Learning to skywalk: A look back at Samboy Lim's Letran days

The PBA's high flyers of the 80s and 90s (5:20)

Bong Alvarez talks about the aerial exploits of Samboy Lim, Vergel Meneses and other high-flying players of his era. (5:20)

(Editor's note: The interviews here were conducted in early 2011.The piece first appeared in print in the July 2011 edition of Rebound Magazine and online in Interaksyon.com in the same month. It has been slightly updated.)

Many of us still feel short-changed by the retirement of Avelino "Samboy" Lim, one of the most popular players in Philippine basketball history. We cling to every grainy online video of his days on the national team and in the Philippine Basketball Association, and those who are patient enough to dig deep through YouTube's virtual collection of moldy Betamax tapes will also unearth a fairly generic documentary on the Skywalker.

The YouTube feature pretty much summarizes the public's collective memory of Samboy's basketball timeline. He lost his father at age 13, was discovered on the courts of Phil-Am Life Homes in Quezon City at 15, and then soared his way to a successful - albeit injury-riddled - career. He burst onto the national scene as an explosive guard/forward of the Northern Consolidated Cement team. He took his high-flying game to the PBA as a loyal soldier of San Miguel Beer and was an integral part of that team's historic grand slam. Incredibly, he never played out a full season due to persistent and nagging injuries and has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the best players never to have won a league MVP award.

"Samboy's attitude was different from the other players. Up to (today), I have never seen anyone as dedicated and focused as he is." Tino Pinat, former Letran teammate

What the documentary breezes through, however, is Samboy's life in the NCAA, and shares just one widely known fact: that he won a championship in each of the three years he played college ball at Colegio de San Juan de Letran. The dearth of knowledge on his playing days with the Knights shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though. The games weren't televised regularly in that pre-internet and -cable TV era and print coverage for the NCAA always played second fiddle to the UAAP and the PBA. Still, depending on the year, the league hung on to a membership of five to six schools with rabid fan bases. There were still games to be played, championships to be won, heroes to be raised onto hardcourt pedestals.

Thankfully, the NCAA did not fold. If it had, then the tale of Samboy's passage from anonymous streetballer to Hall-of-Famer may not have been told, an inspirational story that would knock his trademark knee-high socks off.

Preparing for takeoff

Knowing what we know about Samboy today, it almost seems blasphemous to mention that he failed to secure a place on teams that have highly successful recruiting track records: San Beda, San Sebastian, Philippine School of Business Administration, and a few others that he could no longer recall. Eventually, he made it onto Letran's Team B under the tutelage of Coach Larry Albano. Samboy realized that given his skill level at the time, he was fortunate to have found a school willing to take him in at all.

"I wasn't good enough yet to be on the team," Samboy said in Tagalog. "There were many other players better than me. So I did weights, practiced every day, spent my time getting better. Luckily, I was able to be part of the 1982-1984 (seniors) team."

The way Samboy described his elevation to Team A, you'd think he sat at the end of Albano's bench. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one of seven rookies joining one-time league MVP Romeo Ang, Samboy made an immediate impact by scoring 22 points in the team's first game of the season, a win against Trinity College. His weight training and practice sessions had obviously paid off, although what he casually described as luck was much more than that.

Tino Pinat, former assistant coach of the Letran team and Samboy's closest buddy on the 1980's squad, speaks fondly of the Skywalker's work ethic. "Samboy's attitude was different from the other players. Up to (today), I have never seen anyone as dedicated and focused as he is."

The dedication that Pinat refers to is evident in Samboy's intense training regimen. He was always the first one out of the team dorm at five o'clock to do his laundry (just to get the chore out of the way so he can concentrate on drills). He would then practice shooting on his own until classes began at 8 AM. By one in the afternoon, he was back on the floor either shooting by himself or challenging someone to a game of one-on-one a full hour before the rest of the team would march into the gym for formal practice. How fascinating it would have been to witness these daily pick-up games because according to Pinat, this is where Samboy developed his magical repertoire of shots.

"He was always looking for someone to play against. It became his habit, even when he turned pro, to come an hour before (practice) to look for a one-on-one opponent. He would say, 'All right, try and guard this.' Then he'll start pushing and pushing until he's invented new moves."

That took care of his shooting skills. But playing as an undersized big man, he was being outmuscled and out-jumped on a regular basis, effectively negating the progress he was making on offense. To counter this, he pursued what Pinat described as an almost maniacal strength conditioning routine that benefited not only Samboy but the rest of the team as well.

"(Samboy) was really thin back then. He saw that he needed to be strong because he was being bullied, so he started lifting weights religiously. And even though we'd finished our practice and we were all spent, Samboy would still be dunking because he wanted to improve his leaping ability. He would fight the weariness and say to himself, 'I can't finish yet because I want to grow stronger'.

"Just by watching him we'd get tired. But he still urged us to play. And we'd start improving too. Because of him, even our guards could dunk. When he would tire, he'd find someone who could push him. He would try to win again even when he was spent. I'd tell him, 'You're crazy'!'"

The effort that Samboy put into improving his game is not lost on his brother, Bon-Bon, who didn't flinch when he compared his Kuya with other more prominent hoops superstars. "His attitude and commitment palyed a big role. Like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, he had their own practice apart from the team. And they all say that when they go out on the court, nothing can stop them. They really have confidence and love for the game." It turns out that the comparison to Michael Jordan is highly substantiated because there is one particular experience that both he and Samboy share. Jordan's "Flu Game" in the 1997 playoffs is touted as one of the most outstanding performances in NBA Finals history. Not many are aware, though, that Samboy had an equally inspiring finals story of his own - one that enhances the Skywalker's mystique that much more.

