Past sports heroes need help

The past couple of weeks was a good time for Philippine sports. The country had its best Olympics ever, with its four-medal haul elevating the Philippines to 50th place among the nations that competed in Tokyo.

The millions earned by our four Olympians was well deserved. It was the culmination of years of tough training. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess, but hopefully they do not meet the same fate as past Olympians who ended up in the poorhouse.

It was sad to note that boxer Onyok Velasco never got all the rewards promised him when he won the silver 25 years ago. But at least there is a growing movement to find out what happened to Onyok, both in Malacanang and in Congress.

Hopefully, he will still get his belated reward for the honor he brought to the Philippines.

There is, however, another group of sports heroes who are headed in the same direction as another Olympic silver medalist, boxer Anthony Villanueva, who was so poor at the end of his life that he had to sell his silver medal.

There is, for example, the Bad Boy from Dadiangas, Rolando Navarrete. Every so often, news features will crop up showing Navarrete in the direst of straits, apparently having taken a few punches to the head too many. He still dreams of a return bout with one of his conquerors, even as he scrounges for scraps in order to survive. Navarrete reportedly receives the occasional handout from Manny Pacquiao whenever the senator is in town, now known as General Santos City.

The Bad Boy is actually younger than Mike Tyson, who may have lost most of his huge fortune but who is not exactly starving. Iron Mike even had an exhibition fight some months ago, and is supposedly planning another one soon.

Since boxing is only the second most popular sport in the country, I have to write about the most popular one of all, which is basketball, of course.

Like Navarrete, there is another past basketball great who has fallen on hard times.

Decades ago, I was a fan of the Toyota team in the Philippine Basketball Association. I always looked forward to their matches against Crispa.

I particularly enjoyed watching Mon Fernandez battle it out with Abet Guidaben, as both were the best centers in the land.

What happened to the pair is a study in contrasts. Fernandez is still very much around, and is now commissioner of the Philippine Sports Commission. Guidaben, however, fell seriously ill but still managed to find his way to the US. Last I heard, he is still there, hopefully recuperating from whatever ails him.

One of the cagers who played alongside Fernandez and Guidaben in the Toyota-Crispa wars is Terry Saldana, who joined the PBA straight out of high school ala-Kobe Bryant.

Saldana was the classic power forward, not afraid to bang bodies inside the paint. A muscular athlete, he was blessed with a long career in the pro league, lasting some 17 years.

Like Navarrete, Saldana is occasionally featured in “where are they now?” news features, mostly in the sports pages.

Today, the former Toyota ace is but a shell of his former self. Up until a few years ago, he still played ball, notably in the occasional Toyoto-Crispa reunion games. He was even the top scorer in the last one.

Today, he can barely walk and is surviving on handouts from friends and family.

So what happened?

In a word, diabetes. For whatever reason, Saldana appears to have ignored the fact that he was diabetic. And now he could lose his legs because of it.

The sad fact is, it did not have to be like this. I know because I’m diabetic myself. I shoot insulin every day, and watch what I eat. I try to exercise regularly, too.

Because he had such a long career, Saldana certainly earned millions of pesos. Even PBA players who have short careers still earn a few millions, and the smart ones are able to invest their earnings wisely, knowing that even the best of players cannot have very long playing careers.

The problem is not only the apparent fact that Saldana did not set aside some of his earnings for his eventual retirement, but he also failed to purchase real property. By all accounts, he has nothing to his name now.

The PBA has also failed not only Saldana, but scores of other past players.

The PBA should have set up a mandatory retirement plan whereby all players are forced to set aside a portion of their earnings, say 10 percent, for their later years. The players should not be able to touch their retirement fund until they’re 50 or even 60.

Asia’s first play-for-pay league should also have a medical plan, perhaps set up a fund where retired players who have fallen on hard times can draw from for medical expenses.

In my book, the PBA has failed to take care of the very stars that are the league’s main attractions. So if the team owners cannot get together to insure that their players are taken cared of when their careers end, maybe our lawmakers can help.

It would be best if Congress can pass a bill – call it the Terry Saldana Law – that would require the PBA to set up both a retirement and medical fund for all its players, be they stars or role players.

If the Philippine movie industry has its Mowelfund, there is no reason why the professional basketball industry cannot set up its equivalent.

Incidentally, the National Basketball Association also has numerous cases of players who earned tens of millions of dollars, then falling on hard times. But that’s another story best discussed for a later day.