The night I almost died

sThe day I almost died

It seems like a lifetime ago, but the feelings of shock and fear I still get arevery immediate. I was at the grandest party of mankind, the centennial celebration of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. And it was the day I almost died.

It was my first time to cover the Olympics, but I knew what to expect. The tme difference of twelve hours was a killer, and we would be talking twelve to aixteen hours a day. But this was no tme to complain. This was what broadcasters dreamed of, the best seat in the house, the best assignment in the world.

I’d start my day at 6 am (6pm Manila time) and do six hours of summary and highlights in or makeshift studio. It was cold, but the lights kept us warm. After that, who knew what sport would be tossed at us: fencing, tennis, gmnastics, diving, press conferences, interviews, and so on. I wold end my day doing two basketball games solo at the nearby Georgia Dome, just across Centennial Olympic Park opposite CNN headquartersm which was next to the International Broadcast Center.
 
Every night, dog tired, we would individually or collectively trudge to designated waiting areas to hop a shuttle to the transportation mall. Our hotel, belatedly booked, was 25 miles away, and the vehicles only left exactly every hour, whether or not anyone was riding. So if I made it there at 12:45 and it was scheduled to leave at 1:30 am, it would only leave at 1:30 am, period.

Midway through the Games, I finally asked my rooomate and colleague Ron delos Reyes (famous for tearfully calling the Onyok Velasco debacle “a robbery in Atlanta”) to go out for a while. We were in the biggest party in he world, and we spent the whole day cocooned in studios, booths or headphones. Besides, we were the last ones working each day, and finished at almost the same time. We were joined by one of the volnteer liaisons, Greg Fitzgerald.

Wouldn’t you know it, we get to the Budweiser tent beside Centennial Park at 12:45, and they announce that they’re closing at 1. On top of that, we couldn’t walk out with open beer cups, it was against the law. So we had to rush our enjoyment of that one beer. 

Outside, a concert was going on fll blast in the park. It was sort of the town center and a venue for those who didn’t have tickets to any of the sports competitions. You could also pay $ 3,000 and have your name engraved on one of the bricks that formed pathways through the park for posterity. There were fireworks, shows and other attractions throughout the Olympics.

As we were walking through the park, we chatted loudly about how things were going so far, trying to keep our voices louder than the band. As wee were halfway across heading towards CNN, there was a deafening bang, and the earth shook. I almost dove to the ground. The band stopped playing, and the crowd was suddenly uneasy, unsure if the explosion was part of the fireworks. A large African-America woman in a red drss collapsed about fifty feet from us. Her name was Alice Hawthorne, and she had been struck in the head by shrapnel and died soon after. 

In moments, police vehicles and ambulances swarmed the park, and cops waded into the crowd screaming, tossing people out of the danger zone. Ron and I wordlessly looked at each other, then ran int the melee. He had pulled out his tourist’s camera and held it over his head snappng pictures, the flash adding surrealism to the scene. Ahead, we saw smoke rising from a shallow hole in the ground, and a small torn duffel bag revealed at least two unexploded pipe bombs. Not all of them had detonated. Lucky for us, since we were only aiut a hundred feet away.

A police officer stood in our path, blocking us from getting through. With the tension high, he then threatened to arrest us if we proceeded, so we walked away. Ron still kept flashing away. A Turkish cameraman Melih Uzinyol was running into the crowd from another direction, then collapsed from a heart attack. Luckily, he was the only other fatality.

I was shaken. What had just happened?

We were in a daze, trying to walk back to our studio. The entire downtown area was shut down, so we couldn’t go back to our hotel. I reported live to the Philippines with a firsthand account of what happened, trying to remember as much detail as I could. I tried calling a colleague at CNN, but they hung up on me twice, and got beaten to the story. We started getting calls from Philoppine radio stations, asking how we were. One announcer even tried to make light of the situation. I wasn’t amused.

When all the tension had died down, we were exhausted beyond belief. The lack of sleep, fatigue, loneliness and realization that we had jist escaped being blown to pieces in a showcase of peaceful competition was overwhelming. But we couldn’t leave. We turned on all the studio lights, and lay down on the floor with our heads under a table so we could sleep in spite of the brightness. 

The next few days were a blur, but the image of the crater and the palpable fear inthe air have always stayed with me. I had experienced s much in those Games: the Dream Team, Muhammad Ali, Shaq moving to LA, Oscar Schmidt’s fifth and last Olympics, Lisa Leslie, the crass commercialism of the entire American staging of the competition. But that one night still rings loud in my soul.

