FORMER PBA coach Rino Salazar, a longtime resident of Anchorage in Alaska, had only wanted to slip into the country quietly to celebrate his 64th birthday with his townmates in Cainta on Saturday while enjoying the town’s storied Senakulo festivities before flying home five days later.
Little did he know that he was also coming home to send off a respected gladiator who had figured prominently in his coaching career - a friend he unabashedly labelled “the best import the PBA ever had.”
Seven-time PBA best import Bobby Parks, who played in the Shell squad that gave Salazar his only career PBA championship in the 1992 First Conference, died on Saturday at the San Juan de Dios Hospital after a lengthy bout with cancer of the larynx and lungs.
In a cruel twist, Parks died on Salazar's birthday.
“So young, so early,” Salazar told a group of close friends that joined him in a Pasig restaurant late on Sunday night, among them his former assistant Molet Pineda and a couple of sports scribes who covered the PBA beat during the veteran coach's time in the 90s.
Salazar, also a longtime assistant to Robert Jaworski and later head coach of Ginebra, recounted how Parks, stern yet reticent, would go about his job, “bang up and get banged up and you would not hear a word from him.”
He continued: “Si Bobby yung game after game, ganun lang. You will never hear anything from him. He just plays on and on. No complaints, no anything.
“I ask for (former import and now-coach) Norman Black’s indulgence, but I believe Bobby was the best import the PBA has ever had.”
Wasting little time as he had to fly back to Alaska on Tuesday, Salazar marshalled the group to the Heritage Park in Taguig city in the wee hours of Monday morning.
“It will be better that we could pray without the confusion of having so many people around. I want to pray solemnly for him,” he said.
True enough, the chapel was somber, with about three kids asleep in the pews and only a nephew and a cousin of Parks’ widow Jasmine holding the fort.
Jasper Salinas is a 24-year-old registered nurse, one of four nephews called upon by Jasmine to look after Parks when his health took a turn for the worse a month or so ago.
“(Parks) was really doing well until his condition rapidly deteriorated,” Salinas said. He added that the cancer in Bobby had grown so vicious these last few weeks that it had started to eat into his kidneys and liver.
“Tito was starting to become pale and turn yellow, that was why we had to administer more treatment. He was still doing well,” Jasper said.
Rino tore himself away from the group and took Bobby 'one-on-one' as he prayed earnestly before his fallen gladiator’s coffin. I could have sworn there was a tear there that even Bobby would not have expected.
Pineda, a cheerful guy who had been an anti-thesis to Salazar’s stern image, stayed longer at the pews, his clean-shaven head – like Rino’s – bowed really low.
Salazar was still teary-eyed when he bade us goodbye. It was already 3:30 a.m.
It was then that I thought: Twenty or so years ago, when we had youth on our side, we could laugh and smile while bidding each other goodbye at 7 a.m., ready to say hello to each other again as we pound the PBA beat in a couple more hours.
Same with Bobby. How could the energy of his youth leave him so abruptly?
The answer came from a guy who may not have had an aorta of athleticism in him. “It just comes po. (Parks) was never supposed to have lung cancer but he did. He was never a smoker or a heavy drinker. It comes lang po talaga,” Jasper said.
To that, we all quietly walked away. We will never really know.