals together, be it on the Olympic or World Cup of Basketball stage. Harden and Durant were teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder team that lost The Finals in 2012. Paul’s LA Clippers squad in 2014 was the last West foe to knock the Warriors out of the playoffs before The Finals. And the Rockets were the team the Warriors beat in the 2015 West finals to jump-start their would-be dynasty.”

Who’s favored? It’s still the Warriors. Now that Curry is healthy, this squad has reached the last four Western Conference Finals and won the NBA title twice. Their only disadvantage this year? They don’t own homecourt advantage. Will this matter? Maybe not.

Given that oddsmakers are pointing at a Part 4 of the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry, it’s interesting to cite that both favored squads don’t own homecourt advantages.

Houston has to win their first two games at the Toyota Center in Texas to have a chance at dethroning the champs. Same with Boston tomorrow.

Deanna Wong

The most famous female athletes in the country today perform these tasks: they serve, toss, spike, block, set, dig and kill. That’s volleyball.

Jia Morado. Alyssa Valdez. Jaja Santiago. Kim Fajardo. Mika Reyes. Bea De Leon. Sisi Rondina, who was born in Compostela, Cebu. Are these names not national figures? Have we not watched them do a pancake, or a dink shot, or serve a floater?

Thanks to ABS-CBN Sports and their live coverage of almost every UAAP and NCAA game, we follow the sport of volleyball. And while in most sports the men are more popular than the women, in volleyball, it’s the opposite. Sure, Marck Espejo is sikat but the women rule volleyball.

Coming from Cebu, one player was honored in the UAAP Season 80 with a prestigious award: Best Setter. Her name is Deanna Wong.

“She started late as a volleyball player,” said her dad Dean, whom I interviewed for this piece. “She started when she was in Grade 6. She just went to see the try out at STC. Then the trainer, Jamel Macasamat, saw her long fingers tossing a basketball and asked her to join the try out.”

From STC in elementary to USJ-R in high school, Deanna became a star. For college, she was recruited to play for the Ateneo Lady Blue Eagles.

Now on her third year in ADMU, Deanna had immense pressure because she was replacing one of the school’s best-ever setters (Jia Morado), who graduated last season.

“As a setter, you need to read the position of your opponent, especially the blockers,” said her dad Dean. “You need to give the ball to your spikers away from the defense/blockers and you need to analyze situations through quick-thinking.”

I’ve gotten to know Deanna. In the past three years since my daughter Jana has studied in Ateneo, I’d meet Deanna quite often. At the campus, she often leaves the Eliazo Dorm for their twice-daily practice sessions. Deanna is kind, respectful and humble.

For the UAAP Season 80, the Ateneo women’t team did not win gold; they lost in the semifinals to FEU (and La Salle went to win its third straight title). But if there’s one award to be proud of, it’s the Best Setter trophy to Deanna.

“She was surprised that she got the award,” said her dad, who added that she was a rookie in her position.

As to Deanna’s learnings the past few years, he mentioned several: “Deanna has learned to bond with her teammates. To study her attackers, her spikers, their comfortable positions to spike, to adjust to their spiking position.”

I asked Dean (who traveled to Manila almost weekly during the UAAP season to watch the games live), what lessons Deanna has learned in the pressure-filled arena, with over 20,000 in attendance at the MOA Arena or Araneta Coliseum.

“Discipline is vital. The mindset is crucial. To be fierce on the court and not to be intimidated by opponents,” Dean said. “Sports taught Deanna to overcome challenges. There were doubters ever since high school but she proved them all wrong.”

Ateneo is not easy because the academic demands are high. Of balancing the school’s tough academic standards with the countless hours spent practicing, Dean said: “It’s not easy but it can be done.”

As proof of that, Deanna Wong is the UAAP’s best setter. 

Danao City and MTB

Two major off-road events are happening in Danao. Today, it’s the XTERRA Philippines . If Shangri-La has the Ironman 70.3 race involving smooth asphalted roads, this event is off-road. It’s the mountain-bike and not the thin, sleek tires of the road and time-trial bicycles.

XTERRA kicks off this morning at the Coco Palms Beach Resort in Danao. Three categories are offered. The full distance includes a 1.5K swim, a challenging 28K bike ride, and an 8K trail run. The “Lite Distance” features half of the Full distances. And if you’re afraid of the open sea, there’s the Duathlon: 2K run, 14K bike, and 4K run. Relay teams are available. This is the second time for Danao to host XTERRA. The previous host was Liloan.

On three occasions, I had the chance to join XTERRA. Twice as a relay (biker) participant and once joining the Lite category. (On the latter, I placed 2nd in my category — but there were only 4 of us!) If you’re a mountain-biker and do triathlons, this is your event.

ASIAN MTB. Two weeks from now, it’s the Asian Mountain Mountain Bike Championships — also in Danao. The event runs from May 2 to 6 and will feature elite cyclists from Japan, China, Malaysia, Iran and Taipei.

Oscar Durano Rodriguez, Jr. is the lead organizer. I spoke to Boying yesterday and he told me: “Olympians and World Cuppers are joining and we now have 215 elite cyclists coming from 18 countries.”

One of big names is the highest ranked MTBer in Asia: Toki Sawada of Japan. The other top starts are Iran’s national champ, Khodayari Farzaf; 2017 Japan national champion, Kohei Yamamoto; and the defending 2017 Asian Continental champion, Lyu Xianjing of China.

Among the women, the star is Asia’s top ranked cyclist, Kanako Kobayashi of Japan. She’s up against our very own: the Philippine champion and Asia’s No. 2: Ariana Patrice Dormitorio. They’ll be joined by Asia’s 3rd ranked and the defending Asian MTB Champion from China, Bianwa Yao.

With these twin events happening two weeks apart, it’s no wonder why Danao City is often called the “mountain bike capital of the Philippines.” The Durano family members are all avid cyclists, led by the mayor himself, Ramonito Durano, who has been pedaling bicycles for many decades.

