LIKE the rest in their small circle of friends, Bong Alvarez would have wanted to see Samboy Lim in the flesh during his 58th birthday celebration.
But circumstances wouldn’t allow him.
So like everybody else, a simple greeting over the phone and social media was enough to send his message.
“Bumati lang. Kami nila Robert (Evangelista),” said Alvarez, referring to a longtime common friend of him and Lim. “Hindi talaga puwede dahil sa virus (coronavirus). Lalo na si Sam, alam naman natin 'yung lagay niya.”
For Alvarez, Lim is more than a friend. The ‘Skywalker’ was his No. 1 idol.
Now 51, Alvarez was a thrill to watch as a player, earning a reputation for his daredevil, high-wire act that gave birth to his moniker ‘Mr. Excitement.’
Such didn’t come as a surprise as Lim had a huge influence on him, admitting he always watched the cage legend while still playing for Letran during his growing years.
“High school ako nasa UM (University of Manila) pa lang ako, idol ko na siya. Lagi akong pumupunta ng Rizal Memorial [Coliseum] 'pag may laro ang Letran sa NCAA,” recalled Alvarez.
Unfortunately, by the time he was recruited to play for San Sebastian in 1985, Lim had already played out his playing years with the Knights.
“Rookie ako sa San Sebastian wala na si Sam sa Letran,” he said. “Kaya that same year, nag-champion kami sa NCAA.”
While their paths would cross from time to time, Alvarez didn’t know Lim personally. It wasn't until he turned pro in 1989 that he was formally introduced to his idol, then already an established superstar with San Miguel Beer in the PBA.
It was Evangelista, a close pal of Lim since his college days and later of Alvarez, who made the meeting between the two high-flying cagers possible.
“Paulit-ulit niyang sinasabi sa akin idol niya si Samboy,” recalled Evangelista.
The Manila City engineer later decided to have the two sit down together in a dinner 31 years ago in a restaurant that prides itself as ‘The House That Fried Chicken Built’ somewhere along the Greenhills area.
“So one time, nag set-up ako ng dinner, kaming tatlo lang. Doon na nagsimula lahat,” said Evangelista.
Alvarez, who still owns the second highest all-time most points scored in a game among locals with 71 while playing for Alaska, would develop a strong bond with Lim through the years.
Even in retirement, they would see each other from time to time, either in a Legends Game or just plain tete-a-tete over lunch or dinner.
“Kung may time, magkikita kami ni Sam and Robert. Bago yung aksidente niya, magkasama kami a few days before,” said the 6-foot high-flyer, a four-time All-Star, a one-time Mythical First Team member, and a key cog in Alaska’s first-ever PBA championship in 1991.
Watch some of Alvarez's highlights in the PBA:
The unfortunate incident that befell his boyhood hero took a while to sink in for Alvarez, who didn’t have the courage to see Lim in his current situation until last year when he decided to have Evangelista accompany him to Samboy’s condo unit.
They arrived early in the evening just as Lim was about to have his rest, but nonetheless was given access to the player considered one of the greatest in Philippine basketball history.
It was a quick meeting between the two, with Alvarez whispering to Samboy he’ll forever be his basketball idol.
“Paulit-ulit niyang binubulong kay Sam yun,” said Evangelista.
For a man toughened in the streets of Quiapo, Alvarez admitted being moved to tears on that memorable night when he once again sat side-by-side with the player he idolized most.
“Nakakalungkot, although nag-improve na rin naman yung kundisyon niya,” said Alvarez.
He had a picture taken with Lim, but would rather not post it for public consumption.
Alvarez would rather remember ‘The Skywalker’ at his finest.