SLAM PH Throwback: Unbeatable

This article was originally published in SLAM #165

For the first time ever, we didn’t let Sol Mercado talk about Sol Mercado. This is a breakdown of the unbeatable Sol by the guys who really know the unbeatbale Sol.

By Nikko Ramos

They are The Brotherhood: a group of PBA pros who have created a family here in the Philippines in the absence of their biological families, who mostly reside in the United States. They’re not just a barkada of Fil-Ams who hang out in their down time. They have Christmases together, they run to each other for all things good and bad. They’ve never gone more than 3 days without seeing each other. They are brothers after all, with or without the common bloodline.

What better way to get to know the outspoken man who had a breakout season than to ask his brothers questions that the man would never answer honestly himself? It’s not because Sol Mercado of the Meralco Bolts is a liar, it’s just that he, and I say this with love, has the biggest mouth in the PBA. There is a slight (massive) tendency of exaggeration, of hyperbole, of evading a topic quicker than his escape from defenders.

Former teammate Gabe Norwood and current BFF Chris Ross know this the most. That’s why when I approached them to talk about Sol, they didn’t blink. “As long as he’s not there to butt in everytime we say something embarrassing about him.” That was their condition. I happily obliged.

It was a fairly peaceful Tuesday night when The Sol Train’s two brothers agreed to meet me for dinner. Gabe was playing in a huge Semifinals Game 1 against San Mig Coffee the next night, and Chris had just been eliminated from contention. It was a sensitive time for both of them, for different reasons. But deadlines are deadlines.

I sat in the restaurant waiting, trying to think of questions to ask and topics to bring up. It was going to be a long dinner if I wanted this article to be any good. But if it turned out to be a stiff, formal interview, I might as well have just emailed them. As I pondered on which journalistic tactic to espouse, a tall figure crossed the street from outside the window. Gabe Norwood had arrived.

Sol’s former running mate in Rain or Shine walked slowly as cars stopped to give way. He is incredibly quick for his size, but takes his time going from sidewalk to sidewalk. He goes at a Belga-like pace now whenever he’s not on the hardwood. A pace that allows his beautiful partner Lei, and sons Cash and O to keep up. After pushing the stroller next to our table and getting the high chair set up, Gabe gets comfortable, youngest son in hand. “Where’s Chris?”

Chris Ross of the Meralco Bolts. He appears outside the same wall-sized glass panel minutes later. He presses his face against it, making faces at the littlest guy on the table (not me). “It’s Uncle Chris!” Gabe exclaims. His kids light up, Chris smiles, and proceeds to sit next to me upon entering the joint. When not speaking to the not-so-tiny baby Norwoods, Chris doesn’t smile. The hectic day and the unnerving traffic has pissed him off. “It’s all Sol’s fault, God dammit!”

Finally, we’ve begun.

I send out a tweet, announcing my intentions for that evening, asking fans to reply with questions about Sol that they would want answers to as well. Merc himself is first to hit me back, saying “It would have been nice to be invited.” This brings us to the first of many table-smacking rounds of laughter for the evening. “Tell them no holding back”, Sol added in a following tweet. I read it out to the table and everyone around me flashes a giant grin. “He said it! Ask away, man.”

Right as we open up the menus, I bring up the Best Player of the Conference award and a look of concern fills both their faces. They want him to win. They feel he deserves it. They know though, that chances are slim.

GABE: Sol led the league in scoring and assists man. I don’t know how it can go to anyone else just cos they didn’t make semis.

CHRIS: Did it hurt too.

GABE: Yeah, what’d he have, 20 a game playing with a bad ankle?

CHRIS: Did you guys see how he twisted it? That was gruesome man. It was ugly. I was right there.

SLAM: What happened?

CHRIS: He tried to go up for a block and landed on someone’s foot. It was all bent up.

SLAM: What’s he doing trying to block a shot?

CHRIS: I know right? That’s what I told him! What the hell you doing jumping up for? Like he plays any D (laughs).

GABE: But man let me tell you, he’s tough to get around. He handchecks like crazy.

CHRIS: I keep telling him it’s a foul! He keeps you in front of him when you got the ball by pushing you back when you try to make a move. That shit hurts. Know how strong Sol is?