Here’s an article I wrote 10 years ago (April 15, 2008):

“Oscar ‘Boying’ Rodriguez, one of the most recognizable names in RP mountain-biking (MTB), and the chairman of the Danao City Sports Commission, said:

“In the summer of 1987, Tourism Secretary Ace Durano and his brother Con. Red Durano, who were then studying in the U.S.A., went home for their vacation from their high school studies in California. They brought with them radical looking 21-speed bicycles with knobbed fat tires and ‘granny gears.’ It was then the craze in California. They brought back the first Mountain Bikes to the Phils! We were all hooked. We all converted our road bikes to ‘mountain bikes!’”

“Boying Rodriguez is right. Believe it or not, possibly the first-ever Filipinos to ‘import’ MTBs to our country were no less than the Durano brothers, Ace and Red. From those bikes brought two decades ago spawned mountain-biking in Danao, in Cebu, and all over the RP archipelago. Since then, Danao City has led the peloton in promoting MTB.”

June Mar Fajardo

Only 28 years old, June Mar Fajardo is a already a four-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) honoree, a Best Player of the Conference awardee six times, and has won for the San Miguel Beermen the championship trophy on six occasions.

Last Friday night, with SMB down by as much as 23 points to Magnolia, he scored 12 of his team’s last 15 points to force overtime, and, after playing for 54 minutes in double overtime, he topscored with 42 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.

“I did not feel the exhaustion,” Fajardo said. “I experienced cramps, but my team was relying on me to produce.”

Is there any ballplayer who’s more reliable? As he collected his second Finals MVP trophy, his averages in the past five games were impressive, Anthony Davis-like numbers: he averaged 24.4 points and 16.2 rebounds.

Coach Leo Austria knows the secret that we all know: If you want to win, to ignite a comeback, to score, you pass the ball to the center who’s the center of attraction.

“It’s money time, so let’s go to June Mar,” coach Austria said to his players. “I’ve known June Mar ever since. Sometimes we ask him, ‘June Mar, are we going to win?’ He’ll respond, ‘Yes coach, we’re going to win.’”

Twenty three points down? With a desperate Magnolia eager to extend the series to a sixth game? Let’s go to June Mar. From the coach, that’s not mere confidence in one player. That’s belief. That’s certainty.

Is the any athlete in the country today who’s more dominant, dependable and towering than the 260-lb. center? Or, can I rephrase that line and ask: Is there anyone in PBA history who’s better?

Only 28, he still has a good five, 7, 10 years ahead of him. By comparison, one of the PBA’s greatest (if not THE greatest), another Cebuano superstar named Ramon Fernandez, played until he was past 40.

University of Cebu (UC) is proud of its son. Atty. Gus Go and Atty. Merong Estenzo know that he’s the most famous alumni in UC’s 54-year history.

Compostela is proud to say that this dominant force in Asian basketball was born in its confines. So is Pinamungajan, a municipality of 70,000 residents, which was home to June Mar in his youthful days and where his parents still reside.

I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to June Mar on several occasions and he has remained humble, soft-spoken and, despite all eyes and mobile phones focused on him wherever he goes, he has remained shy.

During the SMB-SAC Cebu Sports Awards last year at the SM City Cebu, I sat beside Fred Uytengsu (Sportsman of the Year) and June Mar (Athlete of the Year).

The ballplayer was silent most of the afternoon. (Or was it because Uytengsu hails from the rival Alaska camp?)

There’s no stopping the Cebuano. He’ll score. He’ll rebound dozens per outing. He’ll collect more MVP trophies. Can we ship him to the NBA to become our first Pinoy in the league of Steph and Kyrie?

Hyeon Chung

South Korea is home to Samsung, Hyundai, LG, Kia Motors and over 52 million people. Here in the Philiippines, it is estimated that over 1.5 million Koreans visited the country in 2017. In the realm of sports, the Winter Olympic games will be held in Pyeongchang (about 180 kms. from Seoul) next month, from February 9 to 25. If we consider the most popular sports in Korea, they are football and baseball. With golf, the lady golfers dominate: five of the world’s Top 12 money earners come from Korea, including Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu.

There’s a new star in Korean sports: Hyeon Chung. If you haven’t heard of him before this week, you’re forgiven. Ranked No. 58 and only 21 years old, he’s not a famous name in tennis. But after winning five of five thus far in the Australian Open, this 6-foot-2 netter is now one of Korea’s most famous personalities.

Last Monday, I watched his Round of 16 battle against six-time Oz Open winner Novak Djokovic. What a display of steady and power tennis. We know Djokovic is not at his peak yet, having returned from a six-month layoff. But the performance of Chung (including a win over Sascha Zverez) was outstanding. He is a legitimate future Top 10 player.

The question is: Can he beat the defending champion, Roger Federer, in the semis (granted that RF won his quarterfinals last night) ? The odds are absolutely against Chung. He will have to play even better compared to how he played Novak. He will have nothing to lose but the heavy favorite to win the whole tournament and to pocket his 20th Grand Slam title is the gentleman from Basel, Switzerland.

Still, Korea is rejoicing with the emergence of their new tennis star.

Casino Español billiards

If you’re a billiards and Bata Reyes fanatic, tonight is the night. Casino Español de Cebu, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, has organized an exciting event that’s open to the public.

Efren “Bata” Reyes, also nicknamed “The Magician,” will be playing tonight with the Mandaue City-born top female billiards champion, Rubilen Amit.

Bata Reyes needs no introduction but Ms. Amit is also one of the nation’s best. Our sportswriters group awarded Rubilen in 2013 and 2014 as the “Athlete of the Year.” During that period, she was the world’s top World 10 Ball champion and partnered with her compatriot tonight (Bata Reyes) to win the Mixed Doubles World title.

