THERE is no doubt in San Mig governor Rene Pardo's mind that James Yap is still the face of the PBA, representing what Robert Jaworski was to the pro league in the seventies and eighties and Alvin Patrimonio in the nineties.
“Malaking factor talaga ang James Yap sa popularity ng team namin. Ordinary basketball fans kasi can totally relate to the life and success of James in basketball,” Pardo said, recalling the Mixers star's rise from obscurity in Escalante, Negros Occidental to a two-time PBA MVP.
“James Yap is [the realization of a] typical dream of every basketball-loving Filipino. Bata ka, lumaki ka sa probinsya, nangarap ka, naglaro ka, nakilala ka. Now he’s a legend in the league,” he added.
Despite all the success the San Mig franchise has reaped over the years, Pardo said he believes the team wouldn't be as popular as it is now - ranking only second in terms of popularity to crowd darling Ginebra - without Yap in the lineup.
“We’ve always been number two, number three. And because of James, we have strengthened our hold on very strong number two and we’re biting at the back of Ginebra, which is still hands down the most popular league in the country,” said the amiable team official.
“Popularity ni James Yap, he’s the number one player and he is the face of the league and he has strengthened the popularity of San Mig in the PBA,” said Pardo, who was already part of the old Purefoods franchise back when Patrimonio was still the team superstar.
“The fact that James is humble amidst his success further makes him lovable,” he added.
See video of James Yap cheered on by fans after a game:
Like Jaworski and Patrimonio during their time, Yap, according to longtime friend and business partner Jeff Yap, also makes it a point to allot some time for his fans.
“Minsan pag alam namin na madaming tao ang pagme-meetingan namin ni James, magdadagdag kami ng mga extra na dalawang oras … kasi alam namin dudumugin siya ng fans,” said Yap, co-owner of James’ MotoTechnik Vespa scooters shop in Quezon City.
“Minsan nga sa parking sasakay na lang ng kotse yan, iiba pa ng lakad kasi lalapitan yung mga fans, kahit dun sa gate ng Araneta parking lot,” he added.
Yap’s teammate at San Mig Marc Pingris admitted he has always been amazed at how his best buddy never fails to find time to give in to the requests of fans.
“Sobrang humble na tao 'yun. Hindi niya pinagkakait oras niya sa fans. Halos lahat talaga binibigyan niya ng time para sa picture, autograph, kwentuhan,” Pingris said.
“Saka si James humble talaga yun at mabait. Hindi kaplastikan ang pakikisama niya, sa tao at sa fans. Very humble talaga 'yan. Idol ko yan sobra. Ikaw ba, di mo idol?” joked the Pozzorubio, Pangasinan pride.
Pingris said he and Yap learned to value their fans on the advice of current team manager Patrimonio.
“Kasi yun din ang pilosopiya naming players na wag mo isnabin yung mga fans, kasi marami dyan nag leave sa office, bumiyahe ng malayo para makita ka … tapos di mo papansinin. Masakit yun,” he said.
Patrimonio’s former agent, Nap Guitierrez, echoed Pardo's thoughts.
“No doubt, James Yap is the most popular basketball player today. Very much on the same echelon of Big J and Alvin during their time,” said Guitierrez.
Here's a podcast of full interview with Rene Pardo:
Asked what made Yap so popular, Gutierrez said the former University of the East star was able to cross over to the mainstream because of his marriage to Kris Aquino.
“Yung naging relasyon kasi ni James kay Kris Aquino ang naging malaking factor dun. Though James is a very good basketball player, mas mabilis siyang nakilala dun sa relasyon nila ni Kris,” said the former showbiz reporter.
“Perfect nga yung naging formula ng career ni James eh. Imagine, kunwari kilala siya ng ten thousand sports fans, nakuha pa niya yung ten thousand fans ng showbiz. Yung ibang player na sikat, hindi nakakapasok sa mainstream, kasi wala nung isang formula,” Guitierrez added.
“Pero not to take anything away from James, he is really good in his craft (basketball),” he said.
Veteran sports journalist Eddie Alinea, however, declared Yap still lacks one major facet to come close to the popularity of Jaworski, a former PBA star and senator who remains a household name to this day.
“He needs more exposure sa national team. Si Jaworski kasi nung araw, every opportunity to play sa national team, sinusunggaban niya,” said Alinea.
“The popularity of James today can further grew 10 times. Kasi sa ngayon focused lang mostly sa San Mig fans ang kasikatan niya, whereas kung lalaro siya sa national team, suporta ng buong bansa makukuha niya,” he added.
“Si Jawo kita mo kahit sa ibang bansa, kilala siya at hinahangaan ng ibang basketball players at fans,” said Alinea.