Navigating our way towards one of the shoot locations for the #REPYOURCOURT video was more than difficult. Tiny streets, two-way traffic, faded street signs standing merely as representations of what they were initially intended to represent. Needless to say, we were lost. The driver rolled down his window and I poked my head forward from the back of the the van to ask a tricycle driver where this apparently-famous corner half-court was.
Straight, left, turn right after the carinderia, he instructed. As I was settling back into my seat, he had something else to say. “Nandun na ba si James Yap?”
The shoot was supposed to be a secret: a quiet, quick, middle of the day guerilla photo and video session with one of the country’s most recognizable athletes ever. We were expecting people to rush over and take photos, sure. But what welcomed us on that day was a logistical nightmare.
Parents and their children, men, women and their grandparents, all crowding around a narrow street corner, waiting for the man they’ve all seen on TV. Our tinted van pulled up and I slid the door to about a hundred people all swarming, cameras already on selfie mode. And then, the inevitable.
“Kala ko naman si James na! Di pa pala!”
By the time he arrived however, it was pandemonium. Shrieking fans from balconies above us, barangay tanods pleading with their neighbors to not rush onto the court, while they themselves fought every instinct to snap a quick one with their idol. Every photo we took, every frame of video, required a mass choreography between our team and the swelling crowd, just to make it appear as though James was alone on a court, the way he was for years and years before all this. It wasn’t long before we gave up. “Forget it. There’s too many fans.”
It was on a different day when we shot Paul Desiderio. It was similar, in the sense that we didn’t know how to get there. But the similarities end there. There wasn’t a crowd waiting for Paul Desiderio. In fact, he was the one waiting for us. He had come straight from a morning workout. Unfortunately, due to visa issues, he was unable to join the rest of the UP Fighting Maroons on a training trip to Las Vegas. No problem, he said. The routine stayed the same: wake up, work out, eat, rest, practice, sleep, repeat.
This was a particularly scorching day, the sun seemingly hovering over Paul from mere feet away. But troop on he did, standing under the blistering heat, taking shot after shot, standing for pose after pose. I apologized profusely, asking him to sit in the shade during the three times our cameras overheated.
“Ayos lang Kuya. Sanay tayo sa ganito!”
Paul of course wasn’t pertaining to photographers and video crews documenting every dribble and jumper. He meant the stinging heat you had to endure, the uneven lumps of concrete you had to memorize if you wanted to dribble past a defender, and ironically enough, painful as it was for me, having to call everyone else on the court “Kuya” because you were younger.
Liloan, Cebu is called such because the city is known for a lilo along its coastline. That’s Cebuano for whirlpool, created by opposing tides meeting at a specific spot in the sea. Opposites clashing, eventually combining. A meeting of forces that somehow, some way, through the beauty of nature, results in a spectacular product a hundred times stronger and more formidable than the tides from which it came.
That’s the story of Paul Desiderio’s hometown. That’s the story of Paul Desiderio. He nervously walked onto a corner court in Liloan for the first time when he was 8 years old. He was smaller, younger, the exact opposite of the grown men who built and ruled that hoop. Everyday he said, he’d go back. And everyday, a new bruise, another defeat. And everyday, a commitment to return tomorrow.
Paul’s father would eventually enroll him in basketball camps where he’d learn the basics, sharpen his skills, and everything else every other basketball camp has ever promised fathers they would do for their children. The lessons would stick, and prove valuable over time, but Paul always went back to the kanto court. Often literally, always in his mind.
Getting knocked over again and again, not having the space to breathe, let alone shoot a jumper from his waist, being pushed and shoved til he lost his dribble, all these were memories ingrained in his young mind. And if ever he forgot? All he had to do was return, and get played the same way since he was 8. It was that constant, necessary roughness that taught him: points look good, but defense is what truly wins games.
He would ride this unique brand of basketball all the way to the National Team and the UAAP. His was a clash of opposing schools of thought at work: the sharp, smooth lessons from camps and coaches combined with the brash, roughhouse style of barangay half court legends. Paul was a lilo himself, a whirlpool made better by the marriage of contrast.
As for Escalante, Negros Occidental? That town has now been made famous by a natural phenomenon of their own: James Yap. We know the resumé: championships, MVPs, the Grand Slam, tours with the National Team, the fame, the fade-away, the million moves.
Before James was the face of Philippine hoops, he was, as he says himself, just a kid who couldn’t play with the big boys. Behind their humble home in Escalante, stood a court ruled by tricycle drivers running barefoot games from sun up to past bedtime. If James wanted to have any time on the court for himself (and he did), he would have to wake up well before school, before the first sliver of sunlight, to get his reps in (and he did).
For many kids, the layup is the foundation of streetball. Little hoopers don’t ever have the strength, control, or accuracy to shoot jumpshots. James however, had no other option. “Hindi ako makalapit sa ring ‘pag may kalaban na,” he shares. “Sigurado supalpal, o kaya tumba ka. Ang lalaki nila, wala talaga akong choice. Sa labas lang pwede tumira.”
And so every morning before school, and every night after his parents thought he was asleep, James would go behind their house for the big games before “Big Game” was ever a thing. He would have to learn how to fade backwards, to shoot with one hand, to fake and turn and drift and glide from distance. His shooting stroke, beautiful as it is, was not a project of vanity. High release, at the peak of his jump, his feet kicking forward for protection; it was a product of necessity.
James didn’t know he was going to grow taller. He didn’t know his hands would extend to the lengths they sit at now. He did however, know that working harder than everyone else was making him better, and that it wasn’t a question of if he would be king of his kanto, it was a matter of when.
Before he was the smoothest, before he was arguably the best, before he was a Red Warrior, before he was Boy Thunder, before crowds gathered at the mere rumor of his arrival, James Yap was a kid just trying to be the best player at a makeshift neighborhood court.
Today, tricycle drivers anticipate his arrival. Ironically, tricycle drivers made him the man he is now, and equipped him with the million moves he needed. “Utang ko sa court na yun kung ano man meron ako ngayon.”
It was also a tricycle driver who recognized Paul Desiderio towards the end of our day with him. Granted, he had to ask us to confirm if “siya nga yung magaling sa UP.” He went up to Paul after the shoot, a lone fan, and asked for a photo. “Magmamahal tong picture na ‘to pag sobrang sikat mo na, idol!” Paul shook the man’s hand, thanked him for the compliment he was too shy to truly acknowledge, and said “Bahala na po. Basta hard work lang.” Paul then thanked all of us, turned around, and headed to his next destination: another workout.
A few days before that, as our shoot with James Yap ended, our entire team, together with a full squadron of barangay tanods and volunteers, kept a massive crowd away as we ushered James back to his car. He smiled for every photo they pulled him into, shook every hand extended to him and yelled “Uy, kamusta kayo diyan? Salamat ah!” to every stranger who greeted him. “Sige, una nako ah. May extra work pa.”
Eventually, as he stepped into his vehicle, a nice, shiny reward to himself after years of hard work and excellence, he asked me, “By the way, sino pa yung ibang nasa video?”
“Si Arwind, Paul Lee, Belo tsaka si Paul Desiderio,” I answered.
Right as the door was about to close, with fans still yelling for him, James Yap, the superstar from the south, reacted to the last name on the list, another bisaya treading a similar path.
“Yung taga-UP? Gagaling yun, pare. Hintayin mo. Next shoot niyo dun kay Paul, magulo nadin parang ganto.”
Paul and James repped their courts. Here’s how you can #REPYOURCOURT and get a chance to win your own Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 Low ‘Manila’