With Bata Reyes in Casino Español

The venue will be the Salon de España of Casino Español and the exhibition games start at 7 p.m. But prior to that, there will be prelimary games starting at 3:30 p.m. The official statement from the club reads: “Watch Ipar Miranda, Mic Mic Miranda, Abe Sy, Wellington Yu, Kevin Co, Kendrick Sulay, Jose Rodolfo Tiu, II and the winners get to team up with the billiard greats.”

Tickets are priced at P700 (for members) and P800 (for guests), already inclusive of the club’s superb dinner buffet.

That’s Bata Reyes and Rubilen Amit at 7 p.m. later in Casino Español.

 

SEAG in Cebu

The good news is the Phils. is hosting the biennial event in 2019. The bad news is how we’ve performed in Kualu Lumpur. Armed with a reported P300 million budget and having sent 497 athletes and 193 officials to Malaysia, thus far, we’ve only won 15 gold medals and 75 total medals (including 24 silver and 36 bronze).

SEAG has 11 countries joining. Where do we rank? Right in the middle: five countries are better than us and five are worse. The top five are Malaysia (72 gold and 165 total), Vietnam (43 gold and 107 total), Singapore (40 gold and 115 total), Thailand (36 gold and 143 total) and Indonesia (23 gold and 103 total). These are the top five. We sit at No. 6 and below us are Myanmar (27 total medals), Cambodia (8), Brunei (9), Laos (8) and Timor Este with zero medals.

Is this good or bad? It’s definitely not good. We placed in the same middle (sixth) place at the 2015 SEAG. Obviously, there’s no way for Myanmar and Cambodia to surpass our medal tally; so if we can’t beat those top five rivals, this is dismal and miserable news. Two years ago in the Singapore SEAG, we won 29 gold medals and 131 total. With only three days left in Kuala Lumpur, let’s hope our tally increases. And here’s the shocking comparison: back when he hosted the 2005 SEAG, we garnered 113 gold medals and 291 in total to become No. 1. Yes, we had home court advantage but what a disparity between today and 12 years ago.

2019 SEAG. Speaking of hosting, the 30th SEAG edition will be in Manila two years from now. My question is: Which cities will host the games? There are plenty of games to be played. In Kualu Lumpur this week, there are 404 events in 38 sports. We had almost similar numbers back in 2005: we organized 443 events in 40 sports.

Manila, obviously, will host the opening and closing ceremonies. The Rizal Memorial Sports Complex will act as the main venue. Speaking of Rizal Memorial, did you know that it almost got sold? The 10-hectare property that was built in 1934 in a prime Manila property was offered to the market. Estimates for its selling price ranged from P10 to P15 billion. But in the end, PSC chief Butch Ramirez opted to keep Rizal Memorial as a sports hub. Very timely because of SEAG 2019. Many of the events are expected to be played in Rizal: athletics, tennis, gymnastics and baseball.

Cebu played hosts in 2005. We welcomed the athletes from mountain-biking (Danao), dancesport (Waterfront), judo and karate (Mandaue), Pencak silat (Cebu Coliseum) and sepak takraw (USC).

In 2019, we should lobby to host these same sports and more. With MTB, I don’t see any other Philippine city that can rival the one that the Duranos and Boying Rodriguez prepared. That’s why the XTERRA (off-road triathlon) is in Danao. With dancesport, the king and queen are Edward and Eleanor Hayco.

With two years to go before SEAG, I hope our leaders will lobby for Cebu to host more events. In 2005, triathlon was held in Subic. Can we offer to host triathlon here, given the success of the Ironman 70.3? Boxing was in Bacolod. Can we transfer this to the IEC or Waterfront? How about the marathon? Imagine this: Joy Tabal being cheered on by thousands along Cebu’s streets as she defends her SEAG marathon gold. Cebu ought to host more in 2019.

   

Thank you, Cayetano

The name “Alan Peter Cayetano” is not often associated with sports. It’s his older sister of four years, Senator Pia Cayetano, who is always linked with sports.

Sen. Pia bikes and runs marathons with Jane-Jane Ong; she braves the open sea to join triathlons; the woman whose full name is Pilar Juliana is totally passionate with sports.

But today, sports-wise, the Cayetano that we ought to pay tribute to is Alan Peter. A senator from 2007 to 2017, he was recently asked by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte to become the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Since May, he exchanged his first name of “Senator” to “Secretary.”

DFA Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano is to be thanked because of the action that he took last week. Because while the 2017 Southeast Asian Games are now on-going in Malaysia, the hosting of the 2019 SEAG was completely in limbo just over eight days ago.

Here’s the backstory: In July 2015, the POC announced to our Asean neighbors and to us Pinoys that we would be hosting the 2019 SEAG. This was welcome news. The last time we hosted was in 2005. Even better news, we topped the medal tally that year with 291 medals, becoming overall champions.

So, 2019 was a go. Go? No!

Because just last month, our national leaders announced that it was backing out of the 2019 SEAG hosting. The reason: the billions to be spent on sports needed to be channeled for the rebuiling of Marawi. That’s the official statement. But behind the scenes, we knew there were other reasons, including this: the POC and PSC were fighting.

And so, with the SEAG hosting, there was a stalemate. Cojuangco was embarrassed to go to Malaysia to inform his POC friends that the Philippines was reneging on its hosting promise. Ramirez reiterated the national leadership’s stance that we couldn’t do it.

Enter Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano. In a stunning press conference just seven days ago, Cayetano stood at the center of the table and was able to bring together the warring POC and PSC factions. We’re back to hosting in 2019 and Cayetano will be the SEAG Organizing Committee chairperson with Ramirez and Cojuangco as his co-chairmen.

“We are so happy that despite the glitches, and only two days before this meeting,” said the SEA Games Federation council president HRM Yam Tunku Sri Imran, “our friends in the Philippine Olympic Committee met with officials from their government to discuss and confirm to us that there are hosting the 2019 SEA Games.”

This is fantastic news. Backing out of a major commitment does not send a good signal to the international community. I’m glad this was resolved. SEAG is good for tourism. It’s nation-building.

