MANILA, December 26, 2005 
(STAR) THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco - The year 2005 was extremely eventful for better or for worse in sports. Along the way, this writer has been fortunate enough to encounter some of the greats of the games. From a veritable starting unit of NBA superstars to local heroes trying to redeem themselves, it was a joyous ride. Some of them were just trying to make an honest buck, others trying to raise themselves to the next level, while still others were just happy to be there.

Gerry PeŮalosa. The former world super flyweight champion disappeared for 13 months, and failed in his attempt to seek a better life for himself and his family in the United States. Then he took a gamble by moving up to the bantamweight class, and picked as his opponent a knockout artist from Paraguay named Dario Azuaga "El Indi de Oro." or "The Golden Indian." PeŮalosa dominated the fight from the opening bell, winning each of the 10 rounds, and serving notice that he is ready to fight for another world title.

Maui Villanueva. A 6-4 graduate of the UPIS system, and a one-time UAAP juniors Most Valuable Player, Villanueva was, by all accounts, one of the bright spots in high school basketball. He also earned one distinction in basketball in 2005. Villanueva became the first Filipino "export" to a high school in Kyoto, Japan. On the last day of tryouts here, Japanese coaches were so wide-eyed that they immediately called up his parents to offer him an athletic scholarship. They were even more impressed when former president Corazon Aquino stopped by to check on Maui in his first month there.

Riki Magallanes. A soft-spoken former coach from De La Salle Greenhills, Magallanes brought honor to the country when he was picked last April to become the head coach of Vietnamís young menís team. Magallanes, started from scratch, so impressed his hosts that he was made head coach of their menís team, and is planning an exchange program with local teams to strengthen his neophyte players.

Sebastian Telfair. Now the starting point guard for the rebuilding Portland Trailblazers, the Abraham Lincoln High School graduate was a first-time Manila visitor in 2005, gracing the adidas Asian Streetball Finals at the Araneta Coliseum. Telfair, obviously new at the schmoozing game, shook hands with the media, posed with the fans, and did his best as a first-time ambassador for the pros. He was even more gracious when the champion San Sebastain Stags visited him in Portland, their prize for beating China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Desmond Mason. Perhaps the most down-to-earth NBA player Iíve ever interviewed. In July, the 6-5 swingman, then with the Milwaukee Bucks, flew to Shanghai for the adidas Superstar Camp to teach young Chinese giants how to play physical basketball. He was always engaging, always accommodating, and always smiling. In fact, he was so enamored of some of the youngsters he had trained that he chased them down to hand them autographed samples of his basketball sneakers. Can you beat that?

Josh Smith. The 6-9 20-year-oldís actions spoke volumes when he won the NBA Slam Dunk contest, all while paying homage to one of the greats of the game, sporting the jersey of retired Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins jersey. In real life, though, he was just a kid, getting used to the spotlight, shyly greeting members of the media, and making his first trip to Asia. It was refreshing to meet a legitimate NBA star who didnít have bad habits or an air of snobbery. His upside is still stratospheric.

Dwight Howard. This youngster just turned 20 on Dec. 8, but raised a stir as a spectacular, albeit skinny high school student picked up by the Orlando Magic, smashing a backboard in a cover shoot for Slam magazine. By the time he came to Manila for the NBA Madness, though, he had bulked up to a massive 265 and became a force to reckon with in the league, with a line of 14 points and almost 13 rebounds per game. More endearing, though, was his clear love for the fans, as he gamely participated in the promotionsā side events and pumped up the crowds, with his adoring parents watching. What this writer will never forget, though, is a bullet pass he made to me in the paint during the celebrity game, a pass which almost erased my fingerprints from its sheer force.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His reputation notwithstanding, it was a pleasure to have interviewed him in Shanghai. His intelligence, depth and awareness have always served as his best bridge and conversely, a straight-arm against the world. However, this time around, the six-time NBA MVP was so surprised with this writer, Jinno Rufino and Anthony Suntay that we had the longest interview among all the Asian journalists who were lined up to speak with him. We asked him about his personal history, his quest to improve awareness of the struggles of African Americans (the subject of most of his books), the legacy he left the game, and why he feels todayís players do not value what their forebears have done to pave the way for them. Score another one for the Philippines.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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