'Pinoy Sakuragi' Marc Pingris is a slam dunk Filipino basketball legend

Kimi ga suki da to sakebitai

Ashita wo kaete miyou

Marc Pingris bobbed his head to the music as he stood behind his teammates during a huddle. It was the 2015 William Jones Cup and Pingris was enjoying himself.

"Slam Dunk! You know? Slam Dunk!" exclaimed Pingris as he continued to bop to the theme song of the anime series that dug to the very core of basketball-crazy Filipinos.

Pingris came to be known as "Pinoy Sakuragi" because game in and game out, Filipino fans saw him channeling his inner Hanamichi Sakuragi - Slam Dunk's protagonist who, initially at least, did not know how to play basketball but was tall and had some athletic ability so was given a shot.

Clearly, Pingris embraced his newfound nickname. After all, he and Hanamichi had lots of similarities: rough upbringing, fiery character, boundless energy, limited skill, and rabid work ethic.

Most of all, like Sakuragi, the 6-foot-4 bruiser also lived by the mantra "control the rebound, control the game."

It was Shohoku captain Takenori Akagi who gave this lesson to his rookie teammate, wanting to let him know what his value to the game was. Even though he could not score to save his life, he could help his team by outworking everybody on the floor.

And just like Hanamichi, Pingris had a veteran who took him under his wing; something that any young player would take as a great sign as it would mean somebody sees potential in you and thinks that you're worth the investment of his time and effort.

For the third overall pick in the 2004 PBA Draft, Akagi was Jerry Codinera, "The Defense Minister."

In his rookie year, Pingris was lucky enough to land in FedEx where Codinera was finishing his professional career. The legend saw something in the young buck and spent extra hours with him, teaching him the ways of elite defense.

The hardnosed forward would cling to this identity which would ultimately make him one of the most respected players of his time. Nine championships including the 2014 Grand Slam, two Finals MVPs, 15 All-Star appearances, eight All-Defensive Teams, and three Defensive Player of the Year awards were just some of the highlights of his career.

What really set Pingris apart, however, was how he gave his all every single game. He was always worth the price of admission because you'd get a Finals MVP whether it be Game 7 of the Finals or a random 4:15 p.m. Wednesday game in the elimination round.

Pingris always played for the fans - and even if you weren't a fan of the team he was playing for, you could never hate on a guy who just played hard in each possession.

Pingris always played for his teammates. We all know the story of how he spent hours rebounding for James Yap in practice to help him get his confidence back.

Playing for his teammates also meant being present all the time. As long as he could drag himself onto the court, he would play for Purefoods or Gilas Pilipinas. If he was not on the court, then he was working out somewhere, trying to get himself back to the game.

Pingris always played with joy. He recognized that basketball turned his life around and that's why he always gave it his honest effort. That's also why seeing him enjoying himself, listening to the Slam Dunk theme song came as no surprise.

Those are just a few reasons why Pingris became so beloved. A lot of Filipino fans could relate to him because he was an anime-watching, DOTA-playing kid-at-heart who never pretended to be anybody else but himself.

It was March 23, 1996 when the final episode of Slam Dunk aired in Japan. In Philippine television, the end came a lot later, but the feelings for fans must have been similar.

After 101 episodes, the show came to a close with Sakuragi and his teammates leaving for the inter-high competitions. No one was happy the show was ending because it had already become part of their lives. Simply put, it was difficult to accept that something that created so many memories would not be there anymore.

This is what the fans of Marc Pingris must be feeling right now. The even tougher part is that, apparently, they had already watched the series finale of "Pinoy's Sakuragi's" great career without knowing it was the end.

The end of his career brings sadness because it's another reminder that time waits for no one, that we all must learn to appreciate what's in front of us as we'd never know when it'd be gone.

"Mahal ko lang talaga ang basketball," Pingris would often say. "Wala naman akong talento e, pero may puso ako."

Now, as Marc Pingris closes this chapter of his life that we got to witness for the past 16 years, we're left asking ourselves if we would ever see someone like him again.