Kudos to Sec. Cayetano. Only three months new to his DFA job, he’s been extremely busy. Just days before that presscon, he was hosting the Asean foreign ministers meeting. His responsibility is “foreign affairs” not “sports.” For him to rescue the SEAG hosting from near-certain death is highly laudable.

My additional take on this? We also have to thank his sister. My hunch is that given how sports-loving Sen. Pia is, she was approached by top officials and she, in turn, spoke to her brother to bring everyone together.

Cayetano, Cayetano. Kaya natin ‘to.

Jerry Roa on the Beermen

Jeruel “Jerry” Roa worked for San Miguel Corporation from 1983 to 2003. He led the Corporate Affairs Office. During that 20-year span, he was assigned in the SMC head office in Manila from 1986 to 1992.

A tall 6-footer who played basketball since he was a teenager, Jerry made sure to watch most of the Beermen’s PBA games.

His most memorable moments? They were back in 1989 at the ULTRA in Pasig when he not only witnessed the Grand Slam feat of San Miguel but also when he was part of the celebration, joining the team at Kamayan EDSA in the aftermath of the final conference’s championship game.

That was in 1989. Are the San Miguel Beermen ripe for Grand Slam II?

An excellent writer and avid follower of sports that include football, volleyball, tennis, athletics, boxing and rugby, I asked Jerry for his thoughts on this historic moment. In a two-part series, here are Jerry’s own words:

“The San Miguel Beermen are one conference away from achieving the rare Grand Slam in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). Only five other teams in the 42-year history of the league have achieved such distinction: the 1976 Crispa Redmanizers, the 1983 Crispa Redmanizers, the 1989 San Miguel Beermen, the 1996 Alaska Milkmen, and the 2014 San Mig Coffee Mixers.

“To duplicate their elders’ feat of 28 years ago, the current Beermen must win the Governors’ Cup which begins on Friday, July 15. Momentum seems to be on the side of the Beermen. Earlier this year, they won the Philippine Cup (formerly known as the All-Filipino) over the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, 4 – 1. Last weekend, they clinched the Commissioner’s Cup, 4 – 2, over the Talk N Text Tropang Texters.

“What more could motivate this talented bunch to focus on the final leg of their hunt for the Grand Slam?

“Perhaps a look at history of their franchise’s first Grand Slam may convince them that the stars are aligned on their path to greatness. The Grand Slam of 1989 was achieved by a team with a core who had played together since their amateur years, led by a multi-awarded veteran slotman, an outstanding Fil-Am reinforcement, willing role players, and promising rookies.

“Its roster during that golden year read like a legends All-Star team. At that time Ramon Fernandez was already a multiple MVP winner. Hector Calma, Avelino ‘Samboy’ Lim, Jr., Yves Dignadice, Franz Pumaren and Elmer Reyes, had played together in the national team and Northern Cement under coach Ron Jacobs. Ricardo Brown, a deadly shooter and ball handler, brought in more firepower. Alvin Teng and Jeffrey Graves provided length and young legs to protect the rim. Ricky Cui and Alfie Almario provided instant offense when called from the bench. Future MVP Ato Agustin and Bobby Jose were the team rookies.

“In the Open and Reinforced conferences (precursors of the current Commissioner’s Cup and Governors’ Cup), San Miguel picked imports who complemented the locals. They were Michael Phelps (the cager, not the swimmer), Keith Smart, and Ennis Whatley. Calling the shots from the bench was Norman Black, a former perennial PBA Best Import. He was assisted by Derrick Pumaren. San Miguel’s closest rivals then were definitely no pushovers.

“Open Conference runner-up Formula Shell, whom San Miguel defeated 4-1 in the finals, paraded the season MVP cum Rookie of the Year Venancio ‘Benjie’ Paras. (Yes, the same Benjie Paras who makes you laugh and cry today in TV sitcoms and teleseryes, and is father to young ballers Kobe and Andre).

“The ‘Tower of Power’ was recipient of assists from Ronnie Magsanoc, his buddy in the U.P. Maroons, and the scoring support of veterans Arnie Tuadles, Jay Ramirez, Ed Cordero, Onchie de la Cruz, Tim Coloso, and young Romy de la Rosa. Sharing the backcourt with Magsanoc was veteran guard Leovino Austria, who is now the head coach of the Beermen. Bobby Parks earned his third Best Import plum with the Zoom Masters, who were coached then by Dante Silverio, formerly of the defunct Toyota franchise.

“If there was a young and powerhouse team that gave the Beermen the fits, it was the Purefoods Hotdogs. The All-Filipino runners-up was composed of young guns Alvin Patrimonio, Jojo Lastimosa, Jerry Codinera, Al Solis, Glenn Capacio, Nelson Asaytono, Naning Valenciano, Edgar ‘Jack’ Tanuan, Pido Jarencio, and Dindo Pumaren. This was the core of the national team that placed third in the Asian Games of 1986 behind China and South Korea without a naturalized player in its line-up. The Hotdogs were coached by the legendary Virgilio ‘Baby’ Dalupan. The Beermen defeated them, 4 – 2, in a competitive series.

“In the Reinforced Conference, the Beermen faced crowd-favorite Anejo Rum 65 led by playing coach Robert Jaworski. Before, as it is today, there was no love lost between the sibling ballclubs as they went at each other in a bruising series. The 65ers were bannered by Dondon Ampalayo, Leo Isaac (now Blackwater coach), Chito and Joey Loyzaga, Rudy Distrito, Rey Cuenco, Peter Aguilar (Japeth’s dad), Philip Cezar, and the season Most Improved Player Dante Gonzalgo. The Beermen vanquished them, 4 – 1, for the title and the Grand Slam.

“A dominant center. An array of shooters. Excellent ballhandlers. Role players. Complementary imports. A coach who used to play. That was how the San Miguel Beermen human resource looked like when they last won a Grand Slam in 1989. Or is this the way to describe their present line-up?

