After trades and injuries, Sean Anthony comes into his own
MANILA, Philippines – The reason why Sean Anthony was sidelined during Air21's crucial semifinals series was black and white and right in front of his face.
The fourth-year PBA vet from Vancouver, Canada stared blankly at an ultrasound of his left Achilles tendon. One print showed his healthy tendon, the white area depicting healthy tissue. The other showed black masses, representing the partial tears that threatened to snap the tendon like a frayed rope.
"It wasn't a rupture like what happened to Kobe or Chauncey Billups where the Achilles tendon itself detached; it was just tears and it was leading to that. If I forced it more those tears would've just snapped off and it would be a rupture," said the 6-foot-4 Anthony over coffee in Fort Bonifacio on Sunday, May 18.
Anthony wanted to play. As a rag-tag group of underdogs that also featured 41-year-old timeless big man Asi Taulava and acrobatic scorer Joseph Yeo, Air21 had emerged as underdog fan favorites in the Commissioner's Cup, igniting the "Ube Republic" with their against-the-odds playoff run.
"Air21 is just gaining a lot of respect," said Anthony. "The everyday Filipino feels like the underdog, works extremely hard, has to overcome all types of adversity, so I draw inspiration from the everyday guy who wakes up in the morning, has to drive the jeepney route all day, has guys yelling at him and honking at him and he's making just about enough to feed his family. So in comparison, that's one reason I work hard is because I know how hard every Filipino works."
After averaging 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals to overcome the San Miguel Beermen and their twice-to-beat advantage in the 2014 Commissioner's Cup quarterfinals, Anthony was willing to risk everything to lead the Air21 Express to their first ever finals berth.
His heart was there, but his play was becoming increasingly hobbled. Anthony managed to score 29 in a Game 1 victory over San Mig Coffee, but by the fourth quarter it was difficult to watch him move as he limped about the court as if on the verge of collapse. In Game 2 he managed only 8 points and 4 rebounds as San Mig Coffee evened the series.
Rather than risk the possibility of a catastrophic injury, the 28-year-old Anthony sat out the final 3 games of the series as Air21 lost in 5.
"After Game 2, I didn't feel like I was contributing that much, other than maybe as an inspiration to my teammates. I didn't feel I was effective anymore," admits Anthony. "I didn't have a first step, I was scared to go into the lane in case I planted wrong. After Game 2, I was a much different player than I was in the rest of the conference."
San Mig Coffee went on to win the title, downing Talk 'N Text in 4 games. Anthony, on the other hand, set about on the task of rehabilitating his injuries.
The following day, Anthony received platelet-rich plasma shots, a method of therapy used by golfer Tiger Woods and NFL wide receiver Hines Ward to heal injuries. The process involves withdrawing blood from a patient, placing it in a centrifuge and separating platelets into injured areas with lesser blood flow to expedite healing.
Anthony is up and walking now without a protective boot, and after watching Air21 begin their Governors' Cup campaign with a win over Rain or Shine on Tuesday, May 20, at the Araneta Coliseum, went straight to the doctor's office to receive clearance to begin shooting and light strength training.
The following morning he attended yoga before hitting the gym. He says he hopes to be back in a purple uniform by the team's fourth game.
Even in victory, Air21 coach Franz Pumaren and Taulava acknowledge that Anthony is a vital cog to their team's chemistry as both a force on the court and a morale booster off of it.
"Playing hard-nosed defense, grabbing those rebounds, giving us that lift from the bench, giving us that intensity," said Pumaren, when asked what Anthony brings to the squad. "He’s a very vocal leader, he’s a great competitor, he doesn’t want to lose. Whether on the bench or on the court, he motivates and pushes the entire team."
"He definitely brings intangibles," said Taulava. "Sean brings a different side of the game, but that's why we try to use Sean to motivate some of these younger guys. We know that when Sean gets back it's going to be a big lift for us."
"Only time can tell if (the injury) has really affected him, but knowing him as a very good competitor, he’s gonna be happy if he can still play consistently like he did the last conference," added Pumaren.
Of basketball and the Philippines
Anthony grew up in the Pacific Northwest during a boom time for the sport of basketball in the region. In 1995, when Anthony was just 9, the NBA expanded into Canada for the first time, founding franchises in Toronto and his hometown of Vancouver.
Anthony and his friends would attend Grizzlies games after school, taking advantage of the sparse attendance at the General Motors Place to walk down to court side. There, he would get a closeup view of his favorite players – particularly Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter.
His closest brush with NBA stardom as a kid came at a 7-11, however. He and his friends skateboarded to their local convenience store only to encounter Bryant "Big Country" Reeves – the franchise's first ever draft pick – chowing down on some microwavable cuisine.
"They had those microwaveable hamburgers in those plastic packs. He took a line, maybe 6 of them, and he just started eating them outside," remembered Anthony. "I had never seen anything like it before."
