The first time I ever met Paul Lee was in 2010. I was a rookie courtside reporter and he was entering his fourth year in the UAAP, fresh off a campaign that introduced him to the country as a conscience-less scorer ready to make the jump. I was introduced to the team in the locker room, minutes before their first game. As they were going through the game plan, I stood there to the side, awkward and quiet, taking notes and wishing I brought a chair of my own.
Lord Casajeros, then a sheepish young guard set to play his first year in the UAAP, tapped me on the leg and pointed to Paul with his lips pursed, Pinoy-style. “Tawag ka ni Paul!”
I sat next to him, two college kids squeezing into a locker in the famed Ultra that had seen countless legends sit right where we were. I didn’t know that Paul was going to be one of those men – the kind you tell your children you once saw play live. Up until then, he was just the first friend I made on the team, and someone whose first words to me were the very definition of wisdom.
“Bro, try mo ‘tong puto pao na to. Parang siopao yung laman, pero puto lang yung size. Sakto to pre-game.”
It was 2010. Paul Lee spent most of that final season playing power forward for UE. He needed the puto paos.
Ever since then, I had a brother. He called me to tell me he was going to apply for the draft. I called him the day he got married to Rubie. I was there when he hurt his shoulder playing for Rain or Shine. He gave me a headlock the first time he saw me after he found out I had become Editor at SLAM.
And two weeks ago, for #REPYOURCOURT, me and Paul Lee, like we’ve done many times since we were just a couple of college kids, went back to Tondo.
His was an environment and mood unique from all the other athletes we shot. This WAS his court. This narrow, walled misappropriation of space that they turned into a basketball court, tucked away in the back of Barangay 150, this was where Paul Lee became the Lethal Weapon. This was where his angas was born.
Tondo has a reputation. Deserved or not, accurate or not, it’s there for a reason. You cannot, will not, survive and thrive there if you’re not made for it, if you’re not made by it. Ever since he was a boy, Paul was tested, like every boy from there is. He knows though, that growing up isn’t the end of the test. Finding success, being a household name, sinking three clutch free throws for Gilas versus China FTW, winning a championship in the PBA, being traded for James Yap, none of these mark the end of the test. They just signify the start of each new chapter.
Give or take 20 kilometers from the place of Paul Lee’s place of birth lies the Tenement court in Taguig. It’s been widely documented as the epitome of a country’s love for a sport. In the middle of a massive, instantly-intimidating architectural wonder sits a regulation basketball court. In a complex housing more than a thousand families, the court is left uninterrupted. No tables for socializing, no clothes racks drying laundry, no bystanders hanging out. Between those lines, in that expansive space that could arguably be used for something other than a silly sport with a ball and a hoop, the game is king. Ball, as they say, is life.
We walked onto the complex greeted by Chris and John and other friends we had made over the years of working towards improving, renovating, and yes, saving the Tenement. Mike Swift, part-rapper, part-pied piper, had given word of our arrival and the usual welcome was prepared. The warmest of smiles, the biggest, tightest of hugs, the endless inquiries of “Ano pa kailangan niyo?” waited for us as we got to work. For anything to start however, we needed a kid.
I asked for Tenement’s best, someone truly from there, whose life and game was made by his environment the way Paul Lee was made by his. I didn’t need to say more. They called Antawn (That’s really how you spell it. His name is Antawn Jamison Victore. No lie. He has a brother named Anfernee Deon Hardaway Victore. I am not making this up. It’s awesome and it’s for real). From the court, they hollered up, asking a 13-year old to come down from one of the higher floors where he resided. It was like the olden days, when the best gladiator was summoned to represent his house. This was Troy calling on Hector because Achilles was at the gate. This was people in Tondo knocking on a teenage Paul Lee’s house because there was a dayo team wanting to test their luck.
This was the Tenement calling on their future, their version of Tyrion bringing out his champion. They needed someone to rep them. And here he was.
Barely even five feet, maybe a hair under a hundred pounds, in a white sando and sneakers unlaced, Antawn got straight to business. He ran around his court, his arena, five laps maybe. Now in a sweat, he started shooting free throws, and then layups. And then full court dribbling drills. It was a good twenty minutes before he spoke a full sentence.
