Philippine sports personalities who passed away in 2017 (Part 1 of 2)

December 28, 2017

by: Noel Zarate


As I submitted this piece last year—which has been my yearly contribution to the yearender sections of every entity I have written for since 2012—I thanked God for keeping my immediate family intact on this planet; including my ailing father, veteran actor/architect/author Ernie Zarate, who had been undergoing dialysis since 2015.

Well, our patriarch saw it fit to rejoin my mother in heaven on September 16 as he finally succumbed to the complications brought about by his being diagnosed later in life with diabetes which caused his kidneys to fail a couple of years back. He is officially free of pain and now joins the legion of angels that now look over us from the Great Beyond. This is the year I also officially became an orphan, but that’s a whole new story in itself.

Also on the last day of September, my family also had to make the tough decision of having two of our puppies euthanized as they were suddenly stricken with distemper and I had to work the first game of the PBA Governors’ Cup semifinals in Biñan, Laguna between Meralco and Star the following day completely distracted from that incident. September brought much grief to our family and for the relatives and friends of those we lost in 2017, I’m pretty sure it was equally heart-wrenching—such as ESPN5 courtsider Selina Dagdag when her mother passed away in London just a few weeks back and former University of the Philippines volleybelle Jed Montero’s father moved on just before Christmas.

In probably a form of solace, 2017 was not as harsh in claiming icons as 2016 was when a spate of life influencers, pop culture fixtures and game-changers kicked the proverbial bucket.

For me personally, the deaths of Fats Domino, Al Jarreau, Chuck Berry, Walter Becker and Tom Petty struck a nerve as five more of my musical influences joined the big jam in the sky while who in the male population wasn’t affected by the demise of Hugh Hefner, right?

How about Roger Moore, the most endearing incarnation of James Bond 007? And the inimitable Jerry Lewis, whose comedy stylings are still relevant today.

Chris Cornell’s tragic suicide shook this generation to the brink of depression.

The original Batman Adam West, the beautiful Glenne Headley and renowned character actors Bill Paxton, Martin Landau and John Heard were also among those who left us while in international sports, former world number one tennis player Jana Novotna lost her battle with cancer, pro wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, sportscaster Dick Enberg, pugilist Jake LaMotta and basketball figures Connie Hawkins, Fab Melo, Jack McCloskey and Jerry Krause all departed from this world permanently as well in 2017.

Here in the Philippines, we say goodbye to some difference-makers who have gone to meet their Maker after being among those who changed the landscape of sports as we know it in this archipelago. They left their indelible mark and will forever be remembered for their contributions.

Mayor Mel Lopez, 81, former Manila Mayor and PSC Chairman (January 1) – Heart Failure

More known for his serving as the Philippine capital’s mayor in the post Marcos regime, Lopez made the transition from politics to the head of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) in 1993 on the appointment of then President Fidel V. Ramos. Under his administration, the Philippines captured its first Olympic silver medal in 32 years when Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco copped the feat in the 1996 Atlanta games. He would eventually team up with his son Manny to spearhead the upsurge of the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP) and remain a boxing patron until his death.

Richard Villanueva, 62, International Basketball Referee (February 27) – Heart Failure

This son of Dasmariñas, Cavite was among the finest crop of basketball officials in the country and had several international stints as a FIBA licensed referee in the tail end of the previous century. Villanueva went on to become an officiating instructor for the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) and continued refereeing even he had retired from the international scene; being among the strictest crew chiefs in the business—particularly with regards to game clock and shot clock accuracy.

