It was Game 6 of a tightly fought “Best of 7” semi-finals series between Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings and San Mig Coffee Mixers in the All Filipino Cup Conference of the Philippine Basketball Association.
Hard court and hard core fans were at the edge of their seats, biting their nails in suspense as the exciting unpredictably of the last five games showed no likely winner.
As the clocked ticked its last few seconds, the fighting Gin Kings and their loyal followers all had their eyes on a single San Mig player: James Yap, the PBA superstar who shone brightest at the team’s championship last conference—and practically his entire basketball career.
If there was anyone who could turn the game around at that point, it would be Yap. But alas, the superstar failed and aside from nursing a huge disappointment, faced scrutiny and accusations the moment the buzzer sounded his team’s loss.
Yap kept quiet and his cool, but by Game 7 on Thursday night silenced his critics with an explosive game—30 fantastic points that won the San Mig Coffee Mixers the hot ticket to this year’s PBA finals.
Yes, the two-time MVP (Most Valuable Player), James Yap, still has the golden touch.
Basketball, without a doubt, is a Filipino man’s game. Every nook and cranny of this country is filled with makeshift basketball courts. The game chooses no name, no class, no neighborhood. Basketball unites Filipinos, and today, James Yap remains one of the national sport’s famous faces.
Yap hails from a simple family in Escalante, Negros. In an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine he recalled the very first time he held a basketball: “I was in the first grade. Nag e-enjoy lang talaga ako nung umpisa, pero hindi ko inisip na maging part ng PBA. [I was just enjoying myself in the beginning but I never thought of joining the PBA].”
Encouraged by a basketball-loving family, an uncle especially fuelled the young Yap’s love for basketball. Athletic to the core, he also excelled in other sports including baseball, volleyball, and even football.
But with basketball undoubtedly his domain, the talented teenager found himself receiving offers for a future in the game as early as high school.
“Nung dumating na yung opportunities sa akin, yung mga offers ng school, doon ko lang nakita na puwede pala maging career ko ito. [It was when opportunities started coming to me in school that I realized I can actually make a career out of basketball].”
Yap played for the Bacolod Tay Tung High School and the Iloilo Central Commercial High School where he bagged for his team three consecutive Iloilo Private School Athletic Association (Prisa) titles.
A shooting machine, the University of the East Red Warriors promptly recruited him to play for the UAAP (University Athletics Association of the Philippines), where Yap won for UE two consecutive championships. It was a feat the university had not savored in a long time.
‘Big Game James’
After college, Yap continued to hone his basketball skills by joining the now defunct Philippine Basketball League from 2001 to 2004 before being drafted second overall by the Purefoods Tender Juicy Giants in the Philippine Basketball Association (wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Yap). He also had successful stints playing for the country via the country’s RP Basketball Team.
Yap transitioned easily from the collegiate ranks to the pros to became one of professional basketball’s offensive focal points. Earning the nickname “Big Game James” he dominated the stats and won the coveted Most Valuable Player Award not once, but twice, during the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 seasons.
For Yap, winning the title was a feat he never he never expected. Instead, he gives credits to his teammates for becoming MVP.
“Masaya ako at blessed dahil yun ang bunga ng pagdadasal, at thankful din ako sa suporta ng teammates and coaches ko. Pero para sa akin, ang gusto ko talaga yung nag cha-champion ang team, para lahat kami masaya. Bonus lang ang mag MVP, pero ang goal ko talaga is for the team to win a championship. (I am happy and blessed. These are all fruits of prayer. I’m also thankful to my teammates and coaches, but for me, what’s more important is to win a championship so the entire team can be happy. It’s just a bonus to become MVP but my goal is always the championship).”
For Yap, the championship series against the Petron Boosters in 2013 is his most challenging one to date. “Lahat sinasabi Petron ang mag cha-champion, kaya pumasok ako sa series na yun na desidido ibigay lahat ng alam ko sa basketball. Binhuos ko lahat doon, lahat ng natutunan ko mula bata. Talagang desidido ako lumaban. [Everyone was saying Petron would be champion so I went into the series determined to give everything I knew about basketball since I was a child. I gave it my all; I was determined to fight.]”
