It started out as a UAAP All-Stars versus Smart Gilas exhibition game. It ended with all of the players wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear, like kids in a giant candy store, after Kobe Bryant joined them on the court and gave them a glimpse of his greatness.
The UAAP team, made up of players from Nike-sponsored teams Ateneo, La Salle, and FEU, and the Smart Gilas national team played a 10-minute game, which ended with the Nationals winning 33-24. The collegiate stars fielded a dream backcourt of FEU's RR Garcia, last year's MVP, and Ateneo's Kiefer Ravena, this year's rookie sensation, and a frontline of Aldrech Ramos of FEU, Arnold Van Opstal of DLSU and Nico Salva of Ateneo. But the Gilas five of Chris Lutz, Japeth Aguilar, Dylan Ababou, JV Casio and Jason Ballesteros proved to be too much for the UAAP selection.
Afterwards, the game announcer told the Araneta Coliseum crowd of over 10,000 what they all wanted to hear: Kobe was going to play. The NBA superstar had eight more minutes added to the game clock, then walked over to the UAAP bench to put on his playing uniform. He had been sitting with the Gilas team, which had dominated the game, so he was looking to balance things out by suiting up for the collegiate stars as an "import".
To the delight of the Tamaraw fans, Bryant put on an FEU jersey. He warmed up by taking a few outside shots, making practically all of them.
When play resumed with a jumpball at center court, the 2008 NBA MVP was joined by La Salle's LA Revilla and Joshua Webb and Ateneo's Kirk Long and Greg Slaughter. Gilas was represented by Mark Barroca, Ballesteros, Aguilar, Lutz and Mac Baracael.
Gilas quickly padded its lead to 37-24, but no one really cared. They all wanted to see Kobe score, and with 6:20 left he obliged them by driving against Lutz along the baseline, spinning, and faking off his defender to score an easy deuce.
Bryant then showed off his passing skills dishing out an assist each to Long and Slaughter to make it 41-32. Then he grabbed an offensive rebound and slammed it home to cut the lead to 41-34. He then passed to Simon Atkins, who had entered the game for Revilla, and the DLSU captain buried a triple to make it 41-37. Just four days earlier, the veteran guard couldn't buy a basket in La Salle's loss to FEU. It looks like playing with Kobe broke his shooting slump.
Now it was time for Kobe to show off his defensive prowess. He picked off a pass and ran the length of the court for a runaway slam to make it 43-41, then blocked an Aguilar shot on the other end to give the UAAP team one last chance to equalize. Bryant issued a perfect pass to a cutting Slaughter, but the Ateneo big man missed an easy layup. Gilas added a basket on the other end to peg the final score at 45-41. But again, no one really cared about the score.
After the game, players from both sides were still pinching themselves and had smiles plastered on their faces like they were disciples of the Joker.
"Dream come true," said Lutz. "I can't explain it. He's been my favorite player for the longest time, so just to meet him was a dream come true."
The Fil-Am swingman guarded Bryant for most of the eight minutes, and he was still all bubbly and excited from the experience. "I was telling the guys before, I just want to guard him. I don't care. I just want to see what moves he does on me, just to see what he does in person."
"He's really my idol," said Garcia. "The way he plays is amazing, especially how he attacks on offense. On defense his hands are incredible. I really admire him."
"It's very overwhelming," was the reaction of Garica's teammate Jens Knuttel, who was fielded in during the game's last couple of minutes. "What a big opportunity this is for the UAAP all stars and the national team to play with Kobe Bryant."
Knuttel also probably won't be washing his playing jersey for the next few weeks after what happened when the game was over. "The best and favorite moment was at the end of the game. Even though we lost, I was the one he hugged. It was pretty long, more than two seconds. He said, 'good job.'"
La Salle's Joshua Webb couldn't stop smiling as well. "It's amazing, you know. He's such a great player. It inspires me to do better, and it's just something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."
Webb also had a close encounter with Kobe during the game that gave him goosebumps. "When I got the foul, fell down on the floor, and he helped me up. He pulled me up! Kobe pulled me up! Not a lot of people get to say that, so it's cool."
At least for one night, players who are bitter rivals in the UAAP set aside their differences while our national team momentarily forgot its mission to regain Asian supremacy to soak in the experience of playing alongside Kobe Bryant. They're probably all still smiling.