GABE: He’s really strong. But hey, they never call it on him.

CHRIS: Still a foul. Whenever I tell him that he says “I just do it real quick so the ref doesn’t see.”

Obviously, these gentlemen know a thing or two about guarding Sol, both as teammates and as opponents.

SLAM: You guys remember what it was like playing with him and playing against him?

GABE: (laughing) Yo Chris, tell him ‘bout that game he elbowed you!

CHRIS: Oh damn, that hurt! So I was guarding him right? Then he goes in the lane, comes up for the layup. See the thing about Sol is that he’s so strong, when he jumps into you like he always does, it’s over. He goes up, elbows me right on the face. Got me right on the face! Hits the shot..GABE: And they call the foul on Chris! HAHAHA!

CHRIS: That’s messed up.

GABE: We were down that game, it was the Wildcard round, back in ’09 when me and Sol still played together for ROS. I didn’t know what to feel. I was happy he got a big bucket to cap off a huge run, but I felt for Chris. That looked like it hurt.

CHRIS: It did. Then Sol talked my ear off.

SLAM: He’s a big talker, isn’t he?

(At this point, I knew I was asking an obvious question. One that I knew the answer to, having seen first hand how Sol has talked trash even during a peaceful NBA 2K13 game. He was playing a 16-year old. That kid was not spared. No one ever is. But I had no idea that this innocent stating of a fact would open Pandora’s box of juicy Sol-ness)

CHRIS: You know he is. He’s competitive that’s why. Crazy competitive. On the court, off the court, whatever it is, he’s gotta win.

GABE: Like that time he and Josh (Urbiztondo) got into it over Spades!

CHRIS: That was hilarious.

GABE: So we’re all at my place, it’s 4 in the morning or something, and him and Josh are both cheating at Spades. They catch each other but get into this huge argument about whose cheat was more “legitimate.”

LEI: It woke us up. Me, the kids, everybody. The entire building probably heard it. Sol, he’s always got to win.

CHRIS: He’s like that at bowling too!

SLAM: You guys bowl?!

CHRIS: I’m terrible man. I play a couple of frames and that’s it. My knees get sore, my arm gets sore. I’m not too good.

GABE: And you know how I get when we bowl. I think I’m too tall for it. Sol though, he a good bowler. Got the form and everything. You’d think he’s a power bowler, but no. He’s all finesse.

SLAM: That would be interesting to see. Anything else about him that people don’t know?
GABE: Multi-tasking.

CHRIS: (Bursts into laughter) He can’t do it! Can’t do it at all!

SLAM: What do you mean?

GABE: See, Sol’s hooked on his phone. He’s addicted to it. He can’t put it down.

CHRIS: You could be telling him the most interesting story, and it’s real important to you, then he gets a text. He’ll open the message, reply, then go on Twitter, check his mentions, tweet a bit. All while you’re talking to him. By the time you finish the story, he’ll look at you and go, “Say what again?”

GABE: (laughing) Every single time! That happens every single time! He absolutely can’t focus on anything else once he gets his hands on his phone! Before in ROS, he used to check his phone everytime after a drill, or during a dead ball, all during practice! Since then we’ve had a no cellphone rule in the organization.

SLAM: Cos of Sol? That’s the legacy he left at ROS? A no-cellphone rule?

GABE: Hahaha, yeah you could say that.

We’re midway through dinner at this point. I’ve barely touched my burger, too overwhelmed by all the laughing and all the anecdotes I have to either fit into the article, or swear never to tell any living soul (sorry guys). Gabe’s got some chicken and mushroom thing going, and Chris has sped through his shrimp. In between bites, he sighs out of relief.

That long day he was talking about, once again charged to Sol Mercado, consisted of a drive to a TV Network to film segments for FTW – an online sports show. They got there, waited, filmed, went all the way to The Fort, and drove back so Chris could meet us for dinner. He was glad the day was finally done. Especially since he wanted no part of it to begin with.

CHRIS: He always drags me to these TV things! AKTV Center, FTW, all this stuff. I just have producers call me and say that Sol already confirmed for me. What the hell?