“June Mar Fajardo is the reigning Most Valuable Player. The backcourt tandem of Alex Cabagnot and Chris Ross, guards who can defend as well as they can shoot, have mostly complemented each other instead of overlapping roles. Marcio Lassiter is licensed to puncture the hoops. So is team captain Arwind Santos, who accepted his new role off the bench during the import-laden conferences. Gabby Espinas, Jay-R Reyes and Yancy de Ocampo provide ceiling. Brian Heruela, Ronald Tubid and new recruit Matt Ganuelas can dish out decent contributions when called into action. Even seldom used David Semerad, Arnold Van Opstal, Keith Agovida, and Rashawn McCarthy.

(Photo from pinoyboxbreak.com)

“The way San Miguel Beer has been winning, it shows the players’ buy-in to the system espoused by coach Leo Austria and team management. To be helpful to the Beermen, import Wendell McKines should be able to fit into his role the way Charles Rhodes stepped up for San Miguel in the Commissioner’s Cup. He is familiar with the PBA, having previously played with Alaska and Rain or Shine.

“To contend, the Beermen should also stay healthy. Any injury could derail their chances, no matter how deep their bench. Most of all, they should have the desire to make history. They should stay focused and visualize that moment when they etch their individual names into the annals of history as a member of the sixth team in the PBA to have achieved a Grand Slam. For if they blink, the TNT Tropang Texters, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, Rain or Shine, Star Hotshots or the Meralco Bolts are only too willing to take that winning moment away.”

Cavaliers and the King

Incredible. Stunning. Unimaginable. Are there better adjectives to describe yesterday’s colossal wipeout, when J.R. Smith spun for a reverse jumpshot to end the half, and when Isiah Thomas was 0-8 in field goal attempts and only scored two free throw points?

How about Murphy’s Law? If anything could go wrong for the Celtics, it did, including an injury to I.T. As for the Cavs, it was the reverse: if anything could go right, it did, increasing their lead by double digits per quarter and LeBron James playing possessed: 12 of 18 for an easy 30 while icing his knees as the City of Boston perspired.

I don’t recall watching a game that lopsided. Boston’s the top seed? It’s like Gilas trampling over Malaysia in SEABA last week. Like Game 1, once again we’ve seen the rise of Kevin Love. He’s pushing his 6-foot-10 body towards the hoop against smaller defenders; he’s detonating those long-range bombs, 4 of 9 yesterday and 6 of 9 in Game 1.

The Cavs defense. Outstanding. They’re sprinting side to side, front to back; scurrying with arms outstretched and legs dancing; LeBron’s flying for blocks; they’re tirelss and relentless — thanks to the restful days when their batteries have been 100 percent fully-charged.

How about that passing? Led by one of the all-time best passers (King James), they toss the ball three, four, six times, all in rapid succession before finding the open Three or an alley-hoop jam. There’s no buaya like a Kobe or Westbrook; they’re having fun, they’re like a serious Harlem Globetrotters.

10-0. This was the same position they had last year. In 2016, they swept past Detroit, 4-0, manhandled Atlanta, then won their first two games against Toronto before losing the next two. Those twin losses to the Raptors were caused by their playing in Canada. Not this year. Games 3 and 4 are in Ohio and we expect a clean 12-0 slate before they face the Warriors.

All these post-season sorties are tune-up games for Part 3. Some people are happy with this; others are not. The NBA has 30 teams and only two dominate. Good or bad?

Blame it on Kevin and Kevin. When Love joined Kyrie and LeBron, plenty cried foul: they’re too strong. When Durant joined Klay and Steph, many shouted unfair. Bad for the league? If you’re an OKC or San Antonio follower, you’re frowning. Otherwise, this is terrific. Like the era of the Celtics-Lakers in the ‘80s or La Salle-Ateneo in Manila or Borg/McEnroe or Nadal and Federer or Senna/Prost or the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, a strong rivalry is riveting. The only problem: our patience is required. We need to endure these lopsided Rounds 1, 2 and 3 before the championship bell rings on June 1.

Corazon’s heart

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ILOILO CITY — Last Friday was a day of mourning and celebration.

It was an afternoon of mourning because we laid to rest Mrs. Corazon Garabato Gayanilo, the grandmother of my wife Jasmin (the mom of my mother-in-law, Malu Mendez) in Guimbal, Iloilo. It was also a day of celebration because relatives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Florida and various places converged to pay their last respects to an outstanding person.

Lola Zon was born on June 21, 1911. She was born a decade after Emilio Aguinaldo stood as our first leader and lived through all 15 succeeding Philippine presidents from Manuel Quezon to her namesake Corazon Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte.

“Corazon” means heart and it’s fitting that such a loving and kindhearted person would leave this temporal place for eternity during this month of hearts. Our family is often asked, How did Lola Zon live so long?

“She was not a vegetarian,” my mother-in-law Malu Mendez, the eldest child, said during the necrological service. “She was carnivorous!”

So it wasn’t her diet. Lola Zon also did not swim or run daily — so we cannot attribute extreme fitness as the reason. So, what was her secret to long life?

“She had big ears!” my mother-in-law said. By that, she meant that Lola Zon always listened. She always had time to listen and always had time for others — especially to her family of four children (Malu, Virgilio, Sol and Rene), 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. She lived simply. She laughed. She laughed a lot. And we know how good a medicine laughter is.

Lola Zon was a teacher. “The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book,” a quote reads. Her students spoke of her firmness but compassion and patience as a teacher. She loved to serve and give of herself — to her students from the various public schools that she taught in Igbaras, Passi, Iloilo City High School, and in Guimbal. As one of her projects in Guimbal, she helped build a kindergarten right beside the church.

Lola Corazon’s life was devoted to God. In his homily last Friday, Fr. Albie Labaro spoke of how Lola Zon’s hands clasped a rosary as we paid our respects — and how she must have prayed the rosary for decades until her last breath. She was a grateful person. Contented. Humble. Generous. My wife Jasmin said that she was very, very kind.

