Name any place in the Philippines and former Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) player Gilbert Malabanan has likely been there.
From Abra and Cagayan in the North to the cities of Davao and Marawi in the South; from the mountainous terrains of Isabela, Kalinga Apayao, and Baguio to the flatlands of Bicol, Bulacan, and Pamapanga; even the island provinces of Cebu, Leyte, Samar, Romblon, Palawan, Marinduque, and Siquijor—Malabanan’s destinations rival that of any local travel TV host.
And it's all to play mercenary basketball.
Every summer, countless barangays in the country form their own basketball teams to compete for pride and glory in local amateur leagues. Oftentimes they follow a simple rule: recruit your own. But what if they don’t have enough good players? Then they call in the specialists, colloquially referred to as the hugot. Their sole purpose is to help the team that hired them to win—or at the very least be interesting enough for the common folk to troop to their games and root for them.
Malabanan, 33, is one of the country’s preeminent hugots. Perks of the job include all-expenses paid tours of whereever he currently is in the country, first-class accommodations, monthly six-figure paydays, and genuine admiration comparable to those usually reserved for PBA superstars.
In a spectacular 2009 hugot run, Malabanan played consecutive tournaments in Leyte, Samar, and Siquijor. He was booked at beachfront resorts. "Siquijor ang pinaka-memorable sa akin, ang ganda ng white beach nila,” he says. He also netted a cool P100,000. In Kalinga Apayao he played for the town mayor, coached the team as well, conducted basketball clinics, and in effect became the town's sports director.
The all-time low of the job, of course, is the danger that accompanies losing. For what appears to be small-time leagues, the money that goes around is mind-blowing, often in the form of high-rolling bets. Malabanan has played a game in Marawi with a million pesos riding on it. “Naalala ko pa nun may mga security pa kami na may mga dalang de sabog. Kasama mo iyon kahit saan ka magpunta, maski magpapa-load ka lang sa tindahan.” In another, he collected pay from a manager who was fuming from a loss.
"Nakaupo siya sa desk niya. Alam mong galit siya pero di umiimik, pero sa kaliwang side ng desk may nakapatong na itak, sa kanan naman may .45 caliber pistol. Yung sweldo mo nasa gitna. Hindi siya nagsasalita kaya lalong matatakot ka."
Still, it's better than being a benchwarmer.
Malabanan’s first brush with being a hugot was in the summer of 1994, when he was an incoming high school sophomore in San Pedro, Laguna. “Six-footer na ako noon,” he remembers. “Marami nang nakapanood sa akin maglaro. Dahil malaki nga ako, inaya akong maglaro para sa isang commercial team. May allowance daw silang ibibigay.”
He was paid P100 per game. He played for two more commercial teams during his high school days, with P100 being the base price for his services. By 1997, he had grown to his current 6’3” frame and was starring for the University of Perpetual Help Rizal (UPHR) Altas in the NCAA. In between NCAA seasons, Malabanan, along with a couple of teammates, accepted invitations from classmates and campus friends to play for their barangay teams.
“Sa may Zapote [area in Las Piñas] lang din kami naglalaro. Minsan sa BF [Subdivision],” he shares. They did this more as a show of camaraderie, rather than for money. “Minsan pa-uniform lang ang ibinibigay, pero hatid-sundo kami lagi at pakain. Kasi may allowance saka dorm naman kami [sa UPHR]. Kumbaga, parang extra practice na lang yun sa amin, pang-kondisyon. Saka dun din kami kumukuha ng confidence for the NCAA.”
After a stint with the Shark Energy Drink in the now-defunct Philippine Basketball League (PBL), Malabanan was selected by the Brgy. Ginebra Gin Kings as the 17th overall pick in the second round of the 2002 PBA Rookie Draft. He was given a two-year contract worth around P80,000 a month.
After Ginebra, he was signed by the San Miguel Beermen, where he continued his recurring PBA role: benchwarmer. He points to this as the reason why he opted to shy away from the pro league. Around late 2005, Malabanan was told by his agent, Ed Ponceja, that the Indonesian Basketball League (IBL) was looking for Filipino imports to beef up their teams. Malabanan jumped at the opportunity.
“Hindi pa ako end-of-contract noon, pero umalis ako kasi talagang gustong-gusto kong maglaro,” Malabanan says. “Eh nung nasa San Miguel ako, yung kapalitan ko mga Fil-Ams na malalaki, na mas gusto rin ng mga coach. So sabi ko mabuburo ako dun pag nag-stay pa ako.” He was 26, an age when most basketball players are approaching their prime.
In Indonesia, Malabanan first played an exhibition game alongside fellow former PBA players—like Estong Ballesteros, Edwin Bacani, and Rensy Bajar—against the IBL selection. The game served as a showcase game for the Filipinos’ talent and eventually became the basis for the draft process that followed after. Malabanan was selected first overall by the weakest team in the field, Citra Satria.