GABE: Oooh, I remember what that was like.

Not too long ago, before the Ross-Mercado backcourt came together in Meralco to form the fastest duo in the league, Sol and Gabe used to be the Fire and Ice of Rain or Shine. And then the trade, and then the kids.

GABE: Sol used to hate holding Cash, man. I think he was scared to drop him or something. Now though, he’s always volunteering. He’s really changed a lot when it comes to that. He’s great with the kids.

Norwood told me on a separate occasion in the past that his family has been instrumental in making sure Sol doesn’t get to drag him around as much anymore. Chris Ross however, has no excuses. And this day is one of many days when Sol got his way.

The mood gets serious when I ask about Sol’s father passing away. Mercado dealt with the loss before the season began, and neither Gabe nor Chris could immediately put into words the emotion of that day.

GABE: I think I was in Thailand for a Gilas thing. My family was asleep, it was late, so I had to make the call in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, what do you say when your brother’s going through something like that?

CHRIS: Especially cos it was Sol. I mean, he’s so happy all the time. He always tries to cheer us up and all that. No matter how much we get on him, he’s always so happy. To see him that devastated, that was tough.

SLAM: I think we all saw that emotion this conference, though right? I mean he came out very motivated, dedicating the season to his dad and all.

CHRIS: Oh for sure. He just got so much better at everything.
GABE: I knew I had a tough time guarding him.

SLAM: How do you guard him?

CHRIS: I’m quick, so I can keep him in front of me. But he’s strong. That’s the tough part.

GABE: I’m not quick enough. Sol is fast and strong. I just have to rely on my length, but yeah. One on one? Once he makes that little two-step with the crossover?

(They both pull their best Sol Merado crossover impersonation. Both are uncanny.)

CHRIS: Buckets.

The rest of the night – during a meal highlighted by the lack of ranch dressing and surprising tinges of hot sauce – is filled with many more stories of Sol’s greatness, of his antics, of his love for The Brotherhood. There’s the bit about how Gabe doesn’t know what to get Sol for Secret Santa (Yes. They bowl AND they have Secret Santa) because Sol’s the guy who ‘already has everything.’

There’s the part about how he and Gabe, the two best friends in the world, met each other via Facebook (seriously, I’m not making this up). There’s also Chris’ frustration with Monopoly. How Sol has his own set of rules, completely different from the one that the entire planet follows. And of course, Sol always wins at that too.

They tell me about how Sol always comes over, giving a heads up when he’s already at the lobby, or that one time he pretended he was a Jabawockee. Gabe also remembers the time Mercado got into it with import Sam Monroe, doing the trash-talking for Norwood, yelling “You can’t score on my boy!”

All in all, they paint the picture of a man who’s much, much more than a crossover, even though it is a very, very ridiculously impressive crossover. He’s more than the guy who’ll take and make three straight threes to force the game into OT. He’s more than the biggest mismatch at his position, and the strongest forearm pound-for-pound in the league. He’s more than the PBA’s best ever combination of speed, strength and skill.

He’s a man who lets passion drive him. He always wins on the court because he always wins everywhere else. “If he’s not good at it, he’ll work on it. Doesn’t matter what it is. He’ll win eventually,” Gabe adds. This is a man whose team got knocked out of the quarterfinals, ending a magical individual campaign. He will most likely not win the Best Player of the Conference, even though his two best friends objectively believe that he should.

Here’s a man whose love for winning is rivalled only by how much he values those he holds near to him. His family back in the states, his teammates, the fans, and of course, The Brotherhood.

“He’ll trash talk for you, he’ll stand up for you, he’s loyal, man. More than anyone else.”

Sol Mercado. The PBA’s quickest and strongest. Also the league’s biggest mouth. However, before you judge him for that, remember that whenever he says something, whether it’s about his game, or bowling, or monopoly, he’ll probably just be stating the truth. Because he’ll probably win.

Sure, the trophy escapes him now, and that title isn’t theirs yet, but like what Gabe says, whether it’s a board game or being “Best Uncle”, “He’ll work on it. Doesn’t matter what it is. He’ll win eventually.”