"The Asthma Series"

Bon-Bon summed up quite well what Samboy's mindset is whenever he enters a game: patay kung patay. And in two out of three Finals games against San Sebastian College in 1983, it came close to being just that as Samboy found himself hospitalized for asthma at the time. He pleaded to team officials to release him from confinement to play. Even with the emotional boost his presence provided, they lost Game 1 of the Finals by one point on a last-second shot by Baste's Nani Demegillo. But the Knights wouldn't surrender as Samboy would be fetched from the hospital again to score 12 points in a Game 2 rout before scoring 20 for an 89-85 victory in the one-and-done knockout match, a game marred by exploding firecrackers set off by overzealous fans.

"We really went through the eye of the needle. San Sebastian defeated us in Game 1. And Samboy couldn't practice because he was on dextrose due to asthma. He was picked up at the UST Hospital to play (in the championship)," Pinat gushed with a sense of admiration. "After the game, he was taken back to the hospital and treated again. What he did gave me goosebumps. It was like he was willing to sacrifice his life to win."

Pinat's choice of words was quite apt. Just a few weeks before the championship series, Benigno Aquino Jr. had been assassinated, rousing a nation from its political stupor. Ninoy had famously proclaimed that the Filipino is worth dying for. Evidently, Samboy felt that his alma mater's glory was worth the same price as he, too, risked his own health to rouse Letran and help it garner a second straight NCAA crown.

Champion on and off the court

There is a point at which the similarities between Jordan and Samboy begin to polarize. While Jordan coupled his personal drive with an infamous reputation of alpha-male intimidation (his uncomfortable Hall-of-Fame acceptance speech comes to mind), Samboy channeled his energies towards playing the game the way it should be played. No trash talking, no stare downs. Just images of the Skywalker either sprinting like a thoroughbred to get back on defense or tumbling onto the floor after one of his airborne drives.

"The physical play was at another level back then," Bon-Bon shared. "When he would drive, they'd plant their foot underneath. But he was still no fear. He was spat at, his eyes poked, but he said 'If I retaliate, I'm the loser. I'll just score on you.'"

Samboy's refusal to retaliate is evidence of a person who lives by a strong set of values both on and off the court. Jimmy Go, his close friend for years, describes him as a humble man who keeps his feet on the ground despite his accomplishments. "Walang ere talaga (No air at all)," he said. An unintentional - yet strangely appropriate - dig at how different he is versus the man referred to as His Airness. Samboy isn't afraid to admit that it was the death of his father that triggered his pursuit of excellence in sports. And he practically beams when talking about his teenage daughter's success in her own chosen sport, karate. "An incredible feeling. I was so proud. When she won a gold medal in the 12-13 (years) division of the World Championship, it was better than winning all those the championships in basketball."

(Editor's note: Samboy's daughter Jamie won a gold medal at the 30th Southeast Asian Games in December 2019)

Those close to him admit as much. Coach Pinat shares that during the angst-filled, unguarded moments all teenagers go through, Samboy confided about how difficult it was for him to accept that his mother was the sole breadwinner for him and his four siblings. "He realized, 'I don't want to be a burden to my mother and maybe I should help'," Pinat reminisces. "So it was here in Letran that he formed his dream of entering the PBA."

And being Samboy's brother, Bon-Bon is probably the best authority on familial ties.

"Although I admired his basketball play, I was more impressed with him as a person. I'm not saying that just because he's my brother, but because I've seen it. He's very humble, and he did not neglect the family. He was our breadwinner. Basketball comes in second among the things I admire him for. And when he became a superstar, all the more he became down-to-earth."

Moving on

When asked whether he missed the days of playing above the rim when he would electrify his thousands - daresay millions - of fans, Samboy turned philosophical.

"Although I'm grateful that someone appreciates my past achievements, I don't miss the game. We live our lives chapter by chapter and we can't go back in time. I'm happy that there are so many talented kids (today). I've had my time, it's their time now."

By closing that chapter of his life, Samboy had saved one final, breathtaking shot for all of us. Granted, failure to put together a complete career profile for a player of his stature is a severe injustice (and hopefully, this story somewhat fills the void). But wouldn't it be equally severe to get stuck in that past and lose sight of what the present - and future - hold? Maybe this is why he claimed that he couldn't remember any of his past heroics and deferred to his family and friends to tell his story. Maybe the trap for someone as accomplished as him is that if he constantly returned to his glory days often enough, the magnitude of his achievements could force him to stay there. He could have easily become the athlete who kept holding out for just one more adrenaline rush, refusing to accept that it was time to move on.

Luckily, these stories of the Skywalker's college years were chronicled a few years before he suffered an unfortunate heart attack in 2014. Such a tragedy would have meant the end for many people, but not Samboy. He stared death in the eye and won; he survived, and his health has steadily improved since then because the Skywalker never stays aground. Whether he is battling it out on the hardcourt or in life, in characteristic Samboy Lim fashion, he commits himself 100%. So maybe it's time for all of us to follow in his footsteps and realize the irony of it all - that we actually have to pry our eyes away from old and blurry YouTube highlights to finally walk on air.

Michael Yu is an HR practitioner based in the United States. He previously wrote for Rebound Magazine in the Philippines.