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NBA Stars Find Themselves in New Game : Appearance in Philippines Called Off After Coup Attempt Breaks Out

September 01, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

How's this for a variation on an old joke? Laker trainer Gary Vitti went to a basketball game and a civil war broke out.

Vitti was with 21 National Basketball Assn. players, coaches, referees and trainers who went to the Philippines last week expecting to put on two exhibitions, sponsored by a tobacco company. Instead, they awoke last Friday to the news that rebel forces had staged a revolt against the government of President Corazon Aquino. Suffice to say, the games were never played.

"I picked up a newspaper and the word Coup was written across the front page," Vitti said Monday, upon his return to Los Angeles. "Then I put on the TV, which was very graphic over there. They showed pictures of people lying in pools of blood, or with an arm or leg shot off. We had no idea what was going on."

Outside their downtown hotel, the Manila Peninsula Hotel, life was proceeding normally, Vitti said. "People were going out for lunch and dinner, shopping, riding the buses and taxis," he said.

The closest fighting was about 15 to 25 miles away, he said. "It was like living in Manhattan Beach and having a coup break out in Inglewood."

Although the basketball contingent was not in immediate danger, the U.S. consulate advised them to forgo jump shots while other shots were flying. The first game, which was scheduled to be played in Manila's 11,000-seat Ultra Arena, was called off on the advice of the consulate, which urged the Americans to remain in their hotel.

"All we did was hang around the hotel lobby all day," Vitti said.

The trainer said he really wasn't worried until he learned that the airport was closed.

"That made me nervous," he said. "Then I figured, regardless of what happens, we're stuck. I never felt that any of us were in danger, but it wasn't like being stuck in Cleveland during a snowstorm, either. At least then, you know the snow is going to melt sometime."

The promoter of the trip was Pro-Serv Inc., the Washington-based sports management company that enlisted many of its clients for the games. Pro-Serv officials here stayed in contact with the State Department and the U.S. Air Force during the failed coup attempt, according to Joe Steranka, Pro-Serv's vice president of public relations.

"We haven't had too many cases where one of our sports events has had to be postponed due to civil war," Steranka said.

The players included such stars as Alvin Robertson of San Antonio, Tom Chambers of Seattle, Buck Williams of New Jersey, Adrian Dantley of Utah, Sleepy Floyd of Golden State and Jeff Malone of Washington.

Kurt Rambis of the Lakers was supposed to have gone, but decided to remain home with his wife, Linda, who experienced some complications after giving birth to the couple's daughter. Laker reserve Adrian Branch also was scheduled to go, but missed his flight from Washington.

"Kurt called me and said, 'I guess I made the right decision,' " said Chris Vitti, Gary's wife. "I said, 'Yeah, great hindsight.' "

Vitti was unable to call his wife because of the difficulty in telephoning outside the country, he said. Calls to the hotel were getting through, however, and Chris Vitti received assurances from officials that her husband was OK.

"It's the first time I've had somebody so far away where the situation was out of my control," she said. "It was a new kind of feeling for me. It gave me an idea of what it must be like for a family who has someone being held hostage."

Pro-Serv's Steranka said that the Philippines' unstable political situation was discussed before the trip. "There was some research and investigative work," he said. "People felt that (the basketball contingent) would be in no danger. . . . Then things erupted."

On Saturday, Vitti said, Pro-Serv decided to call off the second game, and the next day, the contingent was able to make arrangements to fly out of Manila on a jet bound for Tokyo--but not before the entire party contracted food poisoning.

Vitti suspects the drinking water. He eventually needed an injection to relieve severe abdominal cramps. "It was the most pain I've ever been in in my life," he said. "The cramps were so bad I was doubled over in half, and couldn't straighten up."

Vitti, Washington Bullets trainer John Lally and Chambers flew directly to Los Angeles from Tokyo, arriving Sunday afternoon.

"This was the worst trip of my life," he said. " . . . But I hope I can learn from this. While I was there, I thought about all the guys who went to war in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in other parts of Asia, and realized we didn't have it all that bad. Think about those guys."

There was one other complication. According to Vitti, no one has been paid yet, and there may be a dispute between Pro-Serv and the trip's sponsors, Phillip Morris Asia, Inc. According to one source, the players were promised between $5,000 and $7,500 apiece.

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