Ali Peek: Like ‘The Incredible Hulk’ without the attitude
“When God said I want a man made out of pure muscle, Ali Peek came out,” says sports anchor Mico Halili, who has teamed up with Peek on the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) TV panel.
“As a player, I always saw Peek as a man mountain, someone I’ve always equated with strength, size and width,” Halili adds.
Even Norman Black, Peek’s Talk ‘N Text coach, once described him as having an “Incredible Hulk physicality.”
That distinctive feature might have saved his life.
In a terrifying brush with death three years ago, a gunman shot Peek on the nape as he stepped out of a gym in Mandaluyong. Incredibly, this power forward/center still managed to stay on his feet and had enough presence of mind to look for help while the gunman fled on foot.
Today, Peek walks around with the bullet still lodged at the base of his skull, since surgery could prove critical to his condition.
Despite such bravado and legendary physical feats off and on the court, this man mountain has one vulnerable spot: going live on TV.
“I’ve always been scared of (being on-cam) because it’s live,” admits Peek. “Honestly, I didn’t think I can get into something like this,” adds the new analyst on the PBA TV panel, whose deep, authoritative voice sounds as crisp as he looks.
After 16 seasons of seeing Peek intimidate opponents with his bull-strong play and get-out-of-my-way scowl, sports fans now get to hear more of him, and incidentally, discover his more vulnerable side.
Because when the bright lights of TV cameras fire up, this grizzly center-power forward feels very much like a rookie again who needs to shake off the nerves to get it together.
“When that camera is about to turn on, my heart is beating out of my chest,” Peek confesses candidly. “I’m always nervous. When they say, ‘okay, 45 seconds, 30 seconds, 15,’ and all of a sudden, the camera is on, the lights are on you, and you’ve got to deliver. Millions of Filipinos are watching and you don’t want to mess up.”
And yet on cue, as the camera’s red recording light flickers, Peek coolly delivers his pre-game spiel, the jitters momentary set aside, and all the audience sees is this smooth-talking hulking man whose shaven head and muscle-on-muscle build have long made him one of local pro basketball’s most imposing 6-foot-4 figures.
Indeed, it may be difficult to imagine Peek as a bundle of nerves because he has been impressively reliable on the panel as he was on the hardcourt. His incisive commentaries can only come from a veteran who had won arduous floor battles. Like “an outsider now looking in,” is how the player describes it.
“What’s pretty cool about (this job) is I’ve never been able to really break down and analyze what’s going on in the hardcourt because I’ve always been involved in what I had to do on a play. Now all of a sudden, I can see what’s going on, what kind of adjustments both teams had to make, or where the teams are having problems.”
The discipline demanded by the sport, though, remains very much in his system as the 39-year-old Peek hung up his jersey only last February.
“I guess I’m applying the same thing I did in basketball, which is preparation,” he says. “I come in prepared. I’ve done my research on both teams, making sure that I know and really understand what I’m talking about. I guess I’ve developed a passion for it. I really come in with stuff that people can think about and explore the different angles.”
“I think what Ali has is a sort of a complete package,” says Halili of how the burly player has quickly turned from fearsome to likable.
“For one thing, he has credibility because he has played for so many years. Several generations know him because he played well for so long. And his communication skill is excellent. People can perfectly understand him.”
Peek, who used to shoulder aside hard bodies on court, now hit players and coach alike with the same force using words.
Explains Halili: “What really helped Ali become a very good broadcaster is his honesty. He’s not afraid to share his opinions, which I think are born out of his experiences in the PBA. He’s the type who’s not afraid to say if it’s a bad call. At the same time, he gives compliments if it’s a good call. He will say if a team is playing bad or if a team is playing well. People from the onset can see that and that’s why they appreciate him.”
Not everyone does, of course. Just last month, the former Talk ‘N Text standout ruffled Rain or Shine coach Yeng Guiao with an on-air comment that allegedly had Peek implying that the fiery mentor orders his players to make cheap shots against their opponents.
Barely three months on board, Peek admits he still needs polishing.
“(But) I’m doing my homework,” he adds. “There are still a lot of things I’m learning now. What I do is watch broadcasted shows all day long whether it’s the NBA or the PBA, to try and get better and more creative phrases, learn how to transition from one point to the next, when to shut up, and so on.”
Peek, indeed, knows how to roll with the punches, although that brazen shooting incident nearly prompted him to go back to the United States, his birth country, and leave everything behind.
He admits the assault has left him with physical and mental scars.
“It’s still a mystery to me, and I’m sure to a lot of people,” says Peek. “It’s still at the back of my mind. I’m a lot more cautious now and wary of what I do, where I go, and at what time.”
