This article appears in SLAM 214, out now in all Titan outlets and major bookstores.
On his way from wide-eyed, skinny rookie to two-time Finals MVP, along the path from defensive stopper to two-way killa, as he turned from 6th Man to TheMan, Chris Ross has made it known: there’s levels to this.
By Jon Rodriguez
Chris Ross is talking.
He’s exchanging unpleasantries with Yeng Guiao, the head coach of the NLEX Road Warriors, right in front of the NLEX bench. Someone from NLEX is shooting free throws but it doesn’t matter. The game is pretty much over: the San Miguel Beermen, Ross’ team, are protecting a 12-point lead over NLEX with less than two minutes left. The game had been testy all throughout. Like a house of cards, fragile and flimsy, everything was bound to collapse. At the 1:42 mark, it did. Guiao—with his arms crossed; his head shiny; and his face all scrunched up in anger—says something, a lot of things, to Ross.
Chris Ross is livid.
His body language is showing early symptoms of a meltdown. He points at Guiao and lunges at the coach with a purpose. A referee, who is within earshot of the exchange, holds Ross in an effort to calm him down. Too late. The back and forth between equally fiery competitors has taken a turn. This is serious. The look of concern on Arwind Santos’ face is familiar. Alex Cabagnot reprises his role as a human barricade. When tensions rise like this, there is usually some shoving, a bit of finger-pointing, and—on really, really dark times—strangling. San Miguel, a team carrying a lot of scars, knows this. Luckily, Santos’ neck survives this incident unscathed. There are no punches thrown. No lifetime bans handed out. But the damage may have been worse.
According to San Miguel coach Leo Austria, Ross was triggered after Guiao allegedly hurled a racist remark towards him. Guiao denied this. The PBA said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove this. But Ross stood by his allegation. On Instagram, he posted, “Racism is never justifiable.” In San Miguel’s next game against GlobalPort, he used his Kyrie 4 BHMs to do the talking. Printed across the shoe is the word “equality,” repeated over and over. By the second half of the game, Ross switched to a pair of Jordans—the message was already made clear. He offered no post-game explanation on his shoe choice, but tweeted a photo of his statement footwear—the message was already delivered. Then, nothing. There were no more cryptic tweets nor Instagram posts that came from Ross. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
Chris Ross is chilling.
When he’s not busy being a problem that opposing coaches can’t solve, Ross is either in the gym lifting weights or flipping shows on Netflix. On his current list are episodes of Black Mirror, a British science fiction TV series that delve on the unexpected horrors of technology. One of its more bizarre episodes tell the story of how a Prime Minister was forced to have sex with a pig on live TV to free a kidnapped member of the royal family.
“I’m still trying to figure out if I like Black Mirror or not or if it’s too weird for me,” says Ross.
Ross can enjoy his shows as San Miguel continues to rack up the Ws, going on an early five-game winning streak to begin the 2017-2018 Philippine Cup. In that streak, the Beermen defeated opponents by an average of 10 points. A lot of that is due to the consistent and expected dominance of June Mar Fajardo (25 ppg, 9 rpg) as well as Ross’ all-around stellar play as the one running the show for San Miguel. His per game averages are a fantasy manager’s dream: 9 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 apg, and 2 spg. His step seems to have an extra bounce, his passes are crispier, and his body looks leaner. A Ross highlight in 2018 goes like this: he corrals a missed lay-up on the defensive end of the floor, out-sprints six guys across the court, throws himself at Barangay Ginebra’s Raymond Aguilar (a 6-foot-4 burly big man), absorbs contact, and scores. Plus a foul. Plus a two-arm flex. Ross is rejuvenated and it has nothing to do with his shoes; it’s his new plant-based diet.
“My body feels a lot better than before and my energy levels are up,” he says. “It’s also helped me become mentally stronger.”
Chris Ross is hungry.
His initial plan, he says, was to go vegan once he retired from playing basketball. But the schedule was pushed forward when, based on his own research, he learned that several NBA players have been playing on a high level since adopting plant-based eating habits. It’s a simple formula: Cut out animal and animal-derived products, slim down, speed up. The likes of Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Marc Gasol have committed to ditching meat. “I figured that if they could do it, why couldn’t I?” says Ross. So he did, embarking on a healthy trip in November, and now he’s fighting to eat his hunger pangs away. “I’m eating all day! I hired a chef that makes it easier on me with meals but it’s very hard to be vegan,” he says.
A typical Chris Ross meal these days consists of a lot of tofu, broccoli, quinoa, beans, and chickpeas. That doesn’t sound appetizing at all, but it does give the 6-foot-1 combo guard enough protein to get him through tough trainings and tougher battles on the court. Aside from his NBA idols, the decision to remove meat from his diet was influenced by several gruesome videos he had seen of animal cruelty. Those videos, plus a quote shared to him by a friend (“Death doesn’t bring life)” were the last straw. Skinny ball it is.
Chris Ross is feeling great.
“I feel like I’m in the prime of my career and I’m just getting started. My body has never felt better in my career and I’m excited to see what this team can accomplish going forward,” he says.
