Bear with me. This will be an intensely reflective piece, as this writer turns 59 tomorrow. It has been an amazing, rocky ride, with sport being the one constant I have been able to lean on, build a life around, and share with many people. We all hope that we leave the world a little better than we found it. Some of us strive to do that as a matter of course. Without sport, I don’t know where I would be. My grandfather Jose Unson (Daddy Peping to family members) died at the age of 79, so I subconsciously pegged 80 as the age at which I would clock out. So when I turned 40, mortality and legacy became an increasingly important part of my life and career.
My saintly, grandmother, Teofila Bravo Unson, turns 99 the day after tomorrow. Though a lready bedridden and suffering from dementia, she remains an anchor to our past, the prosperous, wonderful times when she and our Daddy Peping kept us all together with Sundays at their home. We could just walk in, and forget all of our problems. There was always an abundance of food, television, air-conditioning, joke-telling, and the grown-ups’ sport of choice: mahjong. As the eldest grandchild, I had my fill of sports on TV, TIME and Newswek, Daddy Peping’s books, Mama Upe’s baking, and… babysitting my younger cousins, which itself should be an Olympic sport. When my grandfather passed away in 1996, Mama Upe moved back to Pangasinan, and nobody stepped into the heroic void he left behind. That was almost 30 years ago.
One of the reasons I love sport so much is because, as Howard Cosell once said, “Sports is the toy department of human life.” More than that, it is our God-given great laboratory, where we can learn about ourselves and other people in an environment where it may hurt less, and we can evolve before leaping out into the great unknown of the world. If people cheat in sports, then you know they’re going to be shady in real life. If people practice, play hard, give it their all, and don’t go out of their way to hurt anyone else, then yo u know you can trust them. That’s more or less how it goes.
My first fascination was with basketball at age five. My uncle Romy, my mother’s youngest brother, is nine years older, so he was the one closest to my age. He introduced me to the sport we all love. I followed him around the neighborhood and street games and tournaments. The following year, my physical weaknesses overtook me, and I needed to swim every day in a public pool for two years to strengthen my lungs and overcome asthma. I had two curves in my spine that needed straightening out, which meant painful stretching and flexibility exercises for more than a year. Migraines added another dimension of pain, and being stronger helped minimize and eventually eliminate them. Lastly, flat feet, which still can’t be fixed, made it uncomfortable to stay still. I indulged in a lot of sports that involved running. In short, sports gave me a normal life. Even better, I became competitive and motivated by seeing how my work on myself made me feel at least equal to others.
But like any athlete, we sometimes let ourselves go. We’ve seen the majority of retired players pack on weight, slow down, become… normal. Those who could once fly became earthbound. The fast, we can now catch up with. The work on one’s self never really ends. That’s the hard lesson I’m learning, at least. And, like any aging athlete, you try to find new strengths, and use your mind more. It is a journey unlike any othe r. And it is a journey by choice.
This year, may we all find our new strengths, repair whatever harm we’ve done to one an other, and simply become better people.