It's 10 a.m. at the Meralco Gym in Pasig. Practice doesn't start for three hours, but Bolts captain Reynel Hugnatan -- who turns 44 on Wednesday -- is once again the early bird.
"Always the first one here," Hugnatan says in Filipino with a half-smile. "Shooting, light workouts, I like to start early."
Hugnatan likes to set an example for his younger teammates, some of whom weren't even walking yet when he turned pro in March 1998. He is now in his 24th season as a professional basketball player, a journey that began not in the PBA but with the Negros Slashers in the Metropolitan Basketball Association -- a professional league from the late 1990s that dared go head-to-head with the PBA.
Fidel Ramos, who was in the last months of his presidency, was guest of honor when the MBA formally opened shop in Pangasinan, the president's home province. Five Philippine presidents have followed since, and Hugnatan is still around, part of a very exclusive club of active PBA players who first played ball in the MBA. Only one other player is a member of this club.
The Magnolia Hotshots' dressing room at the Smart Araneta Coliseum is still quiet. The opening game, which kicked off at 3 p.m., is just underway. The Hotshots take the floor at 5:45 p.m. But team captain Rafi Reavis, who turned 45 last July, is already there.
Reavis has been playing professionally in the Philippines for over 22 years. He is one of only 13 PBA players who have won at least 11 championships. But his first professional championship came with the San Juan Knights in the MBA.
"My first year with San Juan, we won," says Reavis, a New York native who was part of a huge wave of Fil-foreigners who invaded both the PBA and MBA in the late '90s and early 2000s. "We were pretty successful."
Like Hugnatan, Reavis experienced one adventure after another in the MBA.
"The Passion of the Nation"
The MBA was borne out of a bold, almost insane idea. In early 1998, in the midst of a crippling economic crisis that was sweeping much of Asia, a group of businessmen decided to put up a professional basketball league that would rival the PBA. They patterned it after the NBA, with teams based in different cities playing a home-and-away format.
To fill their rosters, some MBA teams signed up players who were still a few years below the PBA's minimum age requirement of 23. One of those youngsters was Hugnatan, who had just turned 19 and was very enthused by the prospect of playing for a in his hometown for Bacolod-based Slashers.
The MBA also went after players abroad with Filipino lineage -- one of whom was Reavis who came over in 2000 after playing four years at Coppin State.
By most accounts, the MBA was one big road trip filled with adventure after adventure.
"Oh gosh," was Hugnatan's reply when asked if he enjoyed his MBA stint. "To be honest with you, if the MBA didn't fold, I never would have left. I would have stayed because I lived in Bacolod, where our homecourt was. And I really enjoyed the travel. You'd go from place to place. Every season that was your life. I met so many people. I really enjoyed myself."
Reavis recalls: "It was a very cool league. A lot of traveling. I really loved the camaraderie that we had with our team. Being that it was a city league, each city had its own team, you really felt the presence of the fans. It was really fun to play."
Unlike Hugnatan, though, Reavis didn't particularly enjoy the travelling part. Also, the venues didn't always cut it.
The toughest venue to visit? According to Reavis, it was Hugnatan's homecourt.
"I would say the rowdiest venue had to be Negros," he explained. "There was a time we were in the playoffs and I don't know how many times the game was stopped due to coins being thrown, food, bottles -- whatever you could get your hands on, they were throwing at the referees, coaches, anybody. That was one of the rowdiest. It's a very close call, but Negros was No. 1, Cebu being No. 2 and maybe Batangas."
For the record, San Juan and Negros met in the MBA playoffs twice, in 2000 and 2001, with the Knights winning both times. That Knights team was coached by PBA legend Philip Cezar and included players like Omanzie Rodriguez, Chris Calaguio, and a young point guard named Chito Victolero, who is now Reavis' coach on the Hotshots.
"He (Victolero) was my guard," Reavis mused. "That's also funny now because I see him with a cast on. I said, 'This is the first time I've seen you injured since we were at San Juan.'"
Hugnatan was with the Slashers during their entire five-season MBA run. After coming in runners-up four times, they finally won it all in 2002 -- the MBA's final season.
He doesn't remember where he first met Reavis, but he remembers what went through his head, saying: "I can't recall where we first faced off, if it was in San Juan or Negros. But when I saw him, I thought, 'He's long and tall!' That was the time when all these Fil-Ams came in. Chris Clay, Jeffrey Flowers. They were all huge. Today Rafi is still thin but back then he was really thin."