As the saying goes, “A good teacher takes a hand, opens a mind and touches a heart.”

For 105 years, Corazon touched many, many hearts.

Wow-rinka! Stan stuns Novak

Sep 5, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland hits a shot to Illya Marchenko of Ukraine on day eight of the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
(Source: Reuters)

In tennis, when you say “Swiss champion,” you refer to one and only one person. That’s Roger Federer. No male human being has accumulated more Grand Slam singles trophies (that’s 17 major titles) — and is as venerated and esteemed worldwide — as the Swiss Federer Express.

In summer of last year, my wife Jasmin, our daughter Jana and I had the privilege of traveling to one of the world’s richest nations that’s located at the heart of Europe. Thanks to the incredible hospitality of Fritz Strolz, we got to traverse most of Switzerland in three full-packed days.

As soon as Mr. Strolz — who’s now based in Cebu and is married to the dynamic and pretty Pearle — picked us up at the train station in Zurich (after treking by train from Milan), our activities ran non-stop.

We toured Geneva for a day and visited the IOC Museum. We ascended Mt. Rigi, watching from a distance the Swiss Alps capped with snow. We visited Lucerne and Lausanne and were able to see the headquarters of such giants as FIFA (football) and FIBA (basketball). Would you believe, a total of 45 international sporting associations house their headquarters in Switzerland.

A highlight of our Swiss trek: When I disembarked in the Tennis Club of Basel — the venue where Roger Federer practiced his backhands and volleys as a child. The club has multiple red clay courts and, inside the clubhouse, photos and memorabilia of Roger (signed by the tennis artist himself) adorned the walls.

You see, in this land famous for many things world-class — Rolex watches, Swiss chocolates, pharmaceutical companies, Swiss banks — when you mention tennis, the automatic response (much like Philippine boxing equals Manny Pacquiao) is Roger Federer.

Not yesterday. Not when RF is injured and is recuperating from a knee injury. Often relegated as the groomsman of Swiss tennis because he’s always overshadowed by the Swiss maestro, it was Stanislas Wawrinka who triumphed at the U.S. Open.

Thanks to the live, two-week-long telecast of the ABS-CBN Sports + Action HD channel 701, I arose before 6 a.m. yesterday to witness the men’s final.

How did Wawrinka defeat the almost-unbeatable world no. 1 Novak Djokovic?

First, he’s not afraid of Novak. While Roger and even Rafa Nadal seem to have a mental inferiority against Novak (of the last 12 times they’ve played, Nadal has lost 11), the same is not true with Stan. While he’s only won five of the 24 times they’ve played, those victories have come at the biggest of stages.

French Open 2016. Last year, Djokovic was set to win the only major title that has eluded him. Who stood in defiance to beat him? Wawrinka. At the 2014 Australian Open, it was Stan who not only upset Novak but also beat Nadal in the final to win his first major.

Second reason why Stan’s The Man: his backhand. That one-handed topspin is glorious. Even if he’s 12 feet behind the baseline, he can wallop that shot and hit a down-the-line winner. John McEnroe calls it “the best one-handed backhand in the game.” I agree. And so does, I’m sure, Novak.

Three: He serves big. Not a 6-foot-11 behemoth like Ivo Karlovic, this Swiss still has tremendous power, often exceeding 132-mph with his serve. In the final, he served nine aces to the six of Novak.

Four: He won the bigger points. In break point chances, Stan saved 14 of 17. That’s an incredible statistic (and Houdini-like escape) against the world’s top netter. At the opposite end, he converted on six of 10 break point chances. This contrast spelled the difference in the match. Had Novak converted on his chances.. he might have won his 13th slam.

Instead, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a new champion was coronated in New York.

Milo Little Olympics and the Palarong Pambansa

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The world-famous brand Milo, owned by the largest food conglomerate in the world (Nestle, employing a staggering 339,00 people and grossing $91 billion a year), is sponsoring the 21st edition of the MLO.

I was there in the first meeting when the Nestle executives flew to Cebu to introduce this major sporting event for the youth. Councilor Joy Young, with Ricky Ballesteros and a host of other sporting enthusiasts (including Bidoy Aldeguer) were present. If my recollection is correct of that meeting long time ago, it was held at the Ecotech Center.

This weekend, over 4,000 girls and boys from the Visayas are gathered to compete in the elementary and high school divisions.

Milo? Yes, we know the name to be the energy drink but, after a quick research, I found out that it traces its roots from a 6th century BC wrestler named Milo of Croton. 

The encyclopedia Britannica says Milo was a “Greek athlete who was the most renowned wrestler in antiquity. His name is still proverbial for extraordinary strength.”

Milo was said to have joined six Olympic games and seven Pythian Games and won 32 times. “According to legend,” it continued, “Milo trained by carrying a calf daily from its birth until it became a full-sized ox. He is also said to have carried an ox on his shoulders through the stadium at Olympia.”

In this regard, Milo is literally putting its money where it’s drinking (Milo) mouth is by sponsoring these sporting events.

Two nights ago, I visited the SM Seaside City and the giant mall was the venue for multiple MLO events: gymnastics, karatedo, table tennis, chess, arnis, scrabble and taekwondo.

This is an excellent idea for several reasons. One, the comfort of the athletes and parents inside SM. Two, you’ve got seven events housed in one venue — perfect for officials and for the general public who want to watch. Three, you’ve got all the dining and recreational options after a stressful game for the athletes.

Which brings me to think: The mall can actually be an avenue not only for movies and restaurants and shopping — but also for even larger sporting events (think of the inclusion of the bowling alleys and the skating rink).

Looking ahead to the Palarong Pambansa in 2017, it’s a toss-up, I hear, between Bacolod and Cebu. I’d say the big advantage goes to the land where Lapu-Lapu killed Magellan.