Carlos “Bobong” Velez, 71, Sports Broadcasting Visionary (June 3) – Lingering Illness

Basically, without the man lovingly referred to as “CAV” (Carlos Albert Velez), sports broadcasting as we know it in the country today would still be in the dark ages. Velez uplifted how sports should be covered, starting with his revolutionary changes in the PBA broadcasts in 1983 when his Vintage Enterprises, Inc. (VEI) took the whole enchilada to a completely different level. Velez pumped up the entertainment value of the coverage and dictated the more vibrant commentating style of today—pioneered by the likes of Joe Cantada, Pinggoy Pengson and later on Ed Picson, Sev Sarmenta and Noli Eala. He worked in the vivid analysis of Steve Kattan, Jim Kelley, Quinito Henson and Andy Jao and when the “Taglish” medium surfaced in 1993, radio commentators such as Randy Sacladan, Rado Dimalibot and Mon Liboro brought the games to an audience that related to the language. Today, VEI alums such as Dong Capinpuyan (ESPN5), Abet Ramos (ABS-CBN Sports) and Erick Tam (pioneered Solar Sports) are still among most respected in an industry that still bears the Velez fingerprint. He was a visionary ahead of his time and will always be the “Godfather” of Philippine sports broadcasting.

Ernie de Leon, 68, former PBA player, referee (June 4) – Stroke

One of the pioneer players in the league when he first played for 7-UP after a successful collegiate career alongside Robert Jaworski at the University of the East in the late 1960s, de Leon joined the refereeing force in 1986 and quickly became one of the sharpest and no-nonsense officials in the PBA. By the turn of the millennium, de Leon was known as not only among the most respected seniors in the pool, but also one of its best educators; helping the newer crop of budding officials learn how to take his job. In 2004, de Leon was unexpectedly axed from the league and I took him in as one of my technical “gurus” in the fledgling regional league the National Basketball Conference (NBC) where I served as Basketball Operations chief. We developed a lasting friendship and a relationship of learning that never waned until he passed. De Leon was tough yet nurturing; a father-figure on and off the court.

Rocky “The Outlaw” Batolbatol, 32, MMA fighter (July 23) – Road Accident

Mere days before his ONE Fighting Championship bout against Indonesia’s “The Terminator” Sunoto in Surabaya, this octagon veteran met his demise when he and friend Genmar Moradas Ponce were hit by a taxi cab just after midnight in Cagayan de Oro City—Batolbatol’s home town. The driver, Jerson Bersabal, claimed that the pair crossed without warning along the wide Gusa Highway and he was unable to hit the brakes in time. Batolbatol and Ponce were declared dead on arrival (DOA) at the J.R. Borja General Hospital. Batolbatol was signed by the international MMA organization in 2014 and was about to make his comeback after over a year in hiatus.

Cris “Jumbo” Bolado, 47, former PBA player (September 17) – Motorcycle Accident

A day after my father passed away, news of the death of “Lucky”—he earned that moniker after being the first player in PBA history to be part of five straight championship teams in the mid-1990s— surfaced and grizzly photos of him still conscious, but missing his entire right foot missing. Later on, those pictures were deleted and Bolado had allegedly bled to death in a motorcycle accident in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where he was immersed in the food business. An outpouring of messages from his former PBA colleagues flooded social media. Bolado, a product of the National University when the Bulldogs’ program was still in the doldrums, was a solid enforcer in the shaded lane and when he helped the Alaska Milkmen to a Grand Slam in 1996, he found himself in a Purefoods TJ Hotdogs jersey at the start of the 1997 season—where he again won a title. The next conference, the Lucban, Quezon native moved to Gordon’s Gin and the Boars captured their first championship in six years. After five straight crowns, he was no longer known as “Jumbo” (owing to his wide 6’7” frame) but “Lucky”. He had won two more championships with San Miguel in 1999 before retiring in 2003. Bolado had moved to Cambodia in 2013 and established a successful restaurant business called “Inasal Nation”.

We’ll eulogize the rest of those who bade us farewell next time, including three basketball Olympians, a boxer who was barely out of his teens, a revered sports columnist and volleyball coach who just knew how to produce champions plus a few more as we say goodbye to 2017.


San Miguel’s near-Grand Slam season

A short wishlist for sports in 2018

The long and arduous journey of the Ateneo Blue Eagles

Our favorite sports moments

First time as underdogs, the San Beda Red Lions lean on championship experience

Why Gilas’ gold medal at the SEA Games matters

The Gilas experience

Carlo Biado finally breaks through

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