Outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern answers questions from reporters at a news conference prior to the start of the preseason game between the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers Thursday Oct. 10, at the Mall of Asia Arena at suburban Pasay city, south of Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
It was just a little past 4 pm, but the Manila skyline was already being enveloped by a gloom of darkness.
Honks were blaring and traffic turned from heavy to terribly heavy. Everybody was on a rush, anticipating what could be another strong storm that would wreak havoc in this coastal country that lies in the heart of the Pacific.
"Typhoon Santi maintained its strength of 180 kilometers per hour and is moving towards northern Philippines, directly hitting Dingalan, Aurora," the state weather bureau said in its hourly weather advisory.
"It is expected to make a landfall tonight. Public storm signal number 3 has been given to at least five provinces in the northern part of the country. Keep safe and dry, folks."
Few minutes later, huge drops of rain started to fall. Pedestrians sprinted for cover while motorists rushed to the safest parking slot to avoid getting stranded in traffic and flash floods. Darkness finally fell. Chaos started to grip the city.
But amid the howling winds and punishing rains, inside the cold Mall of Asia Arena, a different kind of typhoon is taking place. It is a quiet storm presided by the most powerful man in the world's most glamorous basketball league.
His name is David Stern -- the 71-year-old commissioner of the NBA.
"You know, the Philippines has a population of 100 million or so, so it's part of our Southeast Asian strategy, and we're using what we've learned here to take further steps ahead," he said before a pack of journalists, who were there to witness the first NBA Global Games in the Philippines between the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers.
"The Philippines is a very important market to us. It's the most intense and robust and knowledgeable NBA market. I'm about to say outside the United States – but it may lead to the world; I'm not sure."
True enough, the NBA has taken the Philippines by storm.
Stern, who is now headed for retirement, is a mere 37-year-old legal counsel when the NBA first barged into the consciousness of the Filipinos.
It was Sept. 4, 1979 when reigning NBA champion – the Washington Bullets – arrived from a 15-hour trip from across the Atlantic to play against a selection of PBA players and a handful of reinforcements. The Bullets came in with only eight players; Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Dave Corzine, Greg Ballard and Roger Phingley, together with their coach Dick Motta.
But against a powerful team composed of Larry McNeil and Dean Tolson of Gilbey's Gin, Cyrus Mann of Crispa, Glenn McDonald of U-Tex and Larry Pounds of Royal Tru-Orange as well Ramon Fernandez of Toyota, Atoy Co of Crispa, Lim Eng Beng of U-Tex, Manny Paner of Great Taste, Rudy Kutch of Filambank, Rene Cenent of Tanduay, Yoyong Martirez of Royal Tru-Orange, Jesse Sullano of Honda-Mariwasa and Eusebio del Rosario of Gilbey's Gin, the Bullets still prevailed, 133-123.
The game was so intense that Co and 6-foot-11 Corzine came into blows, almost igniting a free-for-all brawl that could have landed on the pages of the country's rich basketball history.
Since then, the Philippines has been the favorite landing spots of NBA stars. It has become their home away from home.
The most unforgettable, however, was when a collection of NBA stars featuring Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, James Harden, JaVale McGee, Derek Fisher, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Williams defied the labor dispute when they played a couple of exhibition games against a 16-man PBA selection and Smart Gilas Pilipinas – the country's national basketball squad.
It was a surreal experience. A reality that was unthinkable ten – or even five – years ago.
And just last year, legendary players like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman spearheaded a squad that won over PBA legends led by Kenneth Duremdes, Bong Hawkins, Marlou Aquino, Vince Hizon, Noli Locsin and Bal David.
Stern said these kinds of exhibition matches are here to stay, but regular season matches is still quite a fantasy.
Unless, somebody decides to roll the dice and invest on the NBA.
"I wouldn't be that hopeful," he said as reporters started to lean in like boy scouts listening to a ghost story. "Okay, because number one – regular seasons are hard. They're much more expensive to mount. There are different competitive situations. I'd like to use the word “friendly” just like football matches around the world. I think the 'friendlies' work fine for us."
"But I fully expect that international entrepreneurs of high net worth are increasingly going to be potential investors in NBA teams. It's begun, but I think it's going to intensify as these assets become more valuable and more visible."
The Rockets won the preseason game over the still-adjusting Pacers, 116-96, before a capacity crowd of more than 14,000. James Harden, the Rockets left-handed scorer, was impressive all night long while Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin electrified the crowd with their dazzling moves and megawatt smile. For the Pacers, Paul George drew the loudest cheers while Roy Hibbert made life miserable for new Rocket, Dwight Howard, underneath.
The crowd loved every single minute of it. Fans braved the howling wind, strong rains, flash floods and heavy traffic just to get a dose of their first NBA experience. Some of them were even lucky to receive souvenirs from visiting players. It was a memorable experience. Everybody had a blast.
Somewhere in the lofty confines of the arena, David Stern was smiling.
It was the realization of his 30-year vision. The NBA had survived a lot of trials and expanded tremendously. And now, it has reached the Southeast Asian territory and formally entered the Philippine area of responsibility.
The Pacific storm has just began.