By Francis Ochoa
Philippine Daily Inquirer
IN A country where unforgettable basketball highlights are as countless as makeshift hoops in tight street corners, one memory stands out.
In this particular memory, the crowd roars louder than usual, the arena shakes more violently than usual, and tears of joy flow more freely than usual.
It is 2013, inside the Mall of Asia Arena. The Philippine basketball team, known hereabouts as Gilas Pilipinas, has just conquered a basketball demon and with it, booked a ticket back to the world stage.
From somewhere in the stands, at VIP row, where bigwigs of every sector of the country showed up to witness the Philippines’ shot at returning to the biggest international tournament of basketball, a top business leader and basketball official is elated beyond words. As far as the sport is concerned, this was the VIP of VIPs. The MVP, they call him, in fact.
“My God,” Manny V. Pangilinan, telecommunications tycoon and No. 1 sports patron, said, “this is history.”
“[I was] happy for the team, happy for the country.”
From the court, drenched in sweat and overcome with unbridled joy, a basketball star soaks in the moment.
“[W]hat I experienced [here], what the team experienced, I will remember for the rest of my life,” says Jimmy Alapag.
The moment is the Fiba Asia championship, the qualifier for the Fiba World Cup. The Philippines, long engaged in an unrequited love affair with basketball, had beaten Korea, a team that had dealt it the most painful defeats in modern history, to return to the world stage for the first time in over four decades. It is a moment in time that basketball fans are bound to remember forever, so much so that many still remember where they were when Gilas Pilipinas held a nation transfixed.
The men’s national basketball team has been the No. 1 beneficiary of Pangilinan’s financial resources, the flagship program of a patron’s goal to strengthen the country’s sporting culture. And Gilas Pilipinas is the perfect ambassador for the MVP Sports Foundation, having validated the public perception that the man’s mission has always been to uplift the nation by uplifting sports.
Pangilinan had always been a sports fan. Back in the day when his sporting endeavors focused mostly on his PBA squads and badminton, MVP had always envisioned a nationwide program that would make the country a powerhouse in sports.
“At the very least, we must learn how to be competitive, especially in sports where physical advantages are controlled,” he said then.
Get athletes to compete internationally as often as they can, he proposed, because only then can they improve their craft.
“There’s no use always playing against ourselves,” he said.
Fast forward years later. The MVP Sports Foundation has done that for the basketball program—and more.
“The MVPSF helps in paving the way for short and long term development plans for both program and national athlete,” said Patricia Bermudez-Hizon, the executive director of the MVPSF. “We take a look at a goal, like the Olympics, Asian games, SEA games, world championships, and we support them.”
Take boxing, for instance.
Pangilinan’s army of sports lieutenants had taken over the country’s boxing association and have put a roadmap in place aimed at producing champions in the sport—potentially the one that can end the country’s agonizing search for a gold medal in the Olympics.
Optimism is high in boxing with resources readily available and the association no longer relies heavily on government funding to sustain its program. Despite its recent failures, the association continues to plod on, confident that the next boxing sensation will come from among its ranks of amateur pugilists.
Pangilinan’s support has been crucial in keeping the morale high every time the sport takes—pardon the pun—a beating.
“Words are not enough to express my thanks to [Pangilinan] and the Abap family,” said 28-year-old Charly Suarez, one of the bright gems who fan the hope of an Olympic breakthrough for the Philippines.
Taekwondo is also a happy beneficiary of the foundation.
The sport has been harvesting medals in world tournaments and is also among those penciled to give the Philippines its first Olympic gold.
Like boxing, taekwondo fits the bill of sports Pangilinan feels we don’t yield too much of an advantage to foreign competition when it comes to physical attributes. Like boxing, taekwondo’s weight classes are a great equalizer, putting emphasis more on skill and derring-do than on anatomical construction.
And the results have been there.
The country’s national jins have been performing well internationally and always seem to be a whisker away from a breakthrough in the Summer Games.
And the MVPSF’s involvement in taekwondo has come at a time when the sport has exploded not just in terms of popularity, but also in active participation. And why not? With a foundation always willing to open its wallets to help the sport, there is no better time to become a national jin.
“These kids should take advantage of… the MVP Sports Foundation,” said taekwondo association secretary general Monsour del Rosario, the former national jin who parlayed his ax-kicking skills into a movie career. “They don’t have to worry about funding their training and competition anymore. All they have to do is train hard and make the country proud.”
That, according to Bermudez-Hizon makes the MVPSF vital in sports-building programs.
“More than financial, we monitor their progress and work closely with the NSA to help figure out the best option for training and exposure. Of course at the core of it all is funding, but knowing that strong supporter like the MVPSF and the MVP group of companies are there to support, gives them one less thing to worry about and helps them focus and keep their eyes on the prize,” she said.
You will hear the testimonials echoing in other sports bankrolled by the foundation and whose athletes can now focus their “eyes on the prize.”.
In cycling, golf, football, badminton, triathlon and rugby, the foundation has extended its help and the sport became better because of it.
Football, in fact, has learned to pay things forward. Pangilinan bankrolls the Loyola Meralco squad in the UFL and that team has its own foundation, which aims to bring football to far-flung places.
Just recently, the squad to war-torn Zamboanga to give kids there a chance to aspire for football greatness.
“It’s just amazing, the way we are able to touch young kids’ lives with football,” said James Younghusband, a longtime standout of the national men’s football team and a key superstar for the Sparks.
And it doesn’t look like the foundation is going to stop any time soon.
“Confidence is a mark of a true champion. We will dedicate resources for our Filipino athletes and through that, we will send a strong message that we believe in them,” Bermudez-Hizon said.
“Belief has the ability to empower anyone through obstacles and trials. For the athlete, knowing that the entire country is behind them, helps push them towards their goal.”
And there is no reason to doubt her message’s sincerity.
For as long as the Filipino has a chance to compete among the world’s best, the foundation will always be present. It will continue to equip sports and athletes with whatever they need to bring glory for flag and country. It will patiently guide those with potential so that one day, they too may have that one shining snapshot when an entire nation is transfixed by its moment of glory.