Reavis remembered having problems with Hugnatan early on, as he recalled: "He was very hard to guard because he's ambidextrous. He's left-handed. Very tough player. Smart. And he took his time. Reynel was never in a hurry. So that's why it was very difficult to defend him. And he's always been a very professional type of player."
For all the hoopla, the MBA was in dire financial straits by its fourth season. Teams were folding, and ABS-CBN decided to terminate its broadcast deal. As a result, both Reavis and Hugnatan eventually jumped to the PBA, Reavis first in 2002 and Hugnatan a year later. They were both drafted by the same team, the Coca-Cola Tigers, and won a championship together during Hugnatan's rookie year.
"As a teammate, he was one of the best teammates you ever wanted to have," Reavis says of Hugnatan. "The times we would start games together, we had this kind of eye contact to where I'm gonna go up for the jump ball, I'd tell Reynel to box out and make sure there's nobody behind him so he can score the first two points. So I'd just easily tap the ball to Reynel and he'd get the layup. So that was our connection every time at the beginning of a game. And it's not something the coaches told us to do. It was just him and I."
Eventually, both players were traded to different teams, with Hugnatan going to Alaska and Reavis to Barangay Ginebra.
No-meat diets, yoga and 'green stuff'
Between them, Hugnatan and Reavis have played a combined 1,609 PBA games and are in their 19th and 20th seasons, respectively. Only Asi Taulava, Abet Guidaben, Mon Fernandez and Robert Jaworski have appeared in more seasons than Hugnatan, and only Taulava, Guidaben and Jaworski have appeared in more seasons than Reavis.
Their longevity has a common thread: both watch what they eat and religiously work out.
Hugnatan says he changed his diet after his first few years in the PBA when someone told him that as an athlete the best investment was his body, revealing: "For the past ten years, I've avoided pork and beef. I'm more into fish and veggies. I rarely eat rice, except if it's brown, red or adlai. I've cut down on my sugar intake and I only eat sweets or chocolates on Sundays."
Reavis follows a similar diet while also practicing yoga.
"At a young age I decided to change my diet. And also stick to my workouts," he said. "I don't eat red meat. Anything with four legs, I don't consume it. I'm trying to limit my dairy intake as well.
"Any edge I felt like I could get at a younger age, I felt like it was gonna help me as I got older because I knew I wasn't gonna be as fast. I wasn't gonna be as strong."
Reavis has also piqued the interest of his teammates through his 'magic potion', explaining: "They see me drinking this green stuff every day. 'Cap, cap. What is the green stuff you're drinking?' Every day I get my greens in. It's hard to eat that many veggies in how many servings so I always try to have my greens."
And now, the end is near...
In the ongoing Commissioner's Cup, Reavis has averaged around ten minutes a game, with one DNP. Hugnatan has only played twice. The writing is, if not yet on the wall, about to be spelled out.
No matter how many vegetable drinks or meatless diets they consume, both men know that Father Time is undefeatable. The next few months will reveal whether one or both of them will continue playing: Reavis' contract expires in January, while Hugnatan's ends in March.
"If my team no longer wants me, that's okay," Hugnatan says. "I've done my best. But I think I can still play at a high level and contribute."
Reavis also feels he can still give it a go, asserting: "My best ability now for this team is my availability. As long as I'm available, whether that's on the court or off the court, helping the coaches talk to the young guys, seeing something the coaches may not see, I just try to help in any way I can."
If given a chance, both players want to go out on their own terms.
"I still enjoy playing," Hugnatan says. "I'll miss playing basketball. But if I can't outrun the younger guys anymore, then that's it. But right now, I feel I'm still faster than most of them."
Same thing with Reavis, who said: "As long as I feel like I can still contribute. As long as my body still feels good. And also I want to be able to walk away from this game feeling the way I feel now. I don't want to retire because of an injury because I still want to be able to give back to the game in some way."
Whatever the future holds for them, they'll be in a good place. Hugnatan has already set up a trucking business in his hometown of Bacolod, and is in the process of putting up an AirBnB in La Union. Reavis is certain he'll still be involved in the sport in some capacity, hopefully still with the SMC group.
Hugnatan and Reavis hardly ever share the court together anymore, but they will always share a common bond that was forged in the MBA and strengthened in the PBA.
"Rafi's a cool guy," Hugnatan says. "Whenever we play, we always talk. We talk about our MBA days. We're good, we have no problems. We're friends."
Of course, Reavis agreed with similar warmth, saying: "Even up to now, we still have that mutual respect for each other."
The mutual admiration will always be there.