While basketball was struggling to catch on in Vancouver, the sport was heating up in his driveway. Anthony had initially tried the national sport of hockey, but the equipment needed to play was too much of an expense. Instead Anthony and his older brother would play intense, physical basketball, molding a love for competitiveness and hoops in the young man.
At the same time, Anthony would spend summers in the Philippines with his grandparents up until the age of 14 when he began participating in Association of American Universities (AAU) basketball camps.
Still, his immersion into Filipino culture continued through local Pinoy leagues, where the sizable Filipino community would get together for mini fiestas of hoops and adobo.
After high school, Anthony relocated to the other side of Canada to study at Montreal's McGill University, where he studied physical education and kinesiology. He also did some major business on the court.
Anthony finished as McGill's fourth all-time leading scorer, registering 1,834 points in 152 games for an average of 12.1. His collegiate highlight was a 33-point, 14-rebound performance in a win over the third-ranked Windsor.
Gilas 1.0 and beyond
When asked about his post-collegiate plans for a news article, Anthony vocalized his interest in playing basketball in his mother's homeland, a wish that caught the attention of Smart Gilas I coach Rajko Toroman.
Anthony was invited to a Gilas camp in Las Vegas in the Summer of 2009, where he would play alongside future Air21 teammate Aldrech Ramos plus collegiate standouts/future PBA stars Greg Slaughter, Mac Baracael and Mark Barroca.
Instead of continuing with the national team, Anthony enrolled in the PBA draft after graduation and was selected sixth overall in 2010 by Air21. Moments later Anthony was traded to the Powerade Tigers in what would be the first of 4 trades in his young career.
After two seasons with Powerade, Anthony was traded to Barako Bull Energy Cola for his Gilas teammate Ramos, then was dealt to Talk 'N Text before ending up back with Air21 after a trade in this past Philippine Cup with Eliud Poligrates and a 2016 first-round pick for KG Canaleta.
"I guess at first, the first couple of trades it was," said Anthony, when asked if the constant trades were discouraging. "But I've come across a lot of great players like Jimmy Alapag, Ali Peek, Asi was a big help, these guys taught me a lot. I also see that it's a blessing with the trades, but trading is part of the business; it's uncontrollable. That's something they've always told me – you can only control the aspects that you can control.”
"I don't try to take things personally but I also want to prove myself. When they trade you it's because they don't think you're a proper fit or you're not a good enough player or somebody else is better. So in my aspect when you get traded you have to get better."
Still, he maintains that he doesn't harbor resentment towards teams that have traded him, though he did scorch his former squad Barako Energy for 23 points, 8 boards and 5 steals while a member of Talk 'N Text during his first game since being traded in last year's Governors' Cup.
Off the court
As Anthony stirs his cappuccino, he calls attention to a passing waiter and orders the calamari. "It's my cheat day so I can splurge a bit," said Anthony, almost apologetically. "Normally I try to keep my diet clean and fresh. It's something that I've grown accustomed to."
Anthony had previously blogged for Philippine Star about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, advocating for philosophies such as the "Paleo" diet with columns titled "How to not look like Santa after the holidays.”
Promoting a healthy lifestyle is something that has long interested Anthony, and something he wants to focus on after his career is done. Currently, Anthony is pursuing a Masters degree in entrepreneurship at Ateneo University's graduate program.
"I'm trying to build small businesses, invest my money properly, grow my income," said Anthony. After basketball, something in the health field. I feel there's a wider range of things I can do so the possibilities are endless. I have to make sure I'm educated first then you'll see me dabbling in a bunch of different things."
Time may be infinite, but the amount of it that a player can expect to spend on the hard court is limited. Anthony needn't look any further than his front court to be reminded of that truth.
Anthony says that watching Taulava – who is contending to win his first MVP award since 2003 – battle every game, working against the clock to win a championship has motivated him to endure the struggles.
"He calls himself Team Ageless, knowing that his career is at that point, he goes to plyo in the morning every day, he does core work, he eats healthy, he's doing all the things he can to prolong his career. It's great to see a guy at 41 doing that when guys brand new to the league aren't doing it and are taking it for granted almost.
"You can't take it for granted; it's a short career. Talking to Asi, he says it seems like yesterday was his rookie season. I think that's why I work hard too, knowing it's such a short career and have to maximize and enjoy every moment."
Anthony is aware of his own vulnerability as well. When the time comes that he hangs up his basketball sneakers for Hugo Boss shoes, he wants to have the hardware and trophies that would memorialize his sacrifices and achievements on the court in pursuit of hoops immortality.
Those are tangibles that can neither be traded away or cut short by injury.
"I want to be a championship player, I want to be a leader on a championship team," said Anthony. "I want to go down as a winner. I want championships because that's the way you're judged." – with reports from Jane Bracher/Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.