First, Monico Puentevella — a major player in Philippine sports — lost in the elections for Bacolod City mayor to Bing Leonardia. Second, we last hosted the Palaro in 1994 while Bacolod hosted it in 1998. Which means that we ought to be given a slight edge for this, right?

Expect the SM Seaside City to be busy next summer if Cebu hosts the Palaro.

Happy Father’s Day

When I was a Grade 7 student in La Salle Bacolod, we were asked to inscribe a short message in our graduation book. My motto read: “To be like my father.”

Those five words, 32 years later, still hold true today.

Above all things, our dad Bunny has shown us — my siblings Charlie, Randy, Cheryl, Michael and I — how to love unconditionally. He spends time with us. He listens. If we have projects or concerns that need assistance, he’s there.

He’s present. And isn’t this the best present fathers can give their children? To be there always?

From as far back as I can remember, my dad was always present. During basketball or tennis games; in Sunday family dinners or birthdays — all we need to do is ask and he’d come.

My dad is generous. Both outside and especially inside, he is a good man. He is always looking at the other person’s viewpoint, not being selfish. His temperament mimics Barack Obama’s compared to Donald Trump’s. He is fair, honest and is a positive force who motivates others.

He is a lover of sports. And since I’m “obligated” to tackle this subject in these back pages, my dad Bunny has taught us to the importance of sports. To dribble; to swing that forehand; to exercise daily. I’ll never forget our trip to watch Serena Williams and Andre Agassi win the US Open. When Manny Pacquiao fought in Macau, we did the same. And ever the boxing fan, he flew to Las Vegas and witnessed the Manny vs. Money.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person,” Jim Valvano, the late basketball coach, once said. “He believed in me.”

Dad believes in us. He believes in others.

We thank Our Father above for giving us a father like dad.

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.”

In David vs. Goliath fight, Yao Ming beats Pacquiao

Head to head, if we compare our 100-million-strong nation to the 1,400-million strong giant that’s China, we’re dwarfed. That’s why we appealed to the heart. Puso. We spoke about our heart. Our puso. That, despite our smallness and lack of height — both as a people, compared to Westerners; and as a nation, compared to China — that we have the heart. The fighting spirit.

We came so close. If this were an Olympic contest, we reached the finals. The gold was within our reach. But, in the end last Friday, when the FIBA Central Board gathered to decide on the host of the FIBA Basketball World Championships four years from now, we lost.

As close as we were, the final tally wasn’t close. It was 14-7. Heading towards Tokyo last week, I’m sure the members of the FIBA board already decided on which letters to choose: CHN or PHL.

As important as the final presentations were, I’m sure there was intense lobbying in the months prior to last weekend. The final vote was a formality. Still, what an accomplishment. As my colleague (and sports editor) Mike Limpag aptly put it last Sunday, the Philippines will have a mighty difficult time hosting an event as huge as, say, the Asian Games (with 10,000 athletes). But the FIBA World Cup — given that as few as four venues make us eligible — was within our grasp.

If there’s one video clip that you ought to see, it’s this one: “FIBA 2019: Philippines’ bid presentation.” Go to YouTube, type those words and you’ll be treated to an inspiring and enthusiastic presentation. I don’t want to be a “movie spoiler” but the show and the words uttered were outstanding. If the contest revolved purely on presentation, we’d have won.

Manny V. Pangilinan opened the 20-minute final proposal. Highly-respected not only in the business community but also in the basketball world, MVP spoke of this day being one of his proudest.

Lou Diamond Phillips was very, very passionate. Born in Subic, the movie actor and director was animated. He spoke from the heart when he talked about the Filipino heart. Next up was the man who best symbolizes the small-player/big-heart of the Pinoys. He’s Jimmy Alapag. He was fluent and motivating. Coach Chot Reyes was also very passionate. Finally, the most famous Pinoy on earth, it was Manny Pacquiao who pitched for us. Watch the video! You’ll enjoy it and will feel inspired.

Had the Phils. won the bidding, it would have been a major, major 2019 for Cebu sports. Because apart from the Phil. Arena, the Smart Araneta Coliseum and SM’s  MOA Arena, our very own SM Seaside City Arena would have been the fourth venue. Imagine the world’s greatest ballplayers (NBA stars) visiting?

In the end, China was too big and Yao Ming was too tall an opponent. China’s eight city-venues and world-class infrastructure — plus, this will be their first-ever FIBA World Cup hosting — were too compelling.

I thought our age-old Pinoy adage “Give others a chance” would come into play. China hosted the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. Come 2022, they’ll host the Winter Olympic Games. Maybe the decision-makers will choose the Philippines, to give “others a chance?” Ha-ha. No chance.

Sightseeing with Jana

PARIS — One item that I never fail to carry each time I travel is my pair of Asics Gel Kayano 19 shoes. Almost every morning during our European sojourn here, I get up earlier than the two girls; I lace my shoes, sip a cup of jolt-awakening coffee and I’m speeding out of the hotel door.

A few mornings ago was different. That’s because I was paired with a running buddy: my only child Jana. Jasmin was supposed to join our trio but she woke up feeling not too well. And so it was a father-and-daughter date along the romantic streets of this most romantic city.

Starting near the Opera district where we’re housed, we slow-walked to stretch our cold muscles until our steps turned into a relaxed jog.

Prior to our trip, we had planned to go sightseeing via running. And so Jana was fully-equipped: wearing her pink Nike shoes, she wore 2XU compression tights and snapped-on a Garmin 15 GPS watch to track our distance.

In many of the quaint side streets here, you’ll be stepping on cobblestones and brick-layered floor. Watching your steps for uneven bricks is part of the challenge. And while Paris is one of our planet’s most luxurious of cities, home to iconic art galleries and fashionable people, the streets are often littered with trash and cigarette butts. It was part of the maze, zigzagging to avoid the obstacles.

As Jana and I exited the narrow alleys, we soon arrived at a majestic building: The Louvre. Jogging beside this incredible structure — with 10 million visitors each year — was surreal.