After all, it was the night I almost died.

oon after. 

In moments, police vehicles and ambulances swarmed the park, and cops waded into the crowd screaming, tossing people out of the danger zone. Ron and I wordlessly looked at each other, then ran int the melee. He had pulled out his tourist’s camera and held it over his head snappng pictures, the flash adding surrealism to the scene. Ahead, we saw smoke rising from a shallow hole in the ground, and a small torn duffel bag revealed at least two unexploded pipe bombs. Not all of them had detonated. Lucky for us, since we were only aiut a hundred feet away.

A police officer stood in our path, blocking us from getting through. With the tension high, he then threatened to arrest us if we proceeded, so we walked away. Ron still kept flashing away. A Turkish cameraman Melih Uzinyol was running into the crowd from another direction, then collapsed from a heart attack. Luckily, he was the only other fatality.

I was shaken. What had just happened?

We were in a daze, trying to walk back to our studio. The entire downtown area was shut down, so we couldn’t go back to our hotel. I reported live to the Philippines with a firsthand account of what happened, trying to remember as much detail as I could. I tried calling a colleague at CNN, but they hung up on me twice, and got beaten to the story. We started getting calls from Philoppine radio stations, asking how we were. One announcer even tried to make light of the situation. I wasn’t amused.

When all the tension had died down, we were exhausted beyond belief. The lack of sleep, fatigue, loneliness and realization that we had jist escaped being blown to pieces in a showcase of peaceful competition was overwhelming. But we couldn’t leave. We turned on all the studio lights, and lay down on the floor with our heads under a table so we could sleep in spite of the brightness. 

The next few days were a blur, but the image of the crater and the palpable fear inthe air have always stayed with me. I had experienced s much in those Games: the Dream Team, Muhammad Ali, Shaq moving to LA, Oscar Schmidt’s fifth and last Olympics, Lisa Leslie, the crass commercialism of the entire American staging of the competition. But that one night still rings loud in my soul.

After all, it was the night I almost died.

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“This Means War”: Riot of a Spy Movie

It’s rare that a love triangle / action movie / buddy movie  works, and it’s usually because the writers have a hard time combining both genres. Surprisingly, “This Means War” is an exception, forcing you to laugh hard and then chuckle at yourself.

The premise is simple enough, and the plot itself is skeletal: two spies, best buddies who’d take a bullet for each other, start dating the same girl, albeit not purposely. The blooming relationship drives a wedge between them, and their competitiveness gets the better of each of them. This is when they start appropriating government resources to keep one eye on each other, and one eye on the girl. Oh, and there’s also a bad guy who’s out for reenge against them for dropping his brother off the roof of s skyscraper.

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) show great chemistry as the CIA buds who have this wedge of blond cnsumer product tester named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) driven between them. There ae the token signs of their familiarity with each other (Pine always has an extra clip as Hardy always forgets to bring spares).

Lauren followed the man of her dreams, only to watch him get engaged to somebody else, and can’t get over it. Her strings are being pulled by her friend Trish (Chelsea Handler), who keeps pushing her to be more daring because her own life is boring as hell. Trish even cnstructs a fake account on a social networking site t get Lauren dates, and tuck bites. Lauren obliges, but almost regrets it.

Naturally, you’d expect the situations t be iuageous and oer the top. Thankfully, director McG has gotten over the music video infatuation he used to helm the first Charlie’s Angels film, and shows some restraint. Still, the spies get their comeuppance when they eavesdrop on Lauren’s conversations with Trish. The results always up the ante to the next laughable situation they find themselves in. The cmedy comes frm finding outnthings they later realize the didn’t want to know. After all, covert surveillance doesn’t filter anything out, does it?

Of course, if budget was not an issue and you owned your time, this would be plausible. Still, if you go along for the ride, you’ll be satisfied.

Wait, that didn’t sound right.

The situation asks two questions: who gets the girl and what happens to their friendship? And oh yeah, what about the villain Heinrich (Til Schweiger)?

At the end of the day, “This Means War” redefines the action / comedy. And you’ll learn the new meaning of “entering the premises” and “British invasion”. 

If I told you any more, I’d have to kill you.