Ross has been with the San Miguel franchise since 2013, playing smaller bits at the season finale of Petronovela, the title of a series of tumultuous episodes that plagued the PBA’s winningest ball club. The core of San Miguel’s championship are mainstays. Santos has been with the franchise for nine years; Cabagnot for eight; Fajardo and Marcio Lassiter for six. From import turmoil to the “Beeracle,” this lineup has seen it all.
“Luckily the ups have outweighed the downs and it has helped us build a bond that goes beyond basketball. I think that’s why we have been the team we are as of late because we genuinely like and respect each other and will do anything for each other,” Ross says. “We haven’t made any crazy trades even if we don’t win a championship in a conference. That’s a testament to the management for keeping the core together for as long as they have and letting us grow with each other through good and bad.”
During practices, the team, including the coaching staff and trainers, turn the practice facility into a Zumba studio as part of their training regimen. The players’ own playlists are also cranked up on the gym’s loud speaker to get the team grooving. This easy-going vibe also translates on the court. When the Beermen lose a couple of games, there’s no panic, Ross says, because they have the confidence and trust that they’ll figure it out themselves. “We haven’t had any problems on our team. Like they say, winning heals all and we’ve done our share of winning so everyone is happy,” says Ross.
Everyone on the San Miguel train has more reason to be happy moving forward with the acquisition of another superstar to add to the well-oiled machine: Christian Standhardinger. By the time the Governor’s Cup rolls around, San Miguel fans should be seeing a frontcourt of 6-foot-4 Santos, 6-foot- 9 Fajardo, and 6-foot-7 Standhardinger. Hear that? That’s the sound of the entire PBA shaking their heads in collective disbelief and awe. But Ross is not shaking his head. He’s squinting his eyes at the promising future, careful not to be too overconfident. In the PBA, wins aren’t guaranteed, anyway. Watching reruns of Petronovela has taught him that. “You never know how things are going to work out. It looks great on paper but you still have to go out and perform,” he says. “I’m excited for him to join us and see how he will fit in our system and how coach will integrate him into our culture.”
Standhardinger will bring to the table a strong and scrappy offensive arsenal. In the ASEAN Basketball League, the Filipino-German is averaging close to 25 points per game and 12 rebounds per game. Once he puts on a San Miguel jersey, he may sequester the loose balls and hustle points that usually fall in Ross’ department. Throw Standhardinger’s name in the hat of potential Finals MVP, an award that has Ross’ name for back-to-back Philippine Cup conferences. But with Standhardinger in the mix, individual awards for the Beermen starting five will be harder to come by. And Ross is okay with that. “If I don’t win another individual award in my career, I’m perfectly fine with that as long as our team is winning championships,” says Ross, a two-time PBA Defensive Player of the Year and two-time PBA Finals MVP.
Chris Ross is an easy target.
His groin, in particular, is an easier target. Prior to Ross and Guiao’s verbal spat, Ross was involved in a physical altercation with NLEX big man Michael Miranda. But the “physical” part of the “altercation” mostly involved the sole of Miranda’s shoe and Ross’ nether regions. The play should’ve been simple enough: Ross barreled through a Miranda screen, sending the 6-foot-6 center to the floor for a defensive foul. No biggie. But Ross stood within Miranda’s striking distance, and Miranda made a poor business decision by kicking Ross in the groin, blatantly, for two referees to see. It cost him P20,000 and a suspension. In 2014, Ross’ groin was also the target of Joseph Yeo, who delivered a low blow as the two figured in a bumping match at midcourt. Ross fell on the floor, wincing in pain. It’s a familiar sight. Not everyone is a fan of Ross’ physical, aggressive play.
“There is a thin line between being physical and being dirty and we just got to hope that guys don’t cross that line. A lot of guys are willing to do the hitting but when they get hit, it’s a problem,” he says. If you’re rooting against San Miguel because of how good they are, then hating on Number 6 is hitting the bull’s eye. Fajardo is too much of a fun-loving jokester to be hated. Santos got the dance moves. Ross, on the other hand, stands out with his funky hair and Go Hard swag. The booes rain down, but Ross can’t be bothered.
“They say when you’re doing something right, the more haters you have…I’ve never been one to listen to outsiders. I have a strong support system in my corner and I play this game for them and my teammates,” he says.
From being recognized as a defensive stopper, Ross slowly evolved into a lethal scorer as well. The hard work he’s put in to hone his shooting skills, padded with the supreme confidence he has in himself, came to fruition in Game 7 of the 2016 Philippine Cup Finals. In a game with the highest stakes possible, Ross went rogue and hit an uncharacteristic four three-pointers en route to completing the biggest finals comeback in PBA history. A year later, in the 2017 Philippine Cup, Ross went off-brand to lead San Miguel in scoring. As if his detractors need more material to work on, Ross, an eight-year veteran, had the gall to turn himself into one of the best two-way players in the league.
But Chris Ross isn’t done yet.
Ross, a former Most Improved Player, still has a couple of years to continue working out kinks in his game. At 32, there’s nothing that will satisfy him. Nothing will stop him. Whether it’s changing his shoes to say something or changing his diet, the hunger never goes away. Ross vows to keep on keeping on, whatever that means, whoever stands in his way, wherever it takes him.
“I’m still as hungry as I was when I was a rookie. I stay hungry for success,” he says. “That hunger will never be satisfied no matter what happens in my career.”