The next stop was refreshing: the Seine River. It cuts across the heart of Paris and snakes through the city. We climbed the bridge to inhale the cold wind that cooled our heating bodies. It was 14C degrees. This is the beauty of running with this aircon-like temperature that envelopes this continent. You don’t tire easily. That’s why you’ll notice hundreds of slim-figured people doing the same forward-movement activity.

I brought along my phone and with the help of Google Maps (the most important App in any travel), we traversed through the Jardin des Tuileries. This historic open space built in 1667 is awash with gardens (“Jardin”), fountains, forest-like trees, picnic grounds. From the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde, we sprinted a straight path on soft clay and pebbles.

We did not run nonstop. The intersections provided the mini-stops to relax. They forced us to look around 360 degrees each time we arrived, gazing at these monuments where Napoleon Bonaparte once walked.

Continuing our journey, we headed north-west to trek along possibly the most famous street anywhere: the Champs Elysees. It’s not flat but a steady incline. At 8:30 in the morning, the shops were still closed, including the seven-story flagship store of Louis Vuitton.

Thirsting for water, we found a store and bought a bottle for 2 Euro. That’s expensive. A tiny bottle for over P100. The price you pay in Champs Elysees.

At the top of the 1.9-km. avenue stood another stunning masterpiece. It’s the Arc de Triomphe. It stands erect at the center of a rotunda — imagine a giant-size Fuente Osmeña — with 12 outer roads that lead throughout the city. Pausing to recharge our legs after the climb, Jana and I stood in amazement.

We plotted our next move: We ran along Avenue George V. It was a welcome downhill drive, running past the Four Seasons Hotel and the Crazy Horse cabaret stop. We emerged back to La Seine and coasted along the riverside.

Then we heard sirens and police cars. Thinking that there was some operation on-going (maybe they were trying to catch a thief), we continued our hike. At the end of the bend, a policeman approached us and, upon closer inspection, said in classic French accent, “You are not a suz-pect!”

Whew! We were relieved. Only later did we realize the truth: There was a race going on and, not wearing race bibs, we were ushered into a different road.

Finally, as the Garmin watch showed 8.0 (kms.), Jana and I stopped. We high-fived, smiled, snapped a photo and looked up. Ahh, the Eiffel Tower.

Roland-Garros

PARIS — After three days of gazing at bicycles in Amsterdam and after an overnight hop to Brussels to sample Belgian chocolates and waffles, we arrived at the City of Light.

Yes, would you believe here in Europe now, at 9:40 at night… it’s still bright. The sun arises early before 6 and it doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m. Which means, for this city with the illuminated Eiffel Tower, you’ll have endless time to walk the gardens, snap photos of the Louvre and crave on crepes and croissants.

The first stop for this tennis-crazy writer? Where else: Roland-Garros.

Here in Paris, they don’t call their tennis tournament “French Open.” That would make it too obvious. Roland Garros is the name of a World War I fighter pilot (not of a tennis legend). It is also the name of the Parisian tennis garden where, for two weeks, rackets will pulverize balls and rubber shoes will slide on sand.

My wife Jasmin, our 16-year-old daughter Jana and I are staying near the Opera district. On Monday morning at 9:25, I walked to the Metro station in Grands Boulevards and descended the flight of stairs. A speedy 25 minutes later, I emerged from Michel Ange Molitor.

As soon as I alighted from the Metro station, I knew I was in the correct place. A “STADE ROLAND GARROS” signage pointed the way. On the asphalted sidewalk, there was a spray-painted sign that read, “1100 meters away.”

Walking briskly (I didn’t want to look overly-excited by sprinting), I reached the gate alongside hordes of other tennis fanatics.

This is my second time inside Roland-Garros. But the first one was different: Back in 2001 with the Mendez family of my wife, we entered the empty complex in Sept. and toured staring at empty green seats and no one firing backhands on the 20 courts.

Last Monday was different. It was a holiday in France and thousands congregated inside (I couldn’t even buy tickets for Jasmin and Jana).

Roland-Garros is special because, like many landmarks that stand here like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Versailles Palace, it is rich in history. Founded in 1891, it began as a tennis event limited only to male members of French clubs. Six years later, women competed in their own category. It wasn’t until 1925 when international netters were welcome.

I attempted to soak in all of this history two days ago. Before watching any balls being hit from right to left, I walked the hallowed grounds. Sculptures of tennis legends adorn the gardens. A museum houses the memories and moments. Names like Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra are sprinkled around walls.

Rene Lacoste, world famous for his clothing brand, is a three-time French Open champion. During his playing days, he was nicknamed the “Crocodile” for his ferocity on-court; thus, the logo of Lacoste.

Everyone here, naturally, wears Lacoste. All the umpires wear blue coats or T-shirts with the the crocodile logo. Same with the officials and linesman, in honor of their French star.

I got to see plenty of boxing last Monday. Yes, like Manny’s sport, tennis is one on one. (More challenging than boxing: no coach is allowed to converse with you.)

Fabio Fognini was a magnet for spectators in Court 2. He played Tatsumi Ito. For those who went to Plantation Bay in 2011 for the Davis Cup tie when we played Japan, you’ll remember the tall Japanese. He promptly lost to Fognini.

Soon after, Jasmin asked me on Viber: How are you doing? My reply: “I’m in tennis Disneyland.”

Two youngsters impressed me the most. One was Dominic Thiem. Only 21, the Austrian smothers that serve and forehand. Another kid to watch is Borna Coric, the former No.1 junior, who defeated Sam Querrey. That first-set tiebreaker was a thrill. Coric, only 18, is the youngest player in the Top 100 (he’s 46).

At Court Suzanne Lenglen, it was Gael Monfils who fueled much applause. He’s French and he reminds me of Yannick Noah. Remember the 6-foot-4 serve-and-volleyer (who’s the dad of the Chicago Bulls star, Joakim)? He won Roland-Garros in 1983 — the last Frenchman to win the men’s singles crown.