Lessons from Angel P.
In my sixth year as a newspaperman I tried to cross over to the “toy shop” of journalism. The analogy is owed to Jimmy Cannon, a sportswriter who took both sports and writing so seriously and wrote so well (indeed, before Red Smith there was him) he could only have intended it sarcastically—to get back at the disparagers of his craft.
Anyway, I decided that real fun at work could be had there (although I’m now finding that Lifestyle offers just as much fun). By then senior enough to be paid about as much as the assistant sports editor, I was willing to take a pay cut for a slot in sports, but the best deal I could get was writing sports on my own time—for extra money. Well, I had done it for nothing before.
In the end, I had to be content as an occasional sportswriter, writing about tangential subjects (“The case for pigeon toes,” “Sporting revolutionaries,” “Tennis fathers,” as in stage mothers). Still, I did manage to get myself assigned to cover a world boxing championship, an international basketball tournament and a Davis Cup tennis tie, certainly more than an interloper could have bargained for.
But I must confess that, as I’ve gotten on in years, I have felt a deepening envy of the regular sportswriters, for their seeming agelessness, their eternal sense of childlike fun (not necessarily puerility, oh no!), especially since I could have been a fair member of their corps: I had been bred in sports myself.
My father, Angel P., taught me how to throw a proper punch, which helped me come out of the inescapable scrapes of boyhood honorably. An older brother of his had fought in the amateurs, although quitting, undefeated, before he could fulfill his full promise. Angel P. himself had more power in his fists than you’d expect of a junior lightweight, to which sparring partners attested. He had developed it working at a bag that took two men to lift and hang on its hook; I’m sure it contained far more sand than sawdust. He only boxed for fun and exercise, though—probably for therapy, too—and I don’t remember him at it still after I had graduated from grade school. But he continued to watch the big fights, sometimes with me along.
It was volleyball and basketball that he played competitively; Olympian Kiko San Pedro was a teammate at interclub volleyball tournaments, and collegiate basketball he played for San Beda, following in the footsteps of another older brother, who also swam backstroke for the national team, a long illustrious way from Malabon River, where we all learned on our own to survive water, a curse that threatened to submerge the whole town, Atlantis-fashion.
Angel P. and basketball make for some of the most exciting and enduring memories of my boyhood. All the 26 years I lived at home, a goal meticulously built to standards stood in the yard, and the family possessed, at a rather self-indulgent expense, an imported Voit, the white model no less, which gripped and dribbled better than the slightly cheaper orange.
A firstborn who took five years in the making, I have only a vague recollection of Angel P. as a prime player. What I remember richly and distinctly is sitting beside him in the bleachers of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum for the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and MICAA (Manila Industrial-Commercial Athletic Association) basketball games and staying up late watching him diagram plays for the next evening’s game of the neighborhood team he coached; a neighborhood team all right, but it was competitive enough in the so-called open senior tournaments, which admitted collegiate players. His plays turned on the philosophy I had heard him repeat like a mantra: “Screening is the key to good offense, switching to good defense.”
And for tennis: “Give your opponent shots he hates to hit.” Tennis was a sport he had neglected but took up again toward middle age and continued to play until emphysema retired him. His skills were only better than moderate, but tactics made up for the deficit. A joke that became standard with his tennis crowd served as a testimonial: Angel P. has so much brain it leaks out of his ears.
All four of us brothers and many neighborhood learners passed through our makeshift home tennis gym for first instructions. The gym consisted of a ball inside a stocking hanging by a cord from the ceiling and a sack curtain about a meter from it. The sack curtain killed the pace of the hit and set the ball for the next hit. The drill developed rhythm and familiarized one, by feel, with each type of shot—spun, sliced, chipped, flat—at various heights.
“Feel is important in sports,” Angel P. would say. “In tennis, boxing, or any other hitting sport, feel tells you how good your shot and prepares you for your next and possibly decisive move”—the kill, he meant.
For all his aptitude for and love of sports, he made sure his sons did not take to it at the expense of education. He himself failed to finish second year college, but he did succeed with my three brothers, who all got their college degrees. Me—I didn’t even get as far as he in school and yet played below his level, as did two other brothers. Only Angel Jr., son No. 3, played better, better in fact than all of us, including Angel Sr., in four sports—boxing, basketball, volleyball, tennis.
But there’s one thing I did that none of them even dared try doing—write sports—which Angel P. happily conceded to me till his dying day.
Just turned 85, he drifted off peacefully and painlessly 12 years ago, cheating the emphysema that had twice sent him to the hospital suffocating. My brothers, Fiel, Angel Jr. and Desi, and I put him in the crypt with Nanay Caring, who had preceded him by 11 years and seven days—she who had captured his heart since grade school as not only its fastest runner but also its brightest pupil, its loveliest voice—she sang through all of life’s chores—and, of course, its prettiest girl.
Taking a break once from practicing against the driveway wall, Angel P., like some magician playing to an audience, in this case an audience of one—me—took the garden shears from her and put the racket in her hands. She proceeded with the act, keeping the ball ricocheting from racket to wall to pavement and back to racket for five or more rounds as though it were a game she normally played.
But then, she, too, didn’t have to impress me or anyone else in the family further.
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