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Jimmy Alapag talks about Johnny Abarrientos, winning with TNT, and the idea of moving to the US

Jimmy Alapag uncorked countless cold-blooded shots that pierced through the hearts of his rivals here and abroad. In an illustrious basketball career littered with championships and individual accolades, it's almost impossible now to think that the man who dazzled fans with his tour de force performances had cold feet once.

But there's one moment Alapag can never forget: the time when he cramped up during warmups before Game 1 of the All-Filipino Cup finals between Talk 'N Text and Coca Cola.

It was easy to understand why. Coca Cola, after all, had Johnny Abarrientos who was still at the peak of his powers. Meanwhile, Alapag was a Fil-Am rookie at the time eager to prove he belonged in the league.

"I'm matched up with arguably the best point guard ever in the PBA in Johnny Abarrientos so I'm so excited but I'm so nervous. I'm cramping guys, I'm cramping in warmups at Cuneta Astrodome," Alapag recalled on Saturday's episode of 2OT.

"We got absolutely man-handled the first game at Cuneta I think we lost by 20 something and man, it didn't look good for sure but to be a rookie and to play against, for me, arguably the best point guard to ever play in the PBA, was really special."

Talk 'N Text, though, went on to win the title, which was its first in franchise history.

That win was a validation of sorts for Alapag, who was the 10th pick in the 2003 draft that also included top pick La Salle guard Mike Cortez. Alapag was expected to go higher in the annual draft, and even though his stint with the national team was cut abruptly by an injury in 2002, he showed glimpses of greatness. People knew the 5-foot-9 guard was special.

He was able to measure up against the league's best with his stint with guest team Selecta alongside Asi Taulava in the PBA. That was why he was optimistic heading into the 2003 draft.

"I was optimistic I guess. I knew how much I prepared because of what happened in 2002 (injury on his shooting hand). My tryout with the national team ended before it actually started. I knew it was still fresh in everyone's mind but I also knew how hard I trained to prepare because my experience with those guys showed me the level I needed to be at," he said.

"When you're around with guys like Kenneth Duremdes, Danny Siegle, Asi Taulava, the legends of the PBA - to see the level they were playing at, - that let me know how much I needed to prepare in the next draft in 2003. I was optimistic. I was told by some teams that won't be named, that I was gonna go higher in the draft but it was God's plan where I end up."

But he still slid down to 10th, which, from a competitive standpoint, was "an absolute driving force."

"As thankful and as blessed as I was that day in 2003 to be drafted, it was literally dream come true.... There was that part of me that was so happy because it's a dream come to fruition," he said. "But the other half of me, you better believe me that it was an absolute driving force to show everyone that I understood what happened in 2002 but I was gonna show everyone that I was good enough and I deserve to be in the league. That was definitely a chip in my shoulder that I carry in me throughout my career."

Alapag eventually won Rookie of the Year honors that season.

Golden years with TNT

Things went downhill for the Phone Pals after that championship conquest in 2003. And with losing, came changes.

One of the biggest shuffles the management did was trading Taulava for Ali Peek. It was tough for Alapag. He thought he was going to be teammates with Taulava for the rest of their respective careers.

"You know I would have hoped that we could have but it's one of those things that are out of your control. I remember when he called me man... I was in tears man," he said. "But you know I think just being young and naive I think you always hope that you're gonna play with certain guys for your whole career. And he has done so much for me as a big brother coming into the league and to really fully understand that we weren't gonna be teammates anymore it was tough."

Gradually, Alapag got over it and won more championships with Peek. Turned out the hulking Peek was a huge - literally and figuratively - help for TNT in its succeeding conquests.

"Losing a great player, a Hall of Famer like Asi you know we picked up another Hall of Famer in Ali Peek and Ali may not have been the dominant scorer that Asi was, or even though you know he was definitely dominant around the glass and even though Asi's a few inches taller, Ali's ability to protect the middle and protect the rim and I know for me covering my butt for a bunch of times on that back line, it was a big key for us," he said.

"We were so strong on the wings and at the point guards with Jayson and I but just knowing that we could lean on Ali because not only that he was there for us defensively, he could step out and I mean he was so consistent from the elbow, free throw area whether it was a jump shot or a jump hook, and he was also a guy that can get points for us if he posted up so I think it gave us a different dynamic and you guys know Peek man, he's hilarious and he was absolutely a key part of our team but there were so many guys during those years that made it all work and he was one of them."

That core, which included Jayson Castro, Ranidel de Ocampo, Ryan Reyes, and Kelly Williams, was so special it almost won a Grand Slam, which has only been pulled off by five teams in the league's history.

"Looking back, it was tough to lose that 'cause we're so close... a lot of people don't understand how difficult it is to win a Grand Slam because I think the biggest challenge is the team obviously have to have talent, the camaraderie and the chemistry has to be super strong. And you also have to be a little lucky," he said. "Winning a Grand Slam is special that's why a very, very few teams have done it, but hey man we left everything we have on that court but we came up just a bit short."

Next move

A member of PBA's 40 Greatest Players, Alapag almost had it all. He won six championships as a player, he led Gilas to the World Cup in 2014 and showed us performances to remember, then steered Alab Pilipinas to the ABL championship as a coach.

One can only imagine how much more success he can achieve for Philippine basketball in the coming years. But with the world paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Alapag is mulling over moving to the US with his family.

"If you guys remember there's an article that came out recently a couple of weeks ago and somebody wrote about my family and I are contemplating about a move to the US and to be completely honest with you guys, it is something that we're thinking about," he said.

"Again, with so much uncertainty around the world, here in our country, especially from a sports and basketball landscape, it's something that we're thinking about and I have reached out to my contacts from Sacramento and other people I know around the NBA and the G League to see what opportunities there might be."

Nothing's set in stone yet, but Alapag is hopeful an opportunity will arise soon.

"We don't know yet, we don't know what direction we'll go, but the feedback that I've gotten has been very, very positive so you know we'll see," he said. "There's still a lot happening, the NBA's still in the playoffs. They haven't made any announcements in terms of next season, but it's definitely a possibility. So we'll see."