When life doesn’t give a man 12 rounds of boxing, maybe non-stop balling is where one can find happiness, and redemption.
That seems to be the career journey of Manuel “Maning” Vilbar, the well-loved utility personnel behind the Star Hotshots’ bench.
The 48-year old Vilbar serves as an all-around utility guy for the Purefoods franchise.
During the San Mig Coffee Mixers’ Grand Slam title run in 2014, Vilbar was remembered as the ball boy in blonde highlights who celebrated animatedly at almost every basket made by San Mig in the playoffs. And this was back when utility personnel were still allowed to sit in front of the players’ bench.
Jason Webb, who then served as assistant to then San Mig head coach Tim Cone, remembered how Vilbar tirelessly hustled and pumped energy to the whole team, as if he was playing for 48 minutes.
Nothing has changed since. He still functions like an all-purpose swiss-knife for the Purefoods organization, who does a little of everything with a smile. From mopping the floor, to fetching towel, to serving Gatorade or water, to soothing the players’ backs and legs with a massage, Maning is the “man” for the Star. He is literally everywhere in practice and in game days.
But behind that ever-smiling, ready-to-serve Star utility guy, is someone who, if given a choice, would have pursued a different career path, that of a professional boxer.
“Ambisyon ko talaga maging (professional) boxer, kaso hindi natupad, nabigo, kaya ito ang bagsak ko,” he told FOX Sports.
Born and raised in Cebu, a hotbed for Filipino athletes, Vilbar started his lofty quest to become a world boxing champion during his teenage years. At the age of 16, he already had a title on his belt—at least in the amateur rank as champion for Amateur Boxing Association of Cebu (ABAC).
At that point, he was convinced he had what it takes to be a professional fighter. In fact, he set his eyes on challenging world champion Ricardo Lopez of Mexico during his time. But along the way, he faced adversaries outside the boxing ring, adversaries that were big enough to knock him out of his once promising pro boxing journey.
He recalled that his promoter in Manila failed to secure scheduled fights that would have kept him relevant in his rank.
“Panay practice ako noon, kaso wala naman akong laban, so sayang mga ensayo at takbo ko noon,” recalled the stocky Star utility guy.
With frustration mounting from deep within, he found himself engaged from the boxing ring to drinking, instead.
The 5-foot-1 Vilbar admitted he got overwhelmed by the distractions in the big city.
“Pagkapunta ko ng Maynila, dito na nagkagulo-gulo ang buhay ko.”
Years later, when Vilbar got married and was blessed with 2 kids, he knew he had to hang his gloves, a difficult decision that would mean abandoning his pro boxing dream.
Due to the lack of opportunities in Manila, he felt there was no more future in store for him in a sport that he grew to love with great passion.
Vilbar continued, “Kaya wala na akong ibang mapasukan, kaya ito na, pinasok ko na ‘tong pagmamasahe sa basketball.”
From boxing ring to basketball championship rings
Life away from boxing was hard in the beginning. But little did he know that it will still come handy–at least for the skills he acquired from his gym trainer.
One day, while working in a local hotel where he temporarily got a job as a masseur, he got the chance to massage Philippine basketball legend Allan Caidic, then the star of Great Taste Coffee in the PBA. Caidic, popularly known as the ‘Triggerman’, was satisfied with his service, and in the process, he offered Vilbar to be his personal masseur in the PBA.
From that moment, Vilbar transitioned to the basketball world.
When Caidic moved over to San Miguel upon the disbandment of Presto (formerly Great Taste) in 1993, Vilbar got hired as the team’s taper.
And five years later, when the sharp-shooting Caidic was named by coach Tim Cone to play the RP Centennial Team, he was told that the national team will be touring the United States for a series of tuneup games as part of its build up for the 1998 Asian Games.
While the opportunity to go to the US may seem enticing for a lot of people, for Vilbar, that would mean tearing himself away from his family with 2 grade school kids.
Fortunately, he was moved to Magnolia, the San Miguel Corp.’s franchise in the Philippine Basketball League, before finally finding his way to the Purefoods organization in 2009.
“Nagtiyaga lang ako, hanggang sa kinuha na nila (Purefoods) talaga ako,” he said.
In just his first year with the Purefoods ball club, Vilbar was already part of a championship team as the Tender Juicy Giants conquered the Philippine Cup with coach Ryan Gregorio leading the way.
In the years to follow, championship rings kept coming for the squad as 5 more titles were added to the franchise when Tim Cone came on board, highlighted by San Mig’s Grand Slam championship in 2014.
“Grand Slam, mahirap na tapatan ‘to, sa awa ng Diyos, nakamit rin. Bihira lang makuha iyun sa ganitong sitwasyon.”
Craving for another championship
Two years since Star’s “triple crown” feat in the PBA, Vilbar admitted missing that championship feeling.
“Hinahanap ko na rin yung ganun, yung mag-champion ulit kasi 3 years na rin ata kami di nag-champion ulit,” he shared.
This was his wish for the 2015-16 PBA season, for the Star Hotshots to finally breakthrough in the post-Tim Cone era. No, this was not a selfish dream, but having seen first hand the sacrifices of everyone in the team, from the coaches down to the 14th player in the roster, his wish was for their hardwork to be rewarded with a championship.
“Kasi araw-araw tayong nage-ensayo tapos pagdating ng laban magpapatalo lang tayo kaya mahirap rin,” he said.
“Gusto ko nga ako na maglaro sa team eh para makatulong, pero ito support na lang at dasal na magpapanalo kami.”
In his line of work, he was never looked down by the players, who earn six figures every month. Instead, he felt he was part of a family.
And in his second “home”, he was able to work first-hand with Star’s veteran superstars like James Yap and Marc Pingris as they jog and stretch during practice. “Hinahanap hanap ko rin sa katawan ko ang pawis.”
Pingris would even testify that ‘Maning’ is an epitome of “puso” (heart), a characteristic that the “Pinoy Sakuragi” is known for inside the basketball court.
“Kung anong bait nila, tinapatan ko rin sa serbisyo ko, kasi mahal ko rin trabaho ko, go hard lang,” Vilbar said. “Ito na yung baraha ko eh.”
Vilbar’s sports journey may not have happened the way he wanted it to be.
What began as a lofty dream, that of becoming a professional boxing champion did not materialize, having been “knocked out” by the harsh realities of life.
But the 48-year-old Star all-around utility personnel stood up anyway, shook off the pain of defeat, fought back and was able to thrive in another path.
Sure, there’s no glitz and glamour on his type of work today, just plain hard work. But the kind of satisfaction and happiness he derive daily in serving his PBA team is incomparable.
Today, no matter how many punches he has received in life, Maning still stands out as a champion–and he has the basketball rings to prove it. – Jason Mercene
Follow this writer on Twitter: @JasonMercenePH