With 6:41 left in the second quarter of Sunday's 2023 PBA Governors' Cup opener against Meralco Bolts, Rain or Shine Elasto Painters coach Yeng Guiao signaled for James Yap to sub in.
As soon as the two-time MVP rose from his seat, the crowd at the Philsports Arena burst into cheers. It was the first time they would be seeing Yap in action since Sept. 30, 2021 when the Elasto Painters lost to Magnolia Hotshots in the 2021 Philippine Cup.
The PBA superstar, who signed a one-conference deal with Rain or Shine earlier this month, missed his first attempt, a 3-pointer. But on their next offensive, he drove to his right, drew contact, and banked in a tough, off-balance one-hander with a foul. The basket plus the bonus free throw, which cut Meralco's lead to 46-43, were Yap's first points since he sank a triple in the third quarter of his last outing against Magnolia.
Over the next few minutes, Yap gave a reminder of his greatness.
He sank three straight jumpers, then put an exclamation point on the first half with a long triple that tied the count at 54 at halftime. By the time the halftime buzzer sounded, he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
"He's been gone for so long, I think they forgot how he could play," Bolts coach Norman Black said with a chuckle. "We didn't do a very good job of crowding him and making him put the ball on the floor. He was taking pretty good jump shots on us and making them. And that's the most important thing, he was making them."
Rain or Shine would eventually lose big, 105-87, as KJ McDaniels dropped a 27-23 stat line for the Bolts. But after the game, the media scrum were gathered outside the losing team's locker room for their first chat with 'Big Game James' in 16 months.
"I felt like a rookie again," Yap said in Tagalog with a laugh. "I was really nervous.
"You know the feeling when your adrenaline is very high? That's what I felt. And that's also what I felt in 2004 (his rookie year). I'm happy I was able to perform well. At least all that hard work paid off. But the bad thing is, the outcome wasn't good."
Although he felt he was ready, Yap admitted he surprised even himself with his scoring outburst, adding: "I didn't expect that. But my mindset is, once I'm put in the game, I'm ready.
"When I was on the sideline, I brought out all my gadgets to help get me warmed up. I knew 'Coach' would use me in the last seven or eight minutes of the second quarter, so I knew when I would get my legs ready."
Guiao called Yap's performance "a good sign" for the team, as he stressed: "(This) means we can have another guy coming off the bench who can score and be a threat.
"I guess if there's a positive side to this loss, it's James' game. He was able to come back and at least for those six or seven minutes he was able to hit his stride."
While Yap and Guiao were together on two previous versions of the national team, this is their first time on the same PBA team. Yap says he enjoy playing for Guiao because of the latter's philosophy on taking shots.
"He gives all players an opportunity. So all of us are ready. If you're open you have to take it. If you hesitate, you'll hear it from him," said Yap.
Guioa, on the other hand, added as he lauded his veteran's professionalism: "In practice, I have no problems with him. Getting in shape, physically, attitude-wise, there is no problem with James. What's important is he gets his stride."
Yap was elected councilor of San Juan in last year's local elections. In fact, San Juan's entire city council, led by Mayor Francis Zamora and former PBA player and fellow councilor Don Allado, were at the game to show their support.
Being a neophyte politician, Yap decided to sign for just one conference with the Elasto Painters. He's adopting a wait-and-see approach as he tries to balance his two careers. At 40 and going on 41 next month, he knows he's no longer a spring chicken. But the competitor in him wants to keep playing.
"Let's see what happens," he said when asked about his plans after the Governors' Cup. "They were actually offering me a one-year deal, but I told management I wanted a one-conference deal first because I need to balance my public service with basketball.
"I might not be able to fulfill my duties as councilor in San Juan. But so far, it's been okay because I can still attend sessions, visit barangays, attend events. Our practices are in the morning from 9 to 12. After that I have time for my other job. So one conference first. Then let's see."
Whichever way this conference plays out for both the Elasto Painters and their aging superstar, Yap can be secure in the knowledge that he is still a feared man whenever he steps onto the court.
Black put it simply: "He's James Yap. Enough said. Two-time MVP of the PBA."