MANILA, Philippines - I was surprised to get a phone call from Bong and Almira Alvarez while I was celebrating Valentine?s night with neighbors in Quezon City.
It had been months, perhaps years, since I last heard from the couple and for awhile migrated to Australia.
I have been updated on the two only through media and from talks going around basketball circles.
Needless to say, most of these talks are unsavory, if not downright negative. They are saying, for example, that Bong has developed a bad and expensive habit; reason why he has sold most of his real estate properties and expensive cars, including his huge, palatial home in Pasig which has a swimming pool and a basketball court.
His colleagues say Bong has fallen into hard times and is now just renting a modest apartment in the same area and lives by himself. Miray has left him, they said, taking with her their three lovely daughters.
Miray has been a battered housewife of late, according to them.
Since Bong has a strong tendency to attract controversy and exaggerated, vicious talks, I chose to reserve judgment until I got the chance to talk with him and Miray personally.
* * *
?Happy Valentines!? Bong and Miray said over the phone, as they invited me to dinner at an expensive restaurant in Libis the following day.
Meanwhile, my mind was racing. If reports were true that they had separated, they must have reconciled before Valentine?s Day. And are they really broke? If they are, how come they can afford their old lifestyle, like dining in expensive restaurants? Somehow the reports don?t jive with the facts.
I accepted the invitation, but suggested a place closer to home. Since I have difficulty driving at night, I asked if they could pick me up.
?Are you bringing a car?? I asked. I had to be sure Bong still had at least one vehicle left because the last time I saw him on the news, he was aboard a taxicab, where he fell asleep and the driver had given him a joyride.
?Why is he riding a taxi?? I asked myself at the time. ?What happened to his Ford Expedition, his late model Mercedes Benz with the special plate number, and his other cars??
He had a garage big enough to accommodate half a dozen, if I remember correctly.
* * *
Bong was driving a gold Kia Carnival when he and Almira picked me up the following night. They had retained this vehicle for family use, he said, explaining that the Benz and the Expedition?a gas guzzler?had long been disposed of.
I took a long, good look at Almira, scanning her arms and other exposed body parts. I didn?t see any blacks, blues, reds or any kind of blemish. Her skin was as flawless as ever.
They had just come from the gym for their regular workout, she said. ?It?s our form of bonding.?
They certainly both looked in the best of shape, and not for a boxing bout, as some of their colleagues had insinuated.
Bong said the whole family celebrated Valentine?s Day at home.
?Are you still staying in the same house?? I asked .
?Yes, we will only dispose of the house if and when we migrate to Australia,? Bong replied.
At that point I decided to tell Bong and Almira about all the malicious talks that have been going around.
* * *
He told me why he was a riding a cab and why he fell asleep that night he got into trouble, and why one of his fellow cagers had pictured him as a drug addict and a wife beater.
Miray was the first to stand up for him. ?Ewan ko ba, masyadong malapit ang trouble kay Bong, Kahit maliit na bagay lang, lumalaki.
Bong and Almira are convinced that the only way they could find peace and maybe happiness is to get out of this country. The earlier, the better.
That night he was in a taxi, he had just played an out-of-town game which he organized.
?I was very, very tired that?s why I fell asleep. I was headed for the hospital where Miray had to be rushed for an emergency. I didn?t have time to pick up my car at the Rembrandt Hotel where I had parked it,? Bong related.