“Sa magandang hotel ako pinatira, may daily allowance, may food allowance, may bonuses, tapos ang sweldo ko mga around $1,000 [roughly P55,000 in 2005]—for three weeks lang yun ha. Pero ang pinakagusto ko dun nakapaglaro ako, naipakita ko yung skills ko.”
After the IBL, Malabanan went back to the PBL, playing for the Henkle-Sista Super Sealers. It was during this time that he also began accepting local playing invitations on the side—or as professional hugots like him call it, ligang labas.
His first ligang labas was in Bauan, Batangas, in a commercial league where each team was allowed to hire one import. He was paid P10,000 per game. “Sinusundo ako dito sa bahay tapos after ng game papakainin ako, babayaran, tapos ihahatid na ko uli,” he shares.
He returned twice more to Bauan to play in the same tournament. He actually prefers playing at relatively nearer areas. “Katulad sa Pampanga, balikan lang din pag doon. Sa San Ildefonso, Bulacan naglaro din ako, inter-barangay yun na pwede isang import. P5,000 yata bayad sa akin doon.”
Malabanan’s former teammate at UPHR, Shark, and Ginebra, and fellow pro hugot Chester Tolomia can’t help but be amazed at his friend’s network of local basketball contacts.
Tolomia remembers that around six years ago he accompanied Malabanan at a weeklong basketball clinic in Bicol. Halfway into the clinic, Malabanan received a phone call asking if he would be available to play as a substitute import for a commercial team in a nearby town. The team’s original import supposedly couldn’t make it in time for the game.
“Sinama niya ako, naglaro kaming dalawa, quarterfinals na yun. Panalo naman,” shares Tolomia. They were each paid P5,000 for their trouble. “Kaya nga ang tawag ko kay Gilbert, Hari ng Ligang Labas.”
If Malabanan is king of the local leagues, then Tolomia should be considered the king of Southeast Asian leagues.
A former 2002 first round draft pick of Ginebra (9th overall), Tolomia’s PBA career had been cut short by inconsistency and lack of playing time. The talent was there—he was once the NCAA’s scoring leader and a PBL MVP and his basketball moniker, “The Elevator”, is a product of his propensity for dunk shots and high-flying acrobatic forays towards the basket—but the breaks weren’t.
After a two-year stint with Ginebra, Tolomia rebuilt his reputation as a dangerous scorer in the PBL before returning to the PBA in 2005 as a Sta. Lucia Realtor. In between PBA conferences or whenever he was in the process of renegotiating his contract, Tolomia entertained the opportunities presented to him overseas.
“Nagsimula yan sa kaibigan ko na Pinoy na based sa Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Tinulungan kong makakuha ng tryout sa PBL,” narrates Tolomia. “Pero hindi siya pinalad. Nung bumalik na siya sa Kota Kinabalu naglaro na lang siya sa isang club team doon. Tapos sinabihan niya ako nung nangailangan sila ng import.”
Since then, Tolomia has been to Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to play as import for several teams. By his estimate he has played in over 30 different overseas tournaments, ranging from short one-week tourneys (which usually pays up to P50,000, depending on the cash prize) to stints as a Filipino import for the Brunei Barracudas and Chang Thailand Slammers in the recently founded Air Asia-ASEAN Basketball League ($2,500 per month, for five months, non-inclusive of $200 win game bonuses and other allowances).
In fact, Malaysian players, particularly those playing for clubs based in Kota Kinabalu, has gotten so used to his presence that they treat him like a local player. “Sa KK mga twice a year ang liga. Palipat-lipat din ako ng clubs doon every year. Kaya kilala na nila ako maglaro, alam na nila na pisikal akong player,” shares Tolomia. “Kaya nga pag may nagagalit sa akin na taga-doon na bagong player, sinasabihan na nang ng ibang beterano na huwag akong pepersonalin. Parang ‘Ang tagal na dito niyang si Chester, wag mo nang anuhin.’ Pero pag bago yung Pinoy na gumanon sa kanila, away na iyon.”
However distinct the paths that Malabanan and Tolomia have taken in their career as hugots, they adhere to the same playing mentality. Both agree that, as imports, they need to perform.
“When I was starting nakita ko talaga na yung mga kakampi ko o kalaban ko walang basic basketball skills,” says Tolomia. “Suwerte ka na kung may kakampi ka na maasahan mo talaga. Kaya, as the import, kayod ka talaga. Score, rebound, depensa, ikaw lahat yun.”
“Bwakawan talaga,” says Malabanan. “Yun naman talaga ang dahilan bakit kinuha ka. Saka sa aming mga hugot ang puhunan namin talaga diyan sipag.”
Imports aren’t also allowed to be overly confident. “Hindi ka puwedeng aangas-angas diyan,” says Malabanan. “Kasi dayo ka lang eh. Ngayon di mawawalang may titira sa iyo, pero hangga’t maari wag mo nang patulan. Kung gumanti ka man, wag agad-agad, maghahanap ka ng ibang paraan.”