The refreshing (and envied) Jeremy Lin

The noise surrounding New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin is no surprise, especially in a tough, large TV market like the Big Apple. Another response provoked so far is the envy and insecurity his “sudden” success seems to trigger in some sports columnists and bigots like boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, whose opinion the public has learned not to respect, anyway.

First of all, the Knicks have been in a state of constant flux, searching for an NBA championship since the early 1970’s. They endured through the Pat Ewing days when they got close but couldn’t get past tough Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls teams in the East. With a new bunch of mercenaries like Carmelo Anthony, they hope to have enough firepower to ignore the defensive part of the game and go deep into the playoffs. In other words, Knicks fans are ripe for a surprise.

Enter Jeremy Lin, a Bible-quoting, humble throwback Harvard grad workhorse guard who would run through a brick wall and has none of the angst and oversize egos of many of his contemporaries. No high-powered agent trying to jack up his pay, endless gratitude and unselfishness, and he spreads the wealth and credit. Not very street, not very hood. And in New York, too.

His unorthodox reaction to the opportunities presented to him is, well, very Asian. Many children of Asian heritage, especially from immigrant families, are taught to work hard, not complain, avoid being flashy, and take their fair due. Many years ago, the American educational system faced a large problem, as children of immigrants (mostly Asian) were performing better than their American classmates. This led to a bigger percentage of them getting scholarships, which drew the ire of many American parents, until regulations settled the matter.

So why would this provoke any adverse reaction at all, especially in a country that calls itself the land of the free, and prides itself on free enterprise?

Let’s just say there’s still a lot of bigotry out there, and some people don’t realize they have it. Mayweather, for example, made a comment harking back to the Isaiah Thomas comment about Larry Bird two decades ago. There seems to be an air of entitlement that some athletes and observers have, that somehow Asians or Asian-Americans are less deserving than African-Americans. There seems to be a prerequisite for generational suffering before Asians are “allowed” to have success, or perhaps they have to establish a century of residency or some nonsense like that. Isn’t that restraint of trade?

Besides, we’ve sen this all before, each time a well-educated or even wealthy athlete turns pro (except, of course, for the thuggish Bill Laimbeer), there seems to be some resentment. The underlying thought balloon? “your world is bigger. You don’t need this. And it’s all we have!” Again, nonsense. If the richest kids in the world have genius IQ’s and still want to get bruised banging bodies with pituitary exceptions, that is their right. Death, taxes and sports are the great equalizers. And Jeremy Lin has proven so far that he is no fluke.

Also, there is a rush to fill in the humongous void left by the gargantuan feet and shadow of Yao Ming. Never mind the quibbling whether Lin is Taiwanese or mainland Chinese; for once, both sides are united. At one point, each Rockets game with Yao pulled in an extra 20 million additional viewers from his home country. SO there is the commercial consideration. And at the end of the day, the Knicks have been winning games with him, so no brickbats will make a difference.

I just have one request. Can we please stop trying to make his name fit some ill-conceived catchphrase? If I hear “LINsanity”, “Just LIN, baby” or some other mutilation of a trite sports catchphrase, I’ll scream.

I’ve reached my LINit.

 

Bill Russell: Slaying Goliaths

Bill Russell turned 78, a  pretty long and fulfilled life as a basketball player. But even if he lives to be 200, he’ll never see his own accomplishments surpassed.

Granted, Phil Jackson has the same number of NBA championship rings, nt he never coached and played and won. And Russ won most of them consecutively, as a player, for one team.

After dominating the NCAA at University of San Francisco with KC Jones, Russ won an Olympic gold medal, then joined the NBA, an achievement that became a big deal many years later when Magic did it, though not in that order. But you have to recall, travel in the NBA at the time was confined to cars, buses and trains mostly. There were no corporate jets with extra-large seats and amenities. Today, dressing rooms have four-foot flatscreens for every player, airconditioning and everything an athlete needs. Then, a player got a wooden stool and two nails to hang his clothes on. Opposing fans burned you with cigarettes and threw things at you. All the time.

And with the uphill battle against racism in that era, your choices of hotels and restaurants was severely limited. Also, remember that there were less teams in the NBA then. Some people make light of that, until they realize it meant playing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain more often.