And his determination did not fail him with Yap earning his fourth championship, and hopefully on his way to another one against Rain or Shine Elasto Painters this month.
Yap’s continued success is due to the fact that he is not one to be satisfied easily.
“Ang basketball kasi, non-stop learning. Ako yung type ng player na hindi nag re-relax kasi ang daming players. Kung ano angna-achieve mo, bonus lang yun, but you should never stop working hard to stay at the top of your game. [Basketball is non-stop learning. I’m the type of player who doesn’t relax just because there are many other players in the team. Whatever you achieve is just a bonus but you should never stop working hard to stay at the top of your game].”
When asked for his advice to rookies, Yap reiterated the value of hard work.
“Pag rookie ka crucial yung first two to three years mo sa league. Importante na mag focus ka at mag work hard; dapat hindi ma-overwhelm at ibigay mo lang ang best mo para tumagal ka. [When you’re a rookie, the first two to three years in the league are crucial. It’s important to stay focused and to work hard. Don’t get overwhelmed and give it your best so you keep going].”
Yap’s unassuming personality is a breath of fresh air among athletes who frequently flaunt their swagger both on and off court. Fans and friends of the basketball star are also quick to say that the man is kindhearted. His coaches agree, and marvel at how he continues to be teachable despite his already excellent game.
“Malaki ang respeto ko sa coaches ko, at sa mga assistant coaches. Lagi ako nakikinig sa kanila dahil sa kanila ako natutuo. [I have deep respect for my coaches and assistant coaches. I always listen to them because it is from them that I learn].”
While some people might think that Yap’s rise to success was a walk in the park because of his God-given basketball skills, he begs to differ.
“Marami ng naging disappointment, pero kailangan lumaban ka lang. Kailangan naka-focus ka lang sa ano ang gusto momarating. [I’ve had many disappointments but you just need to fight back. You need to be focused on what you want to achieve].”
It is this attitude which he wishes to impart to young Filipinos who hope to basketball stars one day.
“Hindi masamang mangarap, basta mahalin mo lang ang ginagawa mo. Para marating mo ang gusto mo kailangan dedicated ka, mag-practice ng mabuti at siyempre mag-dasal. Wag ka lang mawalan ng pagasa dahil hindi ka nakukuha sa tryouts. Wag ka ma discourage, ituloy mo lang. [There’s nothing wrong with dreaming so long as you love what you’re doing. To get to where you want to be, you need to be dedicated, practice hard and don’t forget to pray. Don’t lose hope just because you weren’t chosen at the tryouts. Don’t be discouraged, just keep on going].”
As his career continues to prosper, Yap’s personal life has also never been better. He is quiet but “happy” in his romance with Italian executive Michela Cazzola, and just after the controversial Game 6, was also grateful to hear that his ex-wife, TV host and actress Kris Aquino defended him from critics.
His new venture, the Moto Technik Vespa store in Quezon City, is another source of happiness for Yap.
“Alam naman natin ang takbong basketball, maganda yung meron kang business after basketball. Sana maging successful. [We all know how basketball goes so it’s good to have a fall back. I hope my business succeeds].”
Moto Technik sells Italian motorcycles, among them Vespa, Piggio, and Aprilla. Apparently, he has always been scooter aficionado since his younger years.
Besides having a very promising conference, a stable love life, and a new business, he is also grateful a fairly new endorsement deal with Toby’s Sports, which espouses how he has led his career in basketball all these years. Dubbed “It Starts Here,” the campaign highlights the importance of passion as the main component of success.
“Para may marating ka dapat determined ka sa ginagawa mo. Pursigido ka at passionate ka sa ginagawa mo. [To achieve success, you have to be determined, aggressive and passionate in what you do].”
He hopes that the campaign will also motivate and empower others to go for their dreams, just as he did.
At the cusp of what could be his fifth PBA championship, STM asked Yap how he would like to be remembered in years to come. The boy from Escalante took a moment to reflect and replied, “I hope they will remember me as someone who inspired them. I want to inspire more people, especially the youth.”