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School ties: Basketball helps bind Filipino communities abroad

Reliving past glory is part of the fun for alumni teams representing Filipino schools in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Dan Jung/ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- Ball is life, or so say many in the basketball-crazy Philippines. But life goes on, as people grow their careers and families. The pounds begin to pack on and the knees begin to creak. Opportunities might lure some abroad and some Filipinos return to the United States after their playing days are over.

But the act of putting the ball through the hoop is almost religious for some, and the passion for the game does not fade because of a change in address.

This is what brought a dozen spectators out to watch San Beda take on Mapua -- not at San Juan or Mall of Asia Arena -- but at a recreational court in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, California on a muggy Saturday afternoon. The players aren't the Philippines NCAA stars of today but members of their school's local alumni association now living in California. They gather for social events like camping and karaoke, but nothing generates higher turnout than when the basketball starts bouncing.

Though the occasion is a scrimmage and not a game, families, from young toddlers to the elderly, occupy one bleacher to watch the men, ranging from 30s to 50s, run the court.

The teams, some of which get together for weekly pick-up games, are preparing for the third annual UAAP-NCAA US Friendship Games -- a one-day tournament on October 21 pitting three UAAP schools (University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas and Ateneo de Manila University) and four NCAA schools (San Beda University, Colegio de San Juan de Letran, San Sebastian College - Recoletos and Mapúa University) against one another.

"We're trying to bring out the camaraderie from all the different schools," said Philip Policarpi, board member of the San Beda alumni association. "Here we are all these years later, whether we're from one school or another, we always have that friendship, here in the United States."

It's fitting that the tournament rose out of a single exhibition between Ateneo and La Salle, one of the largest sports rivalries in all of the Philippines. It's like a FilOil tournament for the expat alumni community, but there is more than just school pride at stake.

"I'm not gonna say that everybody plays basketball, but everybody loves basketball," said the 60-year-old Policarpio, dating himself by expressing his fondness for basketball greats John Havlicek and Wilt Chamberlain. He figures he could run the court for a few minutes if needed, but is just as content to facilitate play from the sidelines.

There are some former PBA players like Ricky Calimag who played in the 2000s and San Beda's assistant coach Macky De Joya, who played in the '90s. The rest of the tournament's players are mostly comprised of former high school and college players. Some never played higher than the intramural level.

Others, like Mapua's Choi Taberdo, were alumni who had grown up loving the game and appreciated the opportunity to represent their schools again. He never made it to the varsity squad, but graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 2005 before making his home in the United States.

"Basketball is basically up until 25-30 years old, and then after that you play on the sidelines, so I chose academics because that'll take me for life," said Taberdo, whose name is emblazoned on the back of a Mapua jersey.

"Basketball is your first love, until you die," he adds before his squad calls him back onto the court and the scrimmage continues. A clock and scoreboard run, mostly showing a lopsided San Beda edge, though no one takes note of the score and the play seems to run uninterrupted through multiple games.

For others, it's an opportunity to relive their glory days from back home.

Fred Razón, who played college ball for the Red Lions in the '90s, grew up in Los Angeles before being recruited to play in the Philippines alongside his current alumni teammate Calimag, plus future pros Ato Morano, Ralph Rivera and Rensy Bajar. The first thing he noted once he touched down is the difference in physicality in the game. He says it was a rougher game in the Philippines than the one played in the States.

Worse than any physical pain was the heartbreak Razon experienced whenever losing nail-biters against arch-rivals San Sebastian. It would take decades to turn the tables in a 37-and-over tournament in Los Angeles, but revenge couldn't have been any sweeter.

"We blew them out, it was the best pride I felt on beating them, just because of the rivalry," said Razon.

It made no difference that Rodney Santos and Rommel Adducul, the dominant Stags of his era, weren't on the court. All that mattered is that it read "San Sebastian" across his opponents' chests.

Mac De Joya Jr., who had played for San Beda in tournaments for grade school students such as the Small Basketeers of the Philippines, has been around hoops since he could recall.

His childhood was spent hanging around the locker room with Ginebra greats Bobby Jaworski, Marlou Aquino and Bal David, the latter of whom was his favorite to watch. Well, besides his father, of course.

Instead of following his famous father's footsteps in the Philippines, De Joya Jr. played his high school ball at Mayfair High School in Lakewood, California.

There he played against James Harden -- a clean-shaven, less aggressive version than the one who made foes "fear the beard" -- but was lost in the shuffle on a squad that saw seven players get full rides to college.

"I got noticed by small schools but I didn't pursue it, I played a little bit for Orange Coast and I just got tired of it. It wasn't for me," said De Joya Jr.

Stocky, yet agile, De Joya Jr. can still box out with the best of them on this court. He wishes he could have played high school and even college ball for San Beda, but wearing the jersey with his dad coaching him still brings satisfaction.

Noel Pascual, a tall, slender man, holds the scrimmage together with an air of authority as he whistles and directs traffic.

Pascual, San Beda's alumni sports director here, grew up in the States but moved to the Philippines and played two years of high school ball from 1983-85. He was the player standing next to star Benjie Paras in a team photo taken in 1984. Pascual says he isn't surprised that Paras, then a "man amongst boys" on the court, became a comedian since he had always kept a sense of humor.

After his two years were up, Pascual returned home to Southern California while his teammate would become a two-time PBA MVP and one of the league's greatest players ever. Pascual's problem was that, at 5-foot-10, he had become used to playing the big man in Asia, but that height would require him to play the point or two-guard in the United States. For this reason, he turned down his friends' urging him to try to walk-on to the team while attending USC.

Through the years he played alongside a number of future PBA stars like Mark Caguioa, Jimmy Alapag, Asi Taulava and Alex Cabagnot in the PacRim recreational league in SoCal, holding his own before they eventually moved on to become legends in the Philippines.

Pascual never got his chance to do the same. And then, 10 years after, his elderly grandmother let him in on a secret she had kept until then.

"She told me 'you know I didn't tell you this back then but when you were there and were getting ready to come back, Letran College ... they were recruiting you to play college,'" Pascual said. "'And the reason I didn't tell you is, your mother wanted you to come back and if I told you that, you probably would want to stay and your mother would get mad at me because you wouldn't come back [to the States].'"

What would Pascual have done had he known? He can't say, or maybe he doesn't want to say, knowing he can't change the way things turned out. There isn't a hint of regret as he discusses his current duties for his college, and his face lights up as he discusses his daughter being selected as his team's "muse" for the tournament.

Basketball, like food and religion, is in itself a means of tying together Filipinos abroad. It brings a sense of familiarity, that "back home" feel, and even though bragging rights are at stake, those involved try not to forget that they're all one community.

"The rivalry is still there, but even though we're all friendly, we're all still Filipinos," said Mike Abasolo, another member of the San Beda alumni group.

"We try to keep it as friendly as possible," said San Beda alumni association head Arthur Dela Rosa.

As the scrimmages wrap up, and players grab small sandwiches from a dinner tray, whispers spread of plans to find something more substantial to eat. The players gather those they came with and move on to whatever is left to do with their Saturday afternoon.

Ball is life, but so too is life.