Bong Tan's kindness, love for basketball remembered by close pal

Nov 11, 2020

IT'S been a year since the shock death of tycoon-sportsman Bong Tan, and for close associate Lawrence Chongson, the memory of his boss-turned-close confidante remains dear to his heart.

"Napakalaki ng tiwala na binigay sa akin ni boss Bong sa 20 years naming magkasama at ang laki ng pasasalamat ko na naging malapit ako sa kanya," he told Spin.ph.

Chongson got emotional as he reminisced the good old times with Tan. The two were almost inseparable for the better part of the two decades before the tycoon's death last year, so much so that they already considered each other as brothers.

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The outspoken bench tactician even looked back on the last show of generosity the PAL Holdings president just days before his untimely demise.

"October 25, namigay siya sa ilang players ng sapatos na Nike IDs sa kulay ng UE (University of the East). Pinasadya niya talaga," he looked back.

With UAAP Season 82 winding down, Tan, then the UE coach with Chongson by his side, gifted pairs of Nike Zoom Freak 1s to Red Warriors stars Rey Suerte, Alex Diakhite, and Philip Manalang as the team sought to finish the season strong.

To Chongson's surprise, Tan also gave him his own pair.

"Nagtataka ako bakit pa ako binigyan, eh hindi naman ako player. Hindi na rin ako nagba-basketball," he wondered.

Like the pairs given to the three players, Chongson's pair had the big red letters of U and E placed on the tongue and was predominantly white with red and black accents.

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His pair, though, had a special twist with the name Bloom written on the inside of the tongue. Bloom actually is Chongson's daughter and Tan's godchild.

It also had the No. 32 placed on the heel and on the outsole. "Ever since na magkasama kami, ang tawag niya sa akin is 'Magic Chongson,' kaya naging 32 kasi number ni Magic Johnson," he explained.

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Humbled as Chongson was, the design choice of UE confused him the most.

"Sabi ko, 'Boss, bakit mo pa nilagay yung UE sa dila, eh common knowledge ng tao na walang nagtatagal na coach dito sa atin?'" he shared.

The two actually teamed up to call the shots for the Recto-based dribblers, with Tan being named as the head coach while Chongson, his right hand man and head of basketball operations, taking an active role in drawing up the plays for the Red Warriors.

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That experiment did surprisingly well. Although UE still failed to end its decade-long Final Four drought, it still pulled off four wins against La Salle, Adamson, and National University (twice), including an exhilarating 79-77 victory over the Bulldogs on October 31 to finish the campaign on a high.

To Tan, though, the design was fully intended.

"Sabi niya sa akin, 'Bro, dito [sa UE] na tayo magre-retiro pareho'," Chongson looked back.

Little did he know that just days later, Tan would collapse in a recreational league game at Gatorade Hoops in Shaw, and two days later on November 11, pass away. He was 53.

Until now, it's tough for Chongson knowing that Tan is no longer with him given the years that they've been together.

"Sa huling 20 years na magkasama kami, mas marami pa akong time na na-spend sa kanya than sa family ko at sa magulang ko. Imagine, pupunta kami ng Hong Kong o Amerika, kahit dito lang sa Manila, hanggang hatinggabi kami magkasama na nagpa-plano lang sa mga gagawin sa basketball," he said of their bond, which started when Chongson joined Alfrancis Chua's Tanduay coaching staff in the PBA back in 2000.

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    Tan soon promoted Chongson to the role of assistant team manager when Derrick Pumaren came on board for the Rhum Masters in 2001.

    Through all the hardships and controversies, the two remained tight.

    "Kahit ang daming lumalapit sa kanya na, 'Si Chongson ganito, ganyan,' wala namang umubra eh. Somehow, lumusot sa kanya yung ugali ko na gusto ko ako ang nasusunod, pero give-and-take naman kami. Kasi ganoon katindi ang tratuhan namin sa isa't isa, nandoon yung tiwala. Halos kapatid na talaga," Chongson said.

    That's why no matter what, he just could never say no to Tan.

    It couldn't be truer when the Tanduay executive decided to return to UE in 2018.

    "Nung babalik kami sa UE, hesitant ako kasi alam namin na maraming may ayaw sa akin. Umalis na ako noong 2009, tapos ngayon babalik ulit. What for?" he said. "Pero may text siya sa akin na, 'I need you here to keep this team intact.' Lahat naplano na namin."

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    With Tan leading the way, UE was aggressive in securing talents like Diakhite from Diliman College and Suerte from University of the Visayas, as well as blue-chip recruits Harvey Pagsanjan from Hope Christian High School and Clint Escamis from Mapua.

    Those plans, Chongson said, were only a precursor of what's to come as Tan wanted the Red Warriors to not only be competitive on the court but also in the recruitment wars.

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    But after Tan's passing, UE chose to go another way and eventually, also let go of Chongson.

    "Yun ang nasimulan namin ni boss Bong, pero iba ang gusto nila. Looking back, wala akong regrets and things happen for a reason," he said.

    Still, Chongson believes that Tan's legacy is still felt to this day.

    But more than the mystique that surrounds the executive, he'd rather remember "Boss Bong" for the kind man he was.

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    "Gusto ko siya maalala bilang isang tao na napakabait, in spite yung impression sa kanya na he will do anything na makagustuhan niya," Chongson said, recalling the simpler times they share where they even eat in carinderias around the UE campus (chicken adobo was Tan's favorite) or hole-in-the-wall places in Binondo, away from the usual fine dining restaurants the elites usually eat.

    "Gusto ko sa kanyang maalala na nangingibabaw yung kagandahan ng loob niya, na nagbibigay siya ng break sa karapat-dapat, at kung kailangan, lalabanan niya yung institusyon for what he believes is right. Sa mga ganoong bagay, yun yung patunay na hindi siya yung typical na taipan."

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