I FIRST heard about Jimmy Alapag in a hushed tone, his name whispered over the phone by Ron Jacobs back in the ber months of 2001 when the venerable former national coach was in the process of putting together an all-pro Philippine team for the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.
Jacobs is a man who normally doesn’t get too excited, but you can sense he’s thrilled about this new find. Jacobs said he was bringing this US-born player over and that the kid was really good, as images started playing in my head of a 6-10, 6-11 Filipino player with the built of a Dennis Still and perhaps the athleticism of a Jeff Moore capable of running over China’s Great Wall in the Asiad.
“So you think I was (big)…” Alapag chuckles when he heard my little recollection.
I nodded. I also remembered thinking, ‘Ron Jacobs is right most of the time, especially when it comes to basketball, but has he lost it?’ For why bring over all the way from the US a player who – of all people – is no taller than millions of others in this nation of height-challenged players, when what the Asiad-bound team badly needed was size to be competitive against China and South Korea?
Maybe Ron can be wrong sometimes, I thought.
We can afford to laugh about that episode now, as Alapag sits in the elaborately designed living room of his home at the heart of Pasig City, celebrating his 37th birthday surrounded by friends and family while looking back on a career that – even if he decided to end it today, right here, right now – already distinguished him as one of the biggest small men in the long history of Philippine basketball.
But it was no laughing matter then for Alapag, who, coming home to his parents’ homeland for only the third time in his 20-odd years, wanted so badly to prove that Ron Jacobs was right about him. The same way he fought to prove himself to an older brother who was more athletically gifted, or to US college coaches who can’t be easily convinced to offer a scholarship to a 5-foot-9 player, or to a high school coach who for so long refused to play a 5-foot-1, 100-lb. kid that it almost drove him to quit.
“I think that’s kinda been the story of my life, to be honest,” he says now. “It’s something I accepted.”