“Sa Malaysia naman, dahil nga wala silang masyadong basics, hindi nila alam na nakakasakit na pala sila,” adds Tolomia. “Minsan tatawiran ka pag pa-drive ka sa basket, o kaya mabibigla ka na lang may tutulak—uncoordinated kasi. I-le-let go mo na yung mga ganoon.”
Malabanan however provides a more astute reason why every hugot should keep his cool. “Usually kasi ang katapat mo naman diyan mga kapwa mo ring hugot. Kami-kami rin lang naman din ang naglalaban-laban. Kaya yung mga yun inaalagaan din nila yung sarili nila, bakit kayo magtitirahan kung pareho lang kayong mag-sa-suffer?”
But above all else the friends agree that No.1 rule for all hugots is to avoid off-the-court problems. “Kaya pag may kasama akong Pinoy sa ibang bansa lagi kong pinapaalala na pag lalabas siya lagi niyang dadalhin yung passport niya,” shares Tolomia. “Saka iwas ka na sa mga ikakasama mo, lalo na pag drugs, hindi na kita matutulungan doon.”
“Isa pa, iwas ka rin sa babae,” says Malabanan, who admits that hugots, like every famous baller, almost effortlessly attract female attention. “Dati may kapwa ako hugot sa Marinduque na may pinatulan na babae. Una text-text sila muna hanggang hindi na pinapansin ng player yung babae, yun pala may nangyari na sa kanila. Nagsumbong ngayon yung babae sa tatay niya, eh menor de edad pala yung babae, ayun kulong siya. Nung nakalabas yung player sa tulong ng team manager nila, tumakas na yung player pauwi. Hindi na niya tinapos yung liga.”
STUCK ON BASKETBALL
Malabanan has been idle at home for close to two weeks now, the longest he’s ever been since he started being a hugot.
“Dati matagal na yung limang araw na nandito ako,” he says.
He has hit a dry spell because, yes, his game has dipped a bit—and he also lost his damned cellphone, taking with it all his contacts. There are younger hugots out there—college players and aspiring pros looking to make an extra buck or two—who can jump higher and run faster than him. But Malabanan’s combination of height, athleticism, and veteran smarts is still considered a special commodity.
For now, he’s using the extra time off to be with his family. If there’s any disadvantage to being a hugot, aside from the occasional wrath of depressed managers, it’s that the constant travelling could drive a wedge within your family.
That’s why Malabanan, a father of three children aged 17, 14, and 13, makes it a point to treat his wife and kids out whenever he’s home.
“Naiintindihan naman ng mga anak ko yung field ng work ko eh, matagal ko na kasi itong ginagawa,” explains Malabanan. “Actually hindi work ito eh. Kumbaga, parang raket ko ito. Yung work talaga, stable ka na, nakatali ka na sa isang trabaho.”
Although Malabanana has no real property to show for (his family lives in a house owned by his in-laws), he is proud that his three children study in a private school. Tolomia has his own car, lives in a two-room apartment in central Quezon City, and speaks of the lands that he has acquired in his homeland of Zamboanga.
And before their bodies finally bog down, Malabanan and Tolomia have also started planning ahead.
Tolomia, a father of two kids aged six and four, wants to ply his trade a little closer to home. He is trying to get enlisted into the Philippine Army as a military athlete. A former pro, Frederick Canlas, tipped him off of the opportunity. All a military athlete supposedly does is play, no extensive training or dangerous duties, and he gets all the benefits afforded to an Army personnel—monthly salary, retirement, pension.
“Sabi rin kasi sa akin pag nakapasok ka na required ka lang magpakita pag may mga liga sila, especially kapag AFP Olympics,” says Tolomia. “Kaya pwede pa akong kumuha ng mga one week na liga sa KK at naisip ko ring mag-business, more of agricultural siguro.”
Malabanan’s plans to continue conducting his basketball clinics at San Pedro and Alabang, Muntinlupa. There’s also the possibility of coaching for a school in Las Pinas.
But he also can’t wait to play again, even if it was for only P500-P1,000, like this one league he joined in Quiapo. “Yung laruan kalsada lang na tinayuan lang ng court para wala nang dumaan,” recalls Malabanan. “Yun na yata ang pinaka-worse kong pinaglaruan. Kinuha ko iyon kasi malapit lang naman, saka wala naman akong gagawawin noon. Mga naka-limang balik pa ako dun, kami pa nga nag-champion.”
“Ang sa akin naman kasi, at sinasabi ko ito rin sa ibang hugot, kung tatanga ka lang, wala kang mapupulot na ganyan. Kung may dumating na offer at wala kang ginagawa, laruin mo na yan. Pagpapawisan ka na, matututo ka pa, and, at the same time, kahit papano may pera ka. Kahit sabihin mong P1,000 yan, o P500 yan, may mapupulot ka ba sa kalsada na ganiyang kalaking pera? Baka limang piso nga lang mahirapan ka pa.”
This article originally appeared on the June 2012 issue of FHM Philippines