James Yap and His Renaissance Tour

Two nights ago, James Yap had another great moment to add to his museum of greatest moments. James Yap (his name has to be said in full for that legendary feel, like Michael Jackson or Ramon Fernandez or Coco Martin) carried his team, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, to a win against his former team, the Magnolia Hotshots.

How he did it in Rain or Shine’s final offensive possession was pure James Yap. He curled off a screen and the Man With a Million Moves only had to use three: first, a pump fake and drive from the three-point line; second, a hard stop near the free throw line for another fake; and lastly, an up-and-under move to free himself for his patented one-hander. May kasama pang foul.

It was obvious before the play unfolded that James Yap would be the shot taker. Everyone knew. I’m still amazed, watching the highlight on loop, at how Magnolia’s Rafi Reavis hounded James Yap as soon he got the ball. Reavis was guarding the inbounds passer, Beau Belga, and had his back turned on the inbounds play. But as the ball left Belga’s hands, Reavis knew in an instant that it fell into James Yap’s. Reavis desperately chased James Yap around because he knew—being his teammate for years—of the imminent danger. A James Yap moment was happening and there was nothing he could do to stop it. After the ball went in and a foul was called, Reavis dragged his feet away from the play, hung his head, and snapped both arms in defeat.

Trademark James Yap moments have this sort of paralyzing, mystifying effect. He’s had so many already that you just know it’s coming, yet the anticipation does not diminish its power. It comes and goes like a scheduled asthma attack, the mild kind, the kind where the wheezing is rhythmic and oddly calming. And breathtaking.

At 37, James Yap should be chilling. He’s clearly done his work as the franchise player of Purefoods for years. When a superb run like that ends, it’s usually rewarded with a coaching job or a front office job or at the very least, a lifetime supply of groceries. But James Yap is on a different wave. He was swapped for a younger, shinier, more lethal weapon and that could have been it. End of the road. When a past-his-prime star is traded, it usually ends on a sour note. But James Yap isn’t done yet.

This ongoing All-Filipino Cup is his renaissance tour. Against a young NLEX team in his season debut, James Yap led his team with 20 points. Then later against a powerhouse San Miguel team, James Yap poured 21 points off the bench. He’s scoring an average of almost 15 per game, something he shouldn’t be doing, or wasn’t expected to be doing, at this point in his career. It’s coming off wins, too. Rain or Shine, a team that traded its franchise star Paul Lee and lost its esteemed head coach Yeng Guiao three years ago, currently sits atop the standings. James Yap is a big part of that.

Watching James Yap get buckets in 2019 is not much a different from watching him in 2009. A step slower, sure, but his skillset wasn’t hinged on his explosiveness on the court anyway. Firecrackers fade. James Yap is a long, slow-burning candle. He melts the defense with old school PBA moves. I watch James Yap and I’m reminded of Caidic’s smooth stroke, Asaytono’s one-handed floaters, and Patrimonio’s instincts. Add to that the years of being coached by Tim Cone, and what you get is that game-winner against Magnolia.

James Yap’s heroics in that last play is what made him James Yap, the walking legend and icon, the idol who drove a fan to get a tattoo of his face on his chest. But there’s one play before that that stuck with me.

It happened around the 1:30 mark, Magnolia up by three. Orbiting a Belga hand-off (Belga has grown so huge and so smart now that he could screen two defenders), James Yap caught the ball near the top of the key and pulled up for a three-pointer. The thing about James Yap pulling for a three is that he just doesn’t pull up. His body sort of leans back, his right foot protrudes, and his wrist flutters. Lee and Reavis, in a rare moment of basketball synchronicity, aim for the ball with their outstretched left arms. But James Yap was already cocked and locked in. The ball swished. Reavis was pissed.

That shot wasn’t as striking nor dramatic as the game-winner, but the moment served its purpose in reminding all of us what we already know: James Yap is great.