Mount Zion

(Getty Images)

On TV, I rarely watch live sports nowadays. Unless it’s a major spectacle like the upcoming Warriors-76ers NBA Finals or a La Salle-Ateneo UAAP game 3 or a Rafa-Roger contest in New York, I opt to visit one of the world’s most visited websites: YouTube.

Here’s what I do: I don’t scan the results and wait 40 minutes after any sporting event has finished and it’s right there, an 11-minute summary of the game. It has zero commercials and nobody misses! Every attempt on YouTube is a good shot.

Yesterday, that’s what I did. It was the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament between Duke University and Virginia Tech. I rarely followed the NCAA games in the past but this year is extra special.

Zion Lateef Williamson. If you’re a basketball fan, it’s a must that you watch Zion. (Google offers 4.6 million videos on the phenom.)

Zion is an 18-year-old Duke University freshman who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 285 lbs. But what separates him from the dozens of other college dribblers are his LeBron James-like physique, his jumping ability, his left-handed aggressive moves, his gravity-defying block shots and his rim-shattering dunks (including dunking from the free throw line).

Zion has the bulk and size of a power forward but he struts like a point guard.

“What strikes me?” LeBron James was asked. “His agility and his quickness. For his size, how strong he is, to be able to move like the way he moves, he’s very impressive. I mean, everybody can see the athleticism. That’s obviously, that’s ridiculous. But the speed and the quickness that he moves (with) at that size is very impressive.”

Against Virginia Tech yesterday, the No. 1 seed Duke triumphed 75-73. Zion scored 23 points, including an alley-oop dunk that’s ridiculous.. catching the ball at a ceiling-high elevation before slamming it home with both hands. The TV announcer then quipped, “How high can you go?”

How high can Zion go? He is surely going to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. The joke around the NBA is this: #NotTryinForZion. It means the worst-performing NBA teams are purposely losing so they’ll get a better chance of drafting him.

Duke and Zion are in the NCAA Last 8 and will play Michigan State tomorrow (Phil. time).

If Zion helps coach Mike Krzyzewski win his sixth NCAA title for the Blue Devils, it will elevate Zion to a stature as the best-ever collegiate player of his generation.

What makes Zion a potential global superstar is his type of game: he flies and dunks with the ferocity of a Darryl Dawkins. Of these alley-oops, of which he has recorded dozens this season, Zion said yesterday after the game: “I’m jumping not knowing where the rim is.”

Zion can shoot a good 3. And, the most controversial happening this season, he can also break open a Nike shoe, injuring his foot.. which was such bad publicity for Nike that the company’s shares dropped by $3 billion. That’s the power of Zion.

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.