Thursday, July 8, 2010

Top Dog


The Philippines continues to lord over the sport of billiards, with Pinoy billiards legend Francisco "Django" Bustamante finally achieving his dream of winning the World 9-Ball Championship. This puts him in the company of former Pinoy world champions Efren "Bata" Reyes and Ronnie Alcano. Alex Pagulayan also won it before, but he carried the Canadian flag when he did.

Django has always been a superstar of billiards and has a big fan base. His name carries a level of awe rarely achieved. It's just that he has always been under the shadow of the greatest billiards player of all time, "the Magician" Bata Reyes, who just happens to be a fellow Filipino and his kumpare. No probably, no arguably, the greatest is Bata. But the second-best ever to come out of our nation is clearly Django.

It was fitting that in 1999, it was Bata Reyes who won the inaugural modern (meaning global coverage and involving big money) version of the tournament. The whole country went loco over his victory and started a billiards craze. In 2006, Ronnie Alcano, a dark horse that didn't have a familiar name, surprised everyone by winning the Championship.

It must have pained Django that the crown jewel of the billiards world has eluded him all these years. He was a king without a crown. An emperor without clothes. Never mind that he has probably won hundreds of tournaments all over the world and pocketed millions in cash, this he must have felt, was what will complete his ascent to legendary status.

He almost reached the mountaintop before, but fell against American Earl Strickland. So near yet so far. It must have been eating him from the inside.

This year, he got the opportunity to take the crown he wishes once more, making it to the finals for the second time. This time, against Taiwanese Kuo Po-cheng, he finally made it to the top of the world. “By finally winning the world 9-ball, which is every pool player’s dream, I can now say that I am a complete billiards player,” said Bustamante after his victory.

For him, he can now believe for himself that his name is now immortalized in the annals of billiards and in the memory of a grateful nation, never mind that he did this already ages ago as far as other people are concerned.

***

I remember 1999, when the Philippines went billiards crazy. Each street suddenly had a new billiards hall. Billiard halls that couldn't get enough customers to break even suddenly couldn't accommodate droves of customers. Run-down halls, with deteriorating equipment and smelling of urine, beer, and garbage, were suddenly remodeled to suit the taste of rich young patrons, to the chagrin of the loyal tambay customers who suddenly couldn't afford the jacked up prices.

Corporate sponsors quickly jumped in to capitalize on the craze by sponsoring billiards tournaments all over the archipelago. Everyone wanted to be the next Bata Reyes. Everyone forgot, though, that Bata's skills were forged through his fight against poverty. He must have learned that each break, each shot he took determined whether he had something eat later. His "magic" was the product of his creativity in the game of survival. He's not a product of a marketing campaign.

I remember my college days around that period when my barkada and I would cut classes just to play billiards, 9-ball being the game of choice. Lunch was a quick munch and sip, then to the billiard halls we would go. The university belt was full of them.

I even remember my freshman year when I would pass myself of as 18, even though I was not, just to be allowed to play. I got away with it every time. Some of my friends weren't so lucky.

***

The Philippines seems to not only fall in love but become world-powers in "B" sports: basketball, billiards, bowling, and boxing. Badminton tried to act big but failed, turning into a mere fad. Maybe if soccer becomes "bootball," we might begin to like it.

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