(STAR) By Joaquin Henson - Fueling its campaign to globalize, the National Basketball Association (NBA) invaded Macau and this former Portuguese colony had hoops fever for four days last week.

No less than NBA commissioner David Stern led the charge as over 100 workers from the league’s New York head office and New Jersey production house swooped down on Asia’s version of Las Vegas.

Stern brought two NBA teams — the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers — to face off in a preseason exhibition game in Macau last Saturday. The previous Thursday, the Magic took on a reinforced Chinese national squad, without Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian.

It was like transporting the NBA with all the trimmings to the Far East. Not only were the stars accounted for but the supporting cast made the trip, too. Nine Magic dancers, Cleveland mascot Moondog, Orlando mascot Stuff, five hip-hop breakdancers, former football star Ahmad Rashad and three NBA legends (Darryl Dawkins, Rick Barry, George Gervin) came along to give the Macau fans a treat they’ll never forget.

The venue for the games was the 11,000-seat Venetian Arena inside the mammoth 32-storey Venetian Hotel, which formally opened its doors to the public only last Aug. 28.

Hotel owner Sheldon Adelson poured in $2.4 billion to build the 10.5-million-square-foot structure, the largest in Asia, with 3,000 suites of at least 50 square meters each and a six-hectare casino space.

The facility is mind-boggling. The high-end shops look like they’re in the heart of Venice with gondolas traversing a canal and gondoliers singing Italian songs to their passengers. Long queues of visitors registering for rooms are at the reception every hour of the day.

Adelson intends to invest up to $12 billion in the Cotai Strip, the previously neglected land across the “old” Macau connected by long bridges, in constructing a slew of other hotels to reach an accommodation level of 20,000 suites by 2010.

The Venetian Arena’s first-ever event was Orlando’s game against China. Stern watched the action from a lower-box seat with hotel chief operating officer Bill Weidner, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, NBA president of global business operations Heidi Ueberroth and NBA China general manager Tim Chen.

Tickets went for the equivalent of P1,800 to P6,000 and were sold out within hours. Singers Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply were guests, sitting at courtside near the Chinese bench. Air Supply, Beyonce and the Black-eyed Peas are lined up for performances at the venue where the next sports event will feature Roger Federer versus Pete Sampras in a best-of three tennis match next month.

Adidas flew in Solar vice president for marketing and radio sports talk show host Jude Turcuato, Rovilson Fernandez of Maxim Magazine, ABS-CBN cameraman Ariel Fulgado, ABC 5’s Sienna Olaso, Harry Portillo, NBA Asia marketing manager Carlos Singson, Philippine STAR columnist Bill Velasco and myself to cover both games in Macau. Additionally, Adidas marketing communications manager Odette Velarde arranged exclusive interviews for the Manila delegation with Magic cagers Dwight Howard, Keyon Dooling and Hedo Turkoglu.

The Manila gang was billeted at Hotel Presidente and commuted to the Venetian by taxi (P240 one way) every day. The group left Manila on a Thursday at 8 a.m. via Philippine Airlines (PAL) and after patiently waiting in long immigration lines, got to check in at Hotel Presidente nearly 12 hours later. And to think the flight from Manila to Hong Kong took less than two hours and the hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong to Macau took less than an hour.

The Orlando-China game was a blowout despite coach Jonas Kazlauskas enlisting imports Olumide Oyedeji, Franz Steyn and Major Wingate to back up mainstays Wang Zhizhi, Sun Yue, Liu Wei, Zhu Fangyu and Wang Shipeng. Curiously, the 6’10” Oyedeji of Nigeria once played for Orlando and Wang Zhizhi saw action for Miami when Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was with Miami.

China jumped to a 12-3 lead but Orlando took over the driver’s seat, 17-15, and never looked back in scoring a 116-92 win. Carlos Arroyo, the feisty Puerto Rican guard, led the Magic with 25 points. Howard contributed 12 points in 13 minutes.

In the Chinese team, all eyes were on Sun Yue, the 6’9” point guard who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round last June. Sun, 22, isn’t in a hurry to join Yao and Yi in the NBA and will likely spend a few more years in the Mainland before trying his luck in the majors.

