Throwback Thursday: Great Good Fine Okay

This article originally appeared in SLAM #216

From his wildchild days to his championship ways. From sizzling on-court moves to sizzling homemade sisig. From off the team to now maybe back on it, The Beast has been and always will be true to himself, and loyal to his circle. But above all, Calvin Abueva will always be alright.

By Jon Rodriguez

Sometime last year, in a swanky hotel in Manila, several servers and cooks shuffled their feet to catch a glimpse of a famous female celebrity. They nervously asked if they could have their photos taken with her, but their requests for selfies were refused. Dejected, they headed back to the kitchen with their heads down and their smartphones’ memory space unaltered.

Somewhere across the room, a towering man with funky hair and a winsome smile witnessed the non-moment. He followed the hotel staff inside the kitchen and offered to be a stand-in as an attempt to lift their spirits. “Tara, picture tayo,” he said.

The female celebrity will forever remain unnamed. The selfie hero was Calvin Abueva, a pesky, basketball beast on the court. Trust me, the first time I heard that story, I found it hard to believe also.

THE JAWO STATE OF MIND

Hailing from a province both known for producing some of the country’s most talented players and for a dish made from pig’s head and liver parts, Abueva grew up with equal love for basketball and food. But first, basketball.

Abueva gatecrashed the Philippine basketball scene like a heel performing at Wrestlemania-level intensity. With the way he unleashes his wrath on the court like a menace, it’s not hard to imagine him wearing invisible headphones while crashing to the basket, blasting “Hit ‘Em Up” on full volume. “Eye of the Tiger” and–if he’s feeling extra lively–Katy Perry’s “Firework” are other acceptable soundtrack choices to accompany his signature move: attack the basket. That’s all he does: attack, attack, attack. There’s nothing complicated nor fancy in the Abueva playbook. Once he catches the ball, he takes one power dribble, probably another dribble, perhaps a spin move, before hoisting a prayer. Oftentimes, the prayer comes with an and-1 opportunity.

At the defensive end, the man who was raised watching highlights of Robert Jaworski is equally dangerous. Concocting a lethal combination of footwork and strength, Abueva’s defense is, to simply put it, annoying. Just ask two-time MVP James Yap, who once gamely responded to Abueva’s taunts of, “Ang gwapo mo, ang gwapo mo” with the comeback, “Sige, i-kiss mo ako.” Abueva was a rookie then, but he did not back down from the challenge of defending the “Man With A Million Moves” in a playoff series.

Abueva is averaging at least a steal and a block at the 2016-2017 Philippine Cup. Listed at 6-foot-1, he is also grabbing rebounds at an average rate of 9 per game, something he must have picked up–aside from charisma, never-say-die tenacity, and untucked elbows–from watching Jaworksi, who also at 6-foot-1 was one of the PBA’s best rebounders of his era.

THE BEAST

Raw Abueva, the one wearing No. 7 (another Jawo influence) for the San Sebastian Stags, is the most entertaining version of Abueva. His outside shooting was unreliable, but his swag was unparalleled. It was an exciting time when the mercurial workhorse didn’t make a lot of friends, but grabbed a ton of rebounds. It was a glorious time when he punched doors and the back of people’s heads while leading the league in points, rebounds, and assists. Drop 21 points and pull down 20 rebounds in one game; drop 26 points and pull down 20 rebounds the next. Win an MVP award one year; get disqualified for the next. Fun times.

He continued this trend in the pros, much to the delight of Gatas Republik, a group of fans backing the team that picked Abueva in the draft. The first selection in the same draft was 6-foot-10 Junemar Fajardo, a Cebuano big man so destructive and dominating that he was nicknamed after a sea monster.
Abueva and Fajardo are on opposite ends of a pole. If Abueva’s gritty, borderline reckless play got fans howling, it’s Fajardo’s polished fundamentals that got the oohs. If they starred in a buddy cop reboot film, the decision on who would play Riggs and who would play Murtaugh would be a no-brainer.

In their first duel, the two lethal weapons (sorry, Paul Lee) were asked in a pregame interview, “Sino ang mas nakakatakot, The Kraken or The Beast?” Fajardo gave a diplomatic response along the lines of “it’s not about me and Calvin.” Abueva took a different route and was quick to praise Fajardo with, “Mas nakakatakot si Junemar,” following it up with, “Mas maganda gawin nalang namin ‘yung best namin para manalo sa game.” He then gave the camera a smirk, coolly gave his respects to Fajardo, then abruptly walked away to signal the end of the chitchat (sorry, Erika Padilla).