“Darating po ba talaga si Paul Lee?”
I tell him yes, and he smiles from ear to ear. “Siya po kasi talaga idol ko. Angas ng Tondo!”
I wanted to point out that the statement was ambiguous to me. Did he look up to Paul because of the double crossovers and the clutch threes? Or idol ba niya si Paul kasi maangas si Paul sa Tondo?
That’s one thing worth pointing out. Make no mistake, the nickname is accurate. You see, Paul Lee’s struggles and adversities in life didn’t end with bigger players roughing him up on the court. It was more than basketball bullies posting him up because he hadn’t eaten enough puto paos to have the strength to push back. Paul’s life is one of fighting, both literally and figuratively.
He grew up seeing many of his friends and rivals fall into terrible pits: from drugs, to crime, to violence. He was perpetually ready to defend his home whenever called upon – sometimes through basketball, sometimes, to just defend it, period. That’s why when he returned there that day we came with him bringing cameras and photographers, all he had to do was step on the court. No barangay permits, no previously-set schedules. He wasn’t Paul Lee, PBA star. He was PJ, the dude who ran this court for years. The dude who, whenever he wants to, runs this court still.
From the first time I walked into Tondo with Paul back in 2010, after a particularly-painful UAAP loss, to the time we walked around with him again two weeks ago, the look on people’s faces when they see him has stayed the same. They stare at him never with fear, but with love, with pride, with appreciation. He had spent his childhood defending their own, and is spending his adult life putting them on the map for something other than that which they try to defeat.
Antawn finally saw Paul Lee when the Star Hotshot arrived at Tenement. I expected that massive smile again. I expected jumping up and down, running over to his idol and taking a hundred selfies. Antawn looked Paul straight in the eye, turned around and went back to his drills.
You see, I made a mistake. I told Antawn he and Paul were going to play one on one. It was going to be for show, for the cameras, for the video. I didn’t make that clear, apparently. Antawn thought we were going to do it for real. Dude was game for it. This kid actually sized up Paul Lee, didn’t say a word, and went back to warming up! HE WAS READY TO GO.
At the end of the shoot, I took a picture of them, a kid from Tenement, a kid from Tondo. Paul found it to be more than just another photo, “Alam niyo yung picture ni Emman Monfort nung bata pa siya, katabi si Danny Seigle? Eto din yun o. Balang araw Antawn, mag-aabot tayo sa PBA. Ikaw na yung star. Ako back-up mo.” They hug, and Paul was on his way.
“Nikks, ganyang ganyan din ako nung bata ako. Saktong-sakto,” he whispered to me. “Send mo sakin yung picture, bro.”
Paul Lee reps his court more than any other person I know. You say his name, Tondo comes to mind, and vice versa. He walks back on that court, and he transforms into something other than the professional athlete he has worked his whole life to be. Understand though, he doesn’t regress to being just another guy in the neighborhood. No. In Tondo, he is more than he ever could be in Araneta, or in MOA, or even in Ultra where we once shared a crummy locker to begin a friendship. He’s their hero, their champion, their resbak for life.
That’s the thing about Paul Lee. He grew up rough, the streets of his childhood showed him things many of us will never truly comprehend. He’s now found success, his talent and ability taking him places outside of Barangay 150. You might say he got out, he made his way out of the streets, out of that life.
He’ll disagree. And so will John and Chris, and Mike Swift. You don’t get out when you make it. You get in deeper. You give back, you lift them up. You rep. Like you always have, like you always will.
Paul Lee never made it out of Tondo. And that’s the one thing he’s proudest of. He’s still there a lot of the time, he’s still ready to defend them. He’s working as hard as ever to make them known for something more than the things he fought and resisted.
Antawn Jamison Victore will almost certainly do great things too. Just like his hero. He’ll make it.
And then, maybe, they’ll be teammates like Paul predicted. Or maybe, they’ll get that one-on-one game Antawn was more than ready for.
And then they’ll battle, as they have all their lives. For themselves, for their families.
For Tondo. For the Tenement.
Paul and Antawn repped their courts. Here’s how you can #REPYOURCOURT and get a chance to win your own Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 Low ‘Manila’