Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

In Dubai, Manny Pacquiao performs Michael Jordan impersonation, in more ways than one

Filipino player-coach captivates UAE spectators but his Mahindra Enforcers fall during Philippines Basketball Association contest at Al Wasl Sports Club in Dubai, writes Jonathan Raymond.
Manny Pacquiao dribbles the ball and the Filipino fans in the crowd go wild at the Al Wasl Sports Club in Dubai on Friday night. Victor Besa for The National
Manny Pacquiao dribbles the ball and the Filipino fans in the crowd go wild at the Al Wasl Sports Club in Dubai on Friday night. Victor Besa for The National

A boxing legend, a politician, simply one of the most famous men alive, an inescapable gravitational field of anticipation and excitement encircles Manny Pacquiao wherever he goes.

The magnitude of Pacquiao, it seems, underlies everything he does. This, as Dubai can now attest, even includes basketball.

Pacquiao’s Philippines Basketball Association team, Mahindra Enforcer, played Alaska Aces last night in the first of two PBA contests in Dubai this weekend. Predictably, Pacquiao was the main draw.

From his very entrance for warm-ups, the focus felt on him. The buzz built.

VIPs and cameramen and officials on the floor slowly inched as close as they could toward him, drawn by his presence like moths to light.

An eerie hush filled most of the arena pre-game, all eyes on Pacquiao, indeed there in the flesh.


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Which, though not surprising, all did feel at least a little out of place at a professional basketball game.

His shots, his passes, his every touch of the ball, elicited an anticipatory rising cry out of the crowd as if he was Michael Jordan.

In fact, much of Pacquiao’s basketball adventure calls to mind when Jordan traded basketball himself for an attempt at a baseball career.

People were nonetheless excited to see him at minor league ballparks, but an indefinable surrealness still surrounded the whole project, because, well, it is not quite “Air Jordan” with a bat and a ball, is it?

Just the same, it is not quite “Pac Man” with a ball and baskets. “If he fights,” noted one fan off-hand, gesturing at the roughly three-fourths full crowd, “it will be all full”.

To an extent, that sentiment underscored proceedings. Pacquiao’s magnetism is no less powerful in a basketball arena, it is just there is no denying his performance is infinitely more electric with gloves on.

As a basketball player, to his credit, Pacquiao has come a long way since harrowing video first emerged of his game when he embarked on his PBA foray. His shot looks like it has genuinely benefited from work, a little less herky-jerky and elongated than from about a year ago.

His ball-handling looked mostly composed and he tried a couple aggressive moves to the rim. He did not loaf on defence.

Though none of his shot attempts went in and overall his brief appearance was largely ineffectual, if someone told you he was a real basketball player just having an off night, it would not have quite seemed the most outlandish thing.

After about five or six minutes of game time, Pacquiao went to the bench to fulfil the coach half of his player-coach role. There never seemed to be much of any expectation he would return to the court as a player.

On the sidelines he looked attentive and invested. It’s hard to picture him drawing Xs and Os, but as far as being a motivational presence on the bench, he appeared to care.

Before the game, during the Philippine national anthem, Pacquiao stood at the corner of the court, enveloped in security guards, fans and media.

For a second, it was possible to picture he was here for Amir Khan or Floyd Mayweather, ready to make his ring entrance.

Instead, he was merely here to lend some of his considerable gravitas to a basketball game.

And for a brief moment, the building was happily under the ineffable spell of Pacquiao. And then it was over, and a basketball game had to be played.

Alaska Aces were the better side yesterday in winning 98-94, and that too drew its fair share of excitement out of the Filipino crowd with a tight game to the finish.

Another fan pointed out that tonight, however, when Barangay Ginebra, the most popular team in the Philippines play, “it will be full”.


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Updated: November 6, 2015 04:00 AM

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