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Ode to Jimmy

I am sad that Jimmy has left the Philippines, but he said it himself that this is not goodbye.

Enzo Flojo

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Jimmy Alapag and his family already left the Philippines.

That’s not supposed to hit hard. I mean, a lot of people leave this country whether it’s for work, vacation or, well, for good.

But Jimmy’s departure stings because this a man who has played, bled and fought for this country’s pride whether it’s on or off the basketball court.

Jimmy has become a symbol of the Philippines, at least in the realm of sports and popular culture.

His exploits in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and perhaps more importantly for the national team have raised him to iconic status.

Even his foes from around the continent have recognized his impact not just on Philippine basketball, but in Asian hoops in general.

I remember the first time I heard about Jimmy Alapag.

It was in 2002. I was still in university then, closely following the developments connected to the national basketball team as they prepared for the 2002 Busan Asian Games, yes, those Asian Games where South Korea’s Lee Sang-Min broke all Filipino hearts.

Ugh, it still hurts.

Anyway, back then, people were wondering about who would play alongside Olsen Racela as the national team’s back-up playmaker.

I remember De La Salle University floor general Mike Cortez was someone a lot of people wanted in the mix. I remember other names were also being floated like Jayjay Helterbrand, of course, Johnny Abarrientos, and even Gherome Ejercito.

That was when I first heard about Jimmy.

I recall that the national pool under Jong Uichico invited Jimmy to try out for the team after the latter finished his playing years at California-State Bernardino, which if I’m not mistaken was in the Division 2 of the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Despite not being a Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) player yet and having his papers still sorted out by the Department of Justice, Jimmy was in the mix to be part of the team headed for the Asian Games.

Who was this guy anyway?

No way he was as good as Cortez or Abarrientos or the leading candidate to be Racela’s backcourt partner, Noy Castillo, right?

I caught a glimpse of Jimmy scrimmaging at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center n Ateneo on one random day, and one could already see that he had the makings of a special player.

We all know about Jimmy’s shooting prowess and his speed, but I remember getting surprised by his spring and his ability to see the floor and facilitate the offense — things you don’t usually see on highlight reels or commonly hear from a lot of observers.

Sure, he was new and young and maybe chemistry was an issue with the seasoned PBA veterans, but it was crystal-clear that Jimmy could hold his own.

Until now, I wonder about whether he would have made a big difference had he been part of the Busan Asiad squad? Maybe we would have beaten Korea? Maybe we would have placed on the podium? Who knows, right?

It took Jimmy five more years before he finally wore the Philippines’ colors in a formal, official FIBA tournament, but once he did, he lit up the scoreboard and made magic happen.

Jimmy first suited up for the national team in 2007, and I remember that squad with fondness.

They beat a complete Iran team coached by Rajko Toroman in the 2007 Jones Cup and should have made it past the first round in the 2007 FIBA Asia Cup in Tokushima, but losses to “lower-seeded” sides Jordan and Iran gave us the boot despite beating China for after what seemed like forever.

Since then, Jimmy has been somewhat of a mainstay in the national team.

He missed the 2009 squad that finished outside of the Top 8 before returning in 2011, 2013, and 2014.

After the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, which was a bit of a disaster, Jimmy retired from playing international basketball, pretty much handing the playmaking reins to the likes of Jayson Castro, Terrence Romeo and Kiefer Ravena.

In retrospect, Jimmy didn’t have a very long international career, at least when ranged against the likes of other Asian legends like Fadi El Khatib, Hamed Haddadi, Yaseen Musa, Korea’s Hur Jae, or Japan’s Takehiko Orimo, but his impact was still very strong and meaningful.

Like many, if not all of his fans, I am sad that Jimmy has left the Philippines, but he said it himself that this is not goodbye.

He will return one day to continue helping Philippine basketball, and that promise is enough of a silver lining to keep buoying our spirits up in these trying times.

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