In the Ish: The Best of Us

This article appears in SLAM #216, available now in Titan outlets and major bookstores

Dondon Hontiveros’ name won’t come up in any debates about the Greatest of All Time. He is however, unquestionably, the best. Decades of success and failure and perfect-form-threes behind him, the best person in basketball is looking towards the future the only way he knows how: with a smile, with others in mind.

By Jon Rodriguez

The sky was getting dark outside a covered gym more than a thousand kilometers away from Manila. Inside, silhouettes of two basketball players—one significantly taller than the other—were battling each other in an intense game of one-on-one. The gym lights went out, which in some parts of the world, was a signal to take the L, pack up, and come back the next day for a do-over.

But not here in Kibawe, Bukidnon, a sleepy town of only about 40,000 people. Not when Dondon Hontiveros was in town for his annual basketball camp.

So there in the darkness, surrounded by about 200 raucous, basketball-hungry kids, Hontiveros watched helplessly as a 16-year-old boy drained a two-pointer in his face to take a 2-1 lead. It was a race to 5.

In the next possession, the kid casually dropped another long bomb for a 4-1 advantage. The small gym erupted in loud howls and sweat, contributing to the already violent May heat. Hontiveros could only bang his head in an imaginary wall, clap his hands, and run his fingers through his hair in mild frustration—in a similar way one would naturally react when having to deal with bad luck.

There was a noticeable shift in Hontiveros’ body language after that second basket; his legs instantly locked in a defensive stance usually reserved for the last two minutes of do-or-die playoff games. Needless to say, the poor kid never scored again. The lights went back on and Hontiveros attacked his defender in full view of everyone. No more hiding in the darkness. The veteran unleashed more than 10 years’ worth of sharpened skill: two lethal jab steps to the left to confuse the defender; a quick drive to the right to make space; a hard stop at the elbow for a turnaround, fadeaway jumper. Hontiveros, indulging the fierce competitor in him, raised both his arms in victory for a second, briefly basking in the high, then snapping out of it to hand a gift to his worthy opponent.

He played to win that one-on-one matchup as if there were high stakes involved, as if he wasn’t running on only two hours of sleep.

The night before he traveled to the sweaty gym in Bukidnon, Hontiveros was playing in a much larger venue in Manila, for something very important: the deciding Game 5 of the championship series between Alab Pilipinas and Mono Vampire. In the crucial game, Hontiveros scored only 3 points, but his role on the Philippine team already brimming with talent wasn’t to score—imports Justin Brownlee and Renaldo Balkman already had that field covered. What Hontiveros brought to the table was his leadership.

“When I decided na i-try ko ang Alab, na-excite ako kasi ang purpose ko really was to mentor,” he said. “If I’m able to do that then nagawa ko ‘yung role ko.”

Once a player embraces the “mentor” tag, the expectation is that the player can only operate on one good leg. He’s usually delegated to the far end of the bench, a safe haven for young, lost souls seeking wisdom. But Hontiveros is too cool for that. His ripped, skinny jeans and cropped hair won’t allow him to be to that kind of mentor. Not yet. Instead, Hontiveros, at 41, looks 31. He practices as hard as his youngest Alab teammate Lawrence Domingo, who turned 25 this year. He doesn’t get tired. He’s not slowing down. No plans of stopping.

“Yun ‘yung nakuha ko kay Olsen [Racela], na kahit 40 years old na, still competing. At 40, nakikipagsabayan pa din siya sa practice with sila Alex Cabagnot,” Hontiveros said. “Going to practice, ang mentality ko is still to learn and help, kaya I was always excited.”

Eric Menk, a former teammate, thinks Hontiveros still has 5 years’ worth of gas in his tank. The paths of Menk and Hontiveros first crossed in Tanduay when they were in their 20s, a lifetime of basketball ahead of them.

“He was playing behind Jeff Cariaso and he was eager to learn. He had some big games because when he got hot, he was indefensible,” Menk said.

They became teammates again on the national team in 2007, and for the last time in Alaska in 2016. Each time, a better, smarter Hontiveros would show up. Menk, now 43, saw Hontiveros grow from being “very quiet” to a guy who “knew the game plan.”

“He has a confident attitude, but his humility fueled that,” he said.

On May 14, 2018, a Cebu-based teacher named Herben Tautho shared an early flight from Manila to Cebu with Hontiveros, but he wasn’t sure if it was Hontiveros, he only guessed the guy at the opposite side of the plane was a basketball player based on his towering physique. His assumption was confirmed when the plane landed in Cebu, as the passengers dragged their sleepy bodies out the cabin door.