The next morning, the Filipino group met the three Magic players for a round of interviews at the top-level suite overlooking the playing court in the Arena. Howard, Dooling and Turkoglu answered every question during the two-hour session and also obliged a media crew from Taiwan.

Howard, 21, said he’d love to go back to Manila and hang out with his Filipino fans. He was in town to promote the NBA two years ago. Dooling, 27, turned out to be a huge Manny Pacquiao fan and doesn’t miss his fights on pay-per-view. Turkoglu, 28, couldn’t wait for the season to start, what with new recruit Rashard Lewis now in the fold.

Providing security at the suite were four Filipinos working for Guardforce, a crack unit under the Chubb group of United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Connecticut, which owns Sikorsky helicopters, Carrier air-conditioners and Otis elevators.

The four were Victorino Macasu, 36, of San Miguel, Bulacan; Ireneo Llanes, 49, of Narvacan, Ilocos Sur; Ronaldo Castillo, 48, of Atimonan, Quezon; and Edward Bartolome, 33, of Silang, Cavite.

They estimated the population of Filipino workers in Macau to be about 10,000 and appealed to President Arroyo for a full consulate. It was later found out that the Department of Foreign Affairs is planning to put up a consulate in Macau early next year.

That night, the NBA hosted a reception for its business partners in Asia. Solar president William Tieng, Solar chief operating officer Peter Chanliong and No Fear owner Tommy Ong were among the invited guests. They planed in from Manila via Air Macau.

The visiting cagers were introduced to the crowd on stage at the hotel’s grand ballroom. Cleveland guard Damon Jones stole the show by wearing a Chinese outfit and greeting the audience with a traditional Asian bow. Star LeBron James was in a white shirt under a black vest and stayed only briefly, his path shadowed by a security retinue.

The climax of the NBA tour was the game between the Magic and the Cavs. Four booths selling merchandise ran out of stock with T-shirts going for P1,200 each and caps for P720. In the audience were PLDT chairman Manny Pangilinan (who was invited by the NBA as a special guest), executive assistant Abet Dungo, Atty. Paul Gueco, coach Mon Macatangay, Al Panlilio and wife Angela, Dr. Raffy Bejar, Gary Kwong, PBL commissioner Chino Trinidad and son Florenz, La Salle coach Franz Pumaren and wife Odette, sports broadcaster T. J. Manotoc and wife Rio and Pagcor chairman Ephraim Genuino with his family.

Stealing the thunder from the cagers were the Magic dancers who not only gyrated on the floor but also thrilled the fans with their flashy dunks off a trampoline. The hip-hop breakdancers made up of Demetris, Abdus, Anthony, Daisun and Julian also got wild applause. Mingling with the crowd in the gallery were the fun-loving mascots.

As for the game, which started at 12:30 p.m., Howard fired 17 points to lead Orlando to a 100-84 win. James hit 14 for the losers. A Cavs player was former PBA import Noel Felix who played three games for Talk & Text in 2004. Felix scored four of Cleveland’s last six points, checking in with 6:11 to go in the contest and was never replaced.

At the hotel lobby after the contest, Genuino said he hopes to build a similar structure in a 70-hectare reclaimed property off Roxas Boulevard with private investors’ money. The Pagcor head said an NBA game would be a perfect inaugural event in what he envisions to be an entertainment city.

With the game over by 3 p.m., only a few hours were left for the Filipino media group to make the evening flight back to Manila. Hurriedly, Odette and the five Filipinos took the 5:15 p.m. ferry — after missing the 4:45 p.m. boat ride to the airport — from Macau to Hong Kong then boarded a taxi to catch the 9 p.m. flight back to Manila last Saturday. They reached the Philippine Airlines counter with 1 1/2 hours to spare.

It was an unforgettable experience — walking inside the world’s second largest hotel structure, watching two NBA squads play, interviewing Howard and his teammates, talking to Stern and NBA bigwigs and surviving an Amazing Race down the stretch to arrive safely home with a lot of stories to tell.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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