The Year in Sports, Part 1


Well, we've come to the end of another year, meaning it's time again to look back at the highs and lows that local sports brought us in the past 365 days and try to encapsulate everything  within the confines of this blog. I've done several of these yearend sports wrap-up articles ever since I started writing online 10 years ago. So believe me when I say that 2011 was probably the best year to be a Pinoy sports junkie.

Football continued its meteoric rise, basketball enjoyed some success on the Asian level, boxing produced three more champions not named Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino was Asia's best golfer, another Filipino was the world's best pool player, dragonboat rowing became fashionable, and even cheerleading made its mark on the international stage.

As if that weren't enough, 2011 will be remembered as the year we welcomed a big number of international sports superstars. It wasn't just the quantity, either. We're talking genuine sporting icons here. Just to refresh your memory, all of these guys visited the Philippines this year: Kobe Bryant (twice), Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, JaVale McGee (twice), James Harden, Derek Fisher, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Ken Griffey, Jr., Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Spoelstra, Horace Grant, Clyde Drexler, All the Top 30 Pool Players in the World, BJ Penn and Brandon Vera. If Philippine sports were a living breathing person, everyone would have exclaimed: Ikaw na!

It wasn't all good news, though (with Philippine sports, it never is). Among other things, we had a rather forgettable stint in the SEA Games.  Plus Blake Griffin failed to make it. Anyway, here's a snapshot of the top moments in local sports for 2011. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the sequencing; it's all arranged randomly. In any case, enjoy.

Thank you, NBA Lockout

I had this crazy dream last July. I dreamt that Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant played at the Big Dome. Twice.

Thanks to the NBA's decision to lock out its players beginning June 30, a number of its superstars were free to do pretty much what they wanted with no fear of being punished. So upon the prodding of the country's no. 1 sports patron Manny Pangilinan, a group of them decided to come over and play a couple of exhibition games at the Araneta Coliseum.

And this wasn't just any group of NBA players. They included the reigning MVP (Derrick Rose), a former MVP (Kobe Bryant), three former Rookies of the Year (Rose, Tyreke Evans and Kevin Durant), the reigning scoring champ (Durant), the second overall pick in the 2011 draft (Derrick Williams), a four-time champion (Derek Fisher), and a really tall guy who loves to dunk and plank (JaVale McGee).

The NBA stars played two consecutive games over a July weekend, walloping an awestruck PBA selection on Saturday then flexing just enough muscle to turn back Smart Gilas the following day. Even though ticket prices were exorbitant, the crowds for both games surged well past the 20,000 mark, making this the best-attended Philippine sporting event for 2011.

Football On the Rise

Twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now, local historians will point to 2011 as the year football finally got on its feet in this country. The local football scene was reinvigorated by the Azkals' success in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, and the Azkals themselves built on this with better-than-modest gains on the international front. In Panaad Stadium in Bacolod, the team blanked Mongolia, 2-nil, to begin a journey that would lead to a first-ever berth in the AFC Challenge Cup tournament. The Azkals also advanced to the second round of the World Cup Qualifying for the first time in history, thrashing Sri Lanka 4-nil last July in front of an adoring crowd. It was the most emphatic win by a Philippine side on home soil in a long, long time. Even though Kuwait gave everyone a reality check by booting out the Azkals in the second round, the hold football now had on a previously indifferent public could not be denied.

The fledgling local league, the UFL, was another big beneficiary of this renaissance, bagging a fat P150 million TV contract and expanding to 28 teams. Play wasn't always pretty, and the talent gap between the best teams and the cellar dwellers was wider than two football fields, but overall it was still a positive development.

It all culminated with the arrival of international icons David Beckham and Landon Donovan and the rest of the MLS champion LA Galaxy for an exhibition game against the Azkals in early December. The match itself was, well, a mismatch, with the Galaxy strolling to a 6-1 win, but it served as final validation that football was indeed back.

Dragonboat team reaps awards abroad, stirs controversy at home

No team came out of nowhere in 2011 quite like the Philippine Dragonboat Federation's team of paddlers, who won five gold and two silver medals in the International Dragonboat Federation World Championships in Tampa Bay, Florida last August, with the private sector shouldering all of their expenses. They came home to a hero's welcome — and a lot of controversy. The PDBF was a breakaway faction of the POC-recognized Philippine Canoe Kayak Federation, and its accomplishments were belittled by the POC and PSC, with one sports official, in a not-so-sporting moment, calling them "ampaw". There were also suggestions that the competition in Florida wasn't exactly world-class, that the PDBF beat teams who were relative newcomers to the sport.

The POC eventually reached out to the PDBF, but talks broke down after the PDBF held firm in its demand to be reinstated as an NSA independent of the PCKF, which the POC refused to do. Until one of them gives way, we will continue to see the PDBF and PCKF organize separate dragonboat races, and the PCKF represent the country in official international competition sanctioned by the POC.

Pinoys shine in billiards and golf

Dennis Orcullo was the best pool player on the planet in 2011, holding on to the World Pool Association's no. 1 ranking for most of the year, winning the most prize money, and being named the WPA's player of the year. Robocop won the world 8-ball title and the Predator 10-ball crown, finished runner-up to Ralf Souquet in the World Pool Masters, finished in the top four in the world 9-ball championship, and made it to the quarterfinals in the world 10-ball championship which the country hosted last May. He capped off his banner year by bagging the gold medal in 8-ball at the Southeast Asian Games. He was, quite simply, the best.

Meanwhile, Juvic Pagunsan became the first Filipino golfer to win the Asian Tour's Order of Merit with 2011 earnings of close to $750,000. The bulk of that came courtesy of his second-place finish in the uber-rich  and European Tour-sanctioned Barclays Singapore Open, which netted him a whopping $666,660 against a field that included the likes of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. All in all, Pagunsan had four top ten finishes on the Asian Tour this year, even as he ran afoul with the local golf tour and ended up being suspended effective September 12 for walking out of a tournament.

Tim Cone, Manny Pacquiao, Smart Gilas, the SEA Games, the Blue Eagles and Red Lions, and the UP Pep Squad coming soon in Part 2.