The first time Russell blocked a shot, the referee blew his whistle, not knowing what to call.  After the Celtics dynasty, the NBA started keeping track of blocked shots. One thing they did keep track of though, was rebounds. Only Russ and Wilt Chamberlain ever pulled down 50 in a game. Russell was 6’9″, 220 pounds on a good day. The Big Dipper was 7’1″ and 275. How many Game 7s did Russell win, and Chamberlain lose? And how devastated was he when, in their last-ever Finals game against each other, Chamberlain refused to go back into the game and finish it?

Russ was a pioneer in other ways, too. He treated all men equally, and defended his rights and theirs fiercely. He even defended his right not to sign autographs, except when Red Auerbach told him to. Even today, he persists with that belief, arguing that the only thing he owes fans is a great performance on the court, not whimsical things like his signature on a piece of paper. His games were more indelible to him.

When he became the first African-American head coach in the NBA, his friends on the Celtics felt awkward around him, and it was a lonely time for the league’s resident lion. He couldn’t be buddies with subordinates. Still, he knew the Goliath of racism needed to be vanquished, and he did, with great success. Boston’s run of eight straight championships has never been threatened in recent years. Today, teams are delirious just to win three in a row. While Russell was playing golf one day, someone asked him what he thought of he Chicago Bulls’ first threepeat. “Not much.” he said casually. He wasn’t being rude, just straight. How could he be accused of being cocky, when he had to vomit before every important game for over a decade?

Growing up. I always wore the number 6 on the basketball court, in honor of two players who changed the way the game was played: Bill Russell and Julius Erving. Rusell changed so man shots, started so many fastbreaks, and helped bring along so many great athletes, you could fill a room at Naismith Memorial. Dr. J’s acrobatic coloratura was Picasso in the air. Each came to fame without the benefit of the Internet and the Information Revolution, or the mass wealth generatedby unscrupulous agents. Each did his job, got his fair due, and stayed associated with the game, giving back well beyond their playing years.

Who does that anymore?

Lessons from Whitney

She gambled when she first got into the game, took a sports icon’s theme song and made it her own, imprinted her voice on the mass consciousness of the world, and now she’s gone.

Whitney Houston was the voice of our generation, those of us who still remember analog clocks, cassette tapes, rotary dial phones. She came along before digital editing and sound engineers could make you look and sound great even if you were plain, or plain horrible.

In the mid-1980’s, as disco was being repackaged to the less trite “dance music”, every aspiring pop diva needed a thumping, throbbing dance hit to break into the recording industry. Whitney went the other way with a ballad built arond illicit love? Yet “Saving All My Love for You” rocketed to number one, and the proverbial comet, or star was born.

What really piqued my interest was not so much that her music was everywhere, but three things. The time of Houston’s ascendancy was the period of great change in the Philippines with the People Power Revolution. Soon after, we were dancing in the streets, then asked ourselves, now what? She was the soundtrack to the generation seeking its identity in a new kind of democracy.

Then, she remade George Benson’s “Greatest Love of All”, which had previously been used as the theme for Muhammad Ali’s TV movie  life story. Needless to say, the song gained a new life, and is now remembered as Whitney’s. All told, she recorded several anthems that still resonate with people around the world. Lastly, she grabbed Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” and did such a remarkable job, it was so unfair. Chaka was reduced to singing back-up on her own song.

I almost forgot her Super Bowl rendition of the American national anthem. And I thought Marvin Gaye’s sexy version at the NBA All-Star Game was cool. But hers actually got radio airplay, and lots of it.

Among the dozens of chart-toppers, perhaps her most indelible achievements are “I Will Always Love You”, still a staple at karaoke bars worldwide, another song about not getting who or what you want forever after; and “One Moment in Time”. The latter is the battlecry of the underdog who says “I broke my heart for ever gain” and is ultimately redeemed by that transcendent moment that lasts a lifetime.

Her passing so young on the eve of the Grammy Awards which she dominated years ago is just fitting. She leaves with same sudden shockwaves she came in with, and once again, has everybody scrambling. The comet has passed. Too bad if you missed it.

If I may use a sports analogy, it’s like discussing Hall of Fame status for someone who had a messy life outside the playing court or field. That does not take away from the feats reached, but adds to them. From the Greek tragedies onward, we like our gods frail. Whitney was the singing equivalent of Mike Tyson. She won everything, knocked everybody out, then fell. Yet, she did not inspire envy or spite. In a big way, that was also unusual.

The queen of the night is now gone, all at once. It’s not right, but it’s okay. Now she sings for the Almighty. Luckily, we’ll bave our digital playlist.