Fajardo’s team, the then-named Petron Boosters, built a big lead and were headed for a blowout win. Down 19, Abueva tried to put matters in his hands in the first possession of the fourth quarter. He drove hard to the hoop, and bricked a one-handed floater. In true Abueva fashion, he grabbed his own miss and tried to put it back in, but was denied by Danny Ildefonso. That could’ve been it. That’s the moment in the game, down 19 points with 11:40 remaining, when your tito says, “Wala na ‘to.” But Calvin Abueva is not your tito.

Just seconds later in the succeeding play, Abueva intercepts a pass and scores on a fastbreak. After a Petron miss, Abueva skies high for a rebound and scores another basket at the other end. Petron was forced to call a timeout. At that point, it might’ve been already too late.

At the 1:30 mark, the Alaska Aces–sparked by Abueva no doubt–found themselves only down by 1. Alaska point guard JVee Casio drove to the basket, drew the defense, and kicked out to Abueva for the open jumper. Alaska took the lead and Petron would never score again in that game. If there are debates on whether Alaska also deserved the “never-say-die” tag, this game should be Exhibit A.

The awards couldn’t have come sooner for the rookie, who averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds in his first season in the PBA. He was named to the Mythical First Team and All-Rookie Team. He also edged out Fajardo to win the Rookie of the Year award. Abueva, in white long sleeves, black slacks, and prescription glasses, received the trophy to a chorus of boos from the crowd. “Nagpapasalamat ako sa lahat ng bumoto sa akin, at sa mga haters ko.”

‘CALV’

When “The Beast” takes off his number 8 jersey, all the muscle-flexing and tongue-wagging go with it. Off the court, he is just “Calv,” a good-spirited guy from the province trying to make it big in Manila. Abueva likes to share, and on days when he is not creating plays for his teammates (he is currently averaging a career-best 2.7 assists per game), he shares his time with his wife and kids. When he buys food, he gets extra to give to those in need. “He looks fierce on the court, but off the court, he’s a gentle beast,” says CK Kanapi-Daniolco, the sports development and public relations manager at Alaska Milk Corp. Her husband, Ted, is one of Abueva’s closest friends off the court, a bond formed when the team spent a vacation in the US after being crowned champions at the 2013 PBA Commissioner’s Cup.

It is easy to picture Abueva as the same loose cannon outside the court: pouring shots of tequila, lit cigar in mouth, partying until sunrise as he celebrates life. But the unpredictability he brings on the court translates in a different manner off it. In his downtime, Abueva likes to eat. He loves to cook.

If he puts the cuffs on you on defense, it means he respects your offense. If he cooks for you, it’s a testament to his friendship. “Mahilig siya magyaya lang sa bahay tapos papaglutuan ka niya,” Ted says. Abueva takes his cooking seriously, too. Ted recalled this instance when Abueva ditched their plan to grill steaks, and instead chopped up the meat, then put his own flavor to make it more interesting. “Hindi ko alam ano ginawa niya, basta masarap,” says Ted. Abueva also makes a killer chicken adobo–peppered with a spicy twist that traces back to his Kapampangan roots.

When Abueva was cut from the Gilas squad last year, the Daniolcos were one of the first few people he called. He was in Italy, Ted and his wife were in Manila. Through a video call, Ted says Abueva’s trademark grin couldn’t mask the disappointment of being prevented from doing one of the things he did best. “Naka-smile pa din siya pero kita mo sa mata niya na malungkot siya.” Yet when the Olympic qualifying games started, there he was, in a bold blue jacket that said “Pilipinas” on the front, cheering on the national team from the sidelines.

That was last year. This year, a new Gilas squad is being formed in a bid to qualify for the Olympics in 2020. Abueva is again on the list, but if 2016 was any indication, there are no guarantees (not even a SLAM cover) that he will make it to the final cut. The only sure thing is that Abueva will attack. He will attack the defense, the buffet table, the stereotype, the criticism, the odds stacked against him. He’ll be alright. The common misconception is that Calvin Abueva–the guy they call The Beast, the guy who was fined P4,000 for “foisting a stickum sign,” the guy who would stick his tongue out to mock the crowd–doesn’t give a shit.

On the contrary, Calvin cares.

Sometimes, too much.