CHICAGO - Even though he never wore my beloved verdant green Crispa jersey, Antero 'Terry' Saldana was one of the PBA players I admired growing up.
Long before the days of personal trainers and CrossFit gyms, Saldana already epitomized superb physical conditioning with his rope-like, sinewy arms.
He revolutionized the sport when he went from Letran High all the way to the PBA where he chiseled an impressive career that endured through 17 years despite a gruesome 1987 knee injury.
Built like a tank and tough as a cow's hide, the images of Saldana plowing through the shaded lane as defenders clung unto his broad shoulders are forever etched in my mind.
So when photographs of Terry at a Laguna hospital circulated on social media recently, I was mortified.
Donning a Lakers hat and with a disposable mask strapped to his chin, Saldana, now 67, sat on a wheelchair with sad, forlorn eyes.
His feet puffed like Arnold Schwarzenegger's arms, apparently suffering from a medical affliction called edema wherein fluids trapped in body tissues cause swelling.
What once was a 6-foot-3, 190-pound Hercules during his prime, Saldana has been diminished into a vulnerable mound of pity.
And adding indignity to injury, reports described "The Plastic Man" as "ailing and penniless" and "living alone in abject poverty."
Sports heroes often uplift us with their athletic feats that defy imagination. They also tend to disappoint us with their selfishness and off-the-playing-field antics.
But Terry's case rips at the heart in a way that touches our humanity.
How did he get from rich and famous to poor and almost forgotten?
The desire to satisfy that curiosity is not important. What's more urgent is why does a 17-year PBA veteran have to go through the shame, guilt, and awkwardness of begging for help when he gets sick?
WHY DOES THE PBA NOT HAVE A PENSION PLAN THAT WOULD PROVIDE HEALTHCARE FOR RETIRED PLAYERS?
Saldana is fortunate that well-meaning friends such as Allan Caidic, Ramon Fernandez, et al have been quick to lend a helping hand. But what about those retired players from far-flung places who don't have the same clout and familiar last name?
Say what you want about Bong Go, his politics, and the delightfully annoying way that he inserts himself in endless selfies. But the neophyte Senator's office was among the first to reach out to Saldana.
Commissioner Willie Marcial and the PBA must be lauded for having previously aided Saldana and other similarly distressed figures.
But they can do better. Much, much better.
The PBA needs to adopt a players' pension plan with the same ease and eagerness that it added an "Act of God" provision in the Uniformed Players Contract (UPC) that would help teams mitigate their losses in an eventuality such as a pandemic.
Terry Saldana is living in one hell of a calamity right now. He should be covered by health insurance from the PBA. And he earned it through his dedicated years of service.
In the NBA, a players pension plan has been in place since 1965,
Per HoopsHype, any player with at least three years of service receives a monthly pension payment and access to benefits that include life-long health coverage.
Data from the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) revealed that a former NBA player collects an average of more than $800 per month per year of service.
If he played in the NBA, a 17-year veteran such as Saldana, assuming he held off collecting his pension until he turned 62, would receive $215,000 annually for the rest of his life.
If an NBA player opts to start collecting a pension at age 50, the amount would be slightly less. But still way more than enough to carry him through his golden years.
The PBA, which so loves to emulate everything about the NBA, should follow this lead.
"I think it's not only time to build a pension fund, it's time to put up a Players Association that will address both current and future needs of the players," former PBA commissioner Noli Eala told me.
We've heard of so many inspiring stories of generosity by PBA team owners Ramon Ang and MVP. It would be nice to hear them champion this worthy, humanitarian cause.
Retired athletes shouldn't be just discarded on the wayside when the spotlight of their glory days have dimmed.
They are treasures that must be afforded with the love, care and dignity that they deserve.