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MANILA, Philippines – It is one thing to hear stories about how good Samboy Lim was and to view videos of his highlights. It is another to actually have watched him play in the flesh, in his prime, and at the peak of his athletic prowess.
If there ever was a moniker attached to a local basketball player that fits to a T, it is Skywalker, in reference to Samboy. The man could literally walk on air.
There have been a number of high flyers who have played in the PBA, guys who could practically leap through the roof of the Araneta Coliseum and punctuate it with thunderous, rim-rattling jams. But there has never been anyone who flew with the same grace and elegance the way Samboy did.
I started watching the PBA in 1985 when I was 7 years old. Magnolia became the first team I rooted for simply because one afternoon, when I was left alone in our living room, I turned the TV on and saw Norman Black shooting free throws in a game against Joe Binion and Great Taste.
When Magnolia returned to the league in the 1986 Reinforced Conference after a brief absence, bringing with it the core of the NCC national team, which included two of my favorites – the Skywalker and the Director Hector Calma – it cemented my allegiance to the squad.
I had always wanted to go to a live PBA game, but growing up in Zamboanga City taught me to be content just watching the games on TV. It was not until February 1992 when my father brought me to ULTRA that I got the opportunity to finally watch the PBA.
I do not even remember anymore the first game of the doubleheader. But the second game was a dream matchup.
San Miguel versus Alaska.
Grand Slam coach Norman Black matching wits with up-and-coming coach Tim Cone.
Ato Agustin versus Jojo Lastimosa.
“The Skywalker” Samboy Lim versus “Mr. Excitement” Bong Alvarez.
The Alaska defense was anchored on the man they called the “Human Eraser,” former Phoenix Sun Winston Crite, an intimidating presence down low who made every Beerman think twice about attacking the basket.
But not Samboy.
Watching ‘Skywalker’ magic live
There was one sequence in the game that has remained vividly etched in my core memories. From the right baseline, Samboy faked off Alvarez, who, like so many others, was left frozen in his tracks by the Skywalker’s quick first step.
Palming the ball with his right hand, Samboy then elevated for a layup but was immediately met on air by Crite, whose outstretched right arm extended way above the rim. There was no way Samboy would not end up another count in Crite’s shot block statistics. Or so I thought.
While in flight, Samboy appeared to find some invisible steps that allowed him to climb further and be at eye level with Crite. With the ball right in front of him, as if teasing him with what must have felt like a sure, giveaway block, Crite looked poised to spike it out with thunderous impunity.
Samboy, however, managed to flick the leather, deftly and with pizzazz, just enough for it to float a few centimeters past the Alaska import’s fingertips. The ball swooshed gently, perfectly, into the basket.
Crite appeared baffled after swatting away nothing but air, like a kid who was promised and shown candies only for these to be taken away from him at the last second.
Everyone inside ULTRA, San Miguel and Alaska fans alike, went crazy. It was the first time in my life I literally jumped out of my seat after witnessing a basketball play, a wonderful experience that left me totally stunned, my teenage brain unable to fully process what I had just seen that I could not even scream or cheer or let out any form of sound.
The sequence of events happened so fast, yet at the same time, it seemed to transpire in slow motion that I could replay every second of it in my head. It was simply breathtaking.
Such was Samboy’s style of play that he had opponents, teammates, coaches, and fans shaking their heads while catching their breath after getting a dose of his aerial acrobatics.
He was doing it against bigger opposition even in the international arena, dropping 23 against the United States during San Miguel/NCC’s title conquest in the 1985 Jones Cup, making the Mythical Five of the Asian Basketball Confederation Championships (now known as FIBA Asia) when the Philippines emerged champion, and in the FIBA Club World Championships in Spain where he scored 30 points in NCC’s 98-79 victory over Banco Di Roma of Italy.
As an ardent follower of the national team beginning the mid-80s, I always felt we could beat any team in Asia so long as we had Samboy and Allan Caidic in the RP 5 roster.
Legendary Gene Keady of Purdue University, an assistant coach of the 2000 US Dream Team who was the head coach of the US team in the 1985 Jones Cup, referred to Samboy and Caidic as Heckle and Jeckle and said he had the highest respect for the two Filipino gunners.
They were our one-two offensive punch that earned us a bronze in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul and a silver in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. The Skywalker and the Triggerman were our answer to the prolific Lee Chung Hee-Hur Jae duo of South Korea and the deadly and lengthy Chinese wings bannered by the likes of Zhang Bin, Wang Fei, Sun Fengwu, Song Ligang, and Hu Weidong.
There was a commercial for a drink in 1991 called “Be Like Mike,” urging people to be like Michael Jordan. In the Philippines, though, in my youth, we wanted to be like Samboy.
I recall I badly wanted to wear jersey number 9 for our school passarelle team, but my teammate and good friend Arthur Coy claimed the number already. I had to accede since Arthur was our star player and he did move, soar, and play like Samboy.
Dream high like Samboy
Samboy was an aspiration for those of us earthbound who could only marvel at how a mortal like us could apparently violate the laws of physics. He, along with Robert Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, and Alvin Patrimonio, were arguably the biggest names from my childhood and early teens.
But it was only Samboy who could get the crowd – whether fans of San Miguel or the opposing team – cheering even when he would just report to the scorer’s table to sub in during a game.
Fans adored Samboy. Foes respected him. Time and again, he would fall to the ground, grimacing in pain and reeling from another one of the countless injuries he suffered.
But each time, he found a way to bounce right back up, and when he would take the court anew, he would play the only way he knew how – gung-ho, all-out, without fear, with disregard for any defense on the ground and on air that would get in his way. Oftentimes, with the same disregard for his own safety.
We never really found out how good he could have been in his career. But we had the privilege of a glimpse at his greatness. We stood in awe as he floated, ethereal and majestic, far longer than others could.
He was one of the brightest stars that we have been gifted with, and the light that he radiated will forever illuminate the hardcourts of Philippine basketball. – Rappler.com