“Someone in the front row called his name. [Dondon] was very nice. They had a conversation,” Tautho said.

At the arrival area, a small crowd of adults and kids gathered for a selfie session with Hontiveros, whose years of sniping behind the arc earned him the nickname “Cebuano Hotshot.” Not a single request for a photo was turned down. Hontiveros was back in his hometown to vote, but he didn’t excuse himself from the chatty fans who adored him. It was 5 a.m. on a Monday. Hontiveros never stops.
But there was a brief time he almost did.

On September 20, 2017, the Alaska Aces played against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in a game that was both brutal and forgettable. The Aces, having won only seven games that conference, missed their stars Calvin Abueva, Sonny Thoss, and Chris Banchero. Hontiveros came off the bench and scored two points. The Aces lost by 30. But if the Aces’ miserable season was called as such, it wasn’t because of the irrelevant blowout. It’s this: that game was Hontiveros’ last as an Alaska Ace.

After the game, the team paid tribute to Hontiveros and his fellow veteran Tony dela Cruz—who, like Hontiveros, also retired quietly from the PBA—in a low-key, casual Filipino restaurant. It was an intimate dinner, said Alaska’s PR manager, Ck Kanapi-Daniolco, highlighted by a speech from Hontiveros. His last few years with the Aces had been tumultuous; they peaked with a title in 2013 and then crashed back down to earth with every second place finish. This included the horrific 0-3 meltdown against San Miguel in 2016 that was brilliantly branded as a “Beeracle.” For the Aces, it was simply a nightmare.

Yet on the night of Hontiveros’ graceful exit, in a homey restaurant known for its fried chicken, he merely thanked each and every member of the coaching staff and management. He saluted his teammates and gave money tips on how to save for their future. There were no signs of melancholy nor nostalgia. It didn’t feel like the end. With Hontiveros, it never is.

“It was more of mixed feelings…he still wants to play but then you know it’s also time to give chance to others, to the young ones,” Kanapi-Daniolco said.

In his stint in the ABL, that’s exactly what he did. Giving up minutes in exchange for letting others shine, acting as a floor manager to help head coach Jimmy Alapag and assistant coach Danny Seigle, both of whom shared tough battles with and against Hontiveros. The result was a dominating run to bring the trophy back to the Philippine team. If given another chance, Hontiveros said, he is willing to suit up to defend the championship next season. But that’s not up to him. What he can control, is how he’ll prepare if and when the call comes.

“If mabigyan ng opportunity, kaya pa. Kaya ngayon I just try to stay in shape,” he said.

He gets a regular dose of Vitamin D infusion through intravenous therapy in Pasig, a business he put up recently. The IV drip infused in his veins is a mix of vitamins, collagen, placenta, and glutathione, among others. “Fountain of Youth,” it’s called. He also works out at least three times a week, focusing on strengthening for at least an hour and a half. After his workout, he chugs down either a protein drink or a fruit smoothie. Mango or banana are his favorites, depending on the mood. On some days, he trains with his teenage son, Ice.

“Hindi talaga ako pwedeng walang ginagawa for the week,” he said.

Hontiveros said he doesn’t know what the next thing is in store for him, only that it has something to do with game he loved since he was a 6-year-old boy in Cebu, skimming through the pages of basketball magazines bought for him by his father. A position in the Alab Pilipinas organization sounds good to him, but so does coaching.

“Si coach Luigi Trillo unang nag-sabi sa akin sa Alaska nung nag-champion kami. Very vocal kasi ako n’un, pwede daw ako mag-assistant coach,” Hontiveros said.

There’s something about the game that magnetically draws Hontiveros into it, or into any version of it, whether it be as a go-to scorer, a role player, or a coach at the sidelines. It’s something he can’t quit. It’s what drives him to get up at 2 in the morning, prepare goodie bags for 200 kids at his basketball camp, get on the first flight out to Davao, make the commute to Bukidnon, where he can step on yet another basketball court—just hours removed from winning a championship in the ABL.
“Minsan, maglalaro ka lang, iba ‘yung feeling eh. It’s because you really love everything about the game—the championships, the downfall, the struggles, the injuries,” he said. “It’s really the love and passion for the game.”

In his camps, the tradition is that one kid—who is picked via a shootout—gets to play him one-on-one. His current record is 4-1 (“Sakto, 41 na ako,” he said), the lone loss coming from a game where he played against two kids. The closest to ever beat him one-on-one was the kid from Bukidnon.

“Shooter ‘yung bata, napagod na lang,” said Hontiveros, a pro for 20 years.

That kid can learn a lot from him.