He adds: “I’m fine. I still don’t feel pain. I never felt pain,” says Peek of the Nov. 7, 2011, shooting. “The only time I felt a bit of pain was when the bullet hit me. But I managed to walk to the hospital by myself. I walked out of there seven days later with a clean bill of health. I just have to get periodic check-ups from my neurologist. At this point, everything should be stable.”
The bullet miraculously missed major arteries and organs, although surgery has been deemed critical so that bullet would have to stay where it is in the meantime.
Peek admits however that he still gets that unsettling feeling even if, in December 2012, the Nueva Ecija police had arrested two suspects who readily admitted to being members of a gun-for-hire group. The two had claimed that the Peek shooting was a case of mistaken identity.
“It still lingers in my mind to this day,” says this Fil-American, whose family initially agreed that it would be better for him to go back to the United States.
He recalls: “I was going to retire. I made arrangements to sell my house. I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going on. I felt they might come after me again.
“But the crazy thing was, it was also my family who later said, ‘you can’t quit.’ My (stepdad), my biggest critic, said: ‘You have to go back and play. Whoever did this is trying to destroy who you are and what you do. If you don’t do this, it’s going to reflect on the way you handle things.’ That made a lot of sense to me.”
Just two months after the shocking episode that shook local sports, Peek amazingly defied the odds, suited up for Talk ‘N Text’s team practice and quickly plunged back into high-level play in the PBA.
And then on Feb. 13 this year, two weeks after turning 39, Peek decided to wrap up a distinguished two-decade career highlighted by six PBA championships, a Best Player of the Conference award in 2003 and a Mythical First Team citation in 2001.
The decision came as a surprise to many, who had thought there was more play left in this tank of a man.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who try to hang on,” says Peek, who cites recurring injuries, including back and knee problems, as reasons for his retirement. “I knew that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. And I’ve always told myself that if I see a dent in my performance, in my workouts, then it’s time for me to walk away.”
It was like coming full circle for Peek who ended his career under Black, the same coach who made him as the third overall pick by Pop Cola in the 1998 PBA Draft.
At that time, Peek was among the growing number of Filipino-Americans who had hoped to make a basketball career in their parents’ home country.
“I started getting serious in basketball when I was 12 and all because of the Los Angeles Lakers. I love Magic (Johnson), I love Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), I just love to be those guys,” recalls Peek. “I heard about the PBA in eighth grade. But as a kid growing up, I wanted to be in the NBA. I never realized (PBA) was going to be an option until I was graduating from college.”
Born in Hawaii as Albert Henry Peek, he grew up in California with his Filipino mother Marlene, who traces her roots in Manila. His grandfather, a member of the Philippine Constabulary, was from Tuguegarao, while his grandmother was from Ilocos Norte.
“For the longest time, it was just my mother and myself,” says Peek. “I didn’t know my biological father. He’s Creole, a mix of French and black. But I don’t know what he looks like. My stepfather came later.”
But like most Filipinos, Peek has an extended family who made sure to prep him when he decided to try his luck in Manila in 1996 as a 21-year-old amateur player in the Philippine Basketball League (PBL).
“I haven’t been to the Philippines at all. The closest I’ve been to was Taipei,” says Peek, who played for the St. Mary’s College varsity team that represented and won for the United States the 1994 Jones Cup championship in Taipei.
He recounts: “When (my Filipino relatives) found out I was coming to the Philippines, they briefed me on how to behave and act—like you can’t just come in with a lot of swag. They also said, ‘there’s a lot of traffic, but if this is what you want to do, you have to come in with the right attitude. You have to understand that this is a different culture. This is not the United States; you’re the one who has to adjust not the other way around.’ I kept that in my head ever since.”
Not surprisingly, when the broadcasting gig came up—an offer made by his former coach Chot Reyes, who also heads Sports 5, the sports arm of TV5—Peek made sure that it was he who made the effort to fit in despite his illustrious resumé.
“I came in for the interview, I auditioned and I guess they liked it, so I went ahead and did it,” he says.
In some ways, it was like going back to his old routine, says Peek, as he also needs sheer focus and a well-rested body before heading into action.
“The most difficult part (of being a sports broadcaster) is that your mind goes blank sometimes. It has happened twice, and man, it gets to the point that you’re talking and suddenly, you lose your point. So I just try to be as brief as possible,” Peek says with a laugh. “There were times when I came in after a workout and I was so drained I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say. It just wasn’t coming out.”
He adds: “You have to come in with energy. You’ve got to be alert since this is live television. So I figured if I gave myself a lot of rest before a basketball game, it should be the same with this. So for about two hours, I’m just sitting on my ass, but it’s a rest for my mind, and I enjoy it. I get a rush out of it, kind of similar to basketball. I’m having a good time.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.