The Great Difference

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There’s so much to write about basketball these past days.  Of course, the Philippines being chosen by FIBA recently to host one of only three Olympic Qualifying Tournaments (OQT) is huge news.  And who can forget the San Miguel Beermen’s amazing comeback in the PBA best-of-seven finals from 0-3 to force a winner-take-all Game 7 versus the Alaska Aces on Wednesday?  But the sad news of Carlos “Caloy” Loyzaga’s passing has somehow eclipsed all goings-on in local basketball.  He is, after all, the greatest Filipino baller that ever lived.

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We’ve all heard about the man’s great achievements in basketball.  He remains the only Asian player to ever make it to the All-Star Mythical Team of the FIBA World Championships, in 1954.  Not even the great Yao Ming, who became an NBA star, achieved this.  Loyzaga’s heroics in the 1954 World Championship elevated the country to a bronze medal finish, the highest by any Asian team to date.  Although we must be hopeful that such a feat may be repeated someday, that possibility looks far-flung at the moment.  But winning the OQT here in July could be a good start.

Scribes from his time dubbed him the “Great Difference” (also Big Difference) because he was so dominating in the sport in that era.   I wasn’t born yet when he used to lord it over everybody in the basketball court but I have read so many testimonies about his greatness.  If only there were available films of his games, it would have been a real treat to see King Caloy in action.  But most of the people fortunate enough to watch him, or even play with him, describe Loyzaga as a do-it-all player; the total package.  At 6’3”, he mostly played center but many attested that he could also play the forward and guard positions.  They said Caloy had outstanding skills in shooting, rebounding and passing, and was also exquisite in defense, even when he didn’t have the technology in skills training that we have today.  Like most Pinoys, he learned the game in the streets, specifically in Sta. Mesa.
Is he the greatest of all time?  One can make a case for Ramon Fernandez and Alvin Patrimonio, both PBA four-time MVPs, or even June Mar Fajardo, now the country’s top cager.  One can even argue that the game is much more competitive now than during the time of Caloy.

But after reading the book “Carlos Loyzaga:  The Big Difference”, I understood why he is considered the best of all time.  Not only did Loyzaga lead his teams – San Beda, YCO, Philippine Team – to championships, but he was also a great role model to his teammates.  Everybody loved him because of his unselfishness on the court, even when he was undeniably the best in the team.  In short, he also made them look good.  And he played with so much passion.  No wonder one of his most notable photos showed him diving for a loose ball.  Being the best also made him a target for dirty play by opponents.  In both local and international competitions, he would often get hit and even knocked down.  But he never lost his cool and simply picked himself up and played on.

Even as a young college player, Loyzaga quickly reached celebrity status.  At a time when very few had TV sets, he gained popularity mostly from print media.  But thousands came to watch him play live.  And wherever he went, people recognized him and followed him around.  Being a tall and charming mestizo, Caloy would often be asked to pose for pictures and sign for autographs.  And he never said no to anyone.

Today’s hoops stars enjoy the power of social media and various endorsements.  They earn millions playing the game they love.  But in Caloy’s time, even the biggest superstar had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.  Loyzaga worked in the office of the Elizalde company while playing in its YCO team.  At the same time, he sold insurance products for San Beda teammate Eddie Lim’s Belson Securities.

There lies the great difference.

There may never be another Caloy Loyzaga.  But let’s hope that today’s cage heroes and future stars will follow his lead.

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