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On the day he turned 17, Chris Ross gave John Jay High School a gift. It did not come with a pretty bow or lighted candles. It came with an awkward leap and a desperate heave. It ended with a burst of madness and a pile of humanity.
Every year since, Ross marks another birthday by cueing up the video. There he is on the floor of the Erwin Center in Austin, dribbling up the court in the Class 5A state championship game. The scoreboard shows Jay trailing Dallas Kimball 53-51 in the fourth period.
With 0.7 seconds left, Ross double clutches and releases a half-court prayer. The buzzer sounds. The ball travels 50 feet, more than 9,000 sets of eyes following its arc. The ball falls cleanly through the net. The place erupts.
After missing his first 12 shots of the state tournament, Ross made his 13th and was named Most Valuable Player.
Fifteen years later, the video is spotty and faded but the memories are vivid. Every March 9, his birthday, Ross revisits “The Shot.”
“The crazy thing is, I get the chills every time I watch it,” he said.
Ross enjoys tingles of nostalgia but does not live in the past. He is an uncommon athlete whose professional career on the other side of the world eclipses his high school legend. Ross, 32, plays ball in the Philippines. He lives in Manila, a city of 1.6 million that knows little about his half-court shot but everything about his Philippine Basketball Association heroics.
On March 4, Ross led the San Miguel Beermen to a third straight PBA Philippines Cup, the island nation’s version of an NBA championship. Almost 15 years to the day of his half-court miracle, Ross delivered another impossible play to clinch a championship. With 42 seconds left in Game 5, Ross made a shot one publication described as “an insane, reverse, no-look putback.”
The bucket sealed the win – 91-85 over Barangay Ginebra – and series for San Miguel.
“Oh man, I didn’t even see it going. I just grabbed it and threw it up,” Ross told reporters. “Then I heard the crowd go crazy. … You could call it luck or even destiny that it went in.”
In the finals, he averaged 17.2 points, 9.2 assists, and 5.2 rebounds, and made national headlines. “Chris Ross delivers again on the big stage and wins 2nd Finals MVP honor,” one read.
In 2016, Ross came off the bench in the first three games of the PBA Cup Finals. With his team down 0-3 to Alaska, Ross delivered an impassioned plea to coach Leo Austria: Put me out there and we’ll win.
Austria started Ross in Game 4. The Beermen shocked Alaska and won three straight. In Game 7, Ross transformed from defensive stalwart to all-around star. Despite making only two of 24 shots from deep in the first six games, Ross knocked down four 3-pointers, scored 21 points, collected five assists, five rebounds, and the MVP trophy.
In basketball-mad Manila, Ross is a rock star, a celebrity who once dated popular actress Michelle Madrigal, a sought-after interview who recently gave a nine-minute, one-on-one to CNN The Philippines. The only player in PBA history to win back-to-back MVPs, Ross cannot appear in public without facing a crush of autograph seekers.
“Fan reaction has been ridiculous,” he said, barely 24 hours after winning his second MVP award. “I’ve gotten so many messages from fans showing me a lot of love and respect.”
How many messages? “Thousands,” he said.
Ross lives 8,409 miles from San Antonio in a city that feels like home. The pull of desire and DNA that drew him to the Philippines is a circle-of-life story worthy of Hollywood. Virginia Ross, Chris’ Filipino mother, was born and raised in Quezon City, the most populous city (2.7 million) on the island nation.
Billy Ross, Chris’ black father, met and married Virginia while stationed at Clark Air Base on Luzon Island, approximately 40 miles west of Metro Manila. Virginia gave birth to two children in the Philippines, William and Tracy, before she and Billy moved the family to San Antonio, where Chris was born in 1985.
Billy introduced Chris to football, basketball, and baseball at the age of 5. A natural athlete, Chris excelled in all sports. At Jay, he starred as a quarterback, receiver, and safety, and received numerous Division 1 offers to play football. He was a solid point guard but received far less college interest to play basketball.
In his youth, a story on the PBA caught his eye. He asked questions. He wondered what it might be like to visit. And then he made a decision.
“I told myself if I couldn’t make the NBA,” he said, “I would play in my mother’s home country.”
The NBA did not draft Ross after he averaged 6.8 points and 4.3 assists at Marshall. But the Burger King Whoppers of the PBA did. They took him with the third pick of the 2009 draft, then traded him to the Coca-Cola Tigers.
“I’m sure he could have played in Europe,” said Romy Vela, Ross’ coach at Jay. “But he hadn’t met any of his relatives in the Philippines. And that was important to him.”
Ross was an obscure playmaker in the beginning, averaging 16.9 minutes and 4.5 points his first season. He persevered, found his role – defense – and made his first PBA All-Star team in 2012. He broke out the next year when a trade sent him to San Miguel. In 2016, Ross was named Defensive Player of the Year.
What’s it like to watch Ross win PBA championships and MVP awards? To see him rise from obscurity to celebrity in a familiar but far away country?
“It feels awesome,” Billy said. “I’m so proud of him.”
Here’s one reason: After winning another PBA Cup and MVP award, Ross deflected praise to June Mar Fajardo, San Miguel’s 6-foot-11 center.
“It all starts from June Mar,” Ross told the media. “We all benefit from his greatness. All the attention he gets? It all just trickles down, man. … I was hoping they’d give out five MVPs. Our starters did so much. We played so many minutes, and I was just hoping we all five could get a trophy.”
On March 9, 2002, John Jay won a trophy. Ross won one, too. I was there, sitting behind the basket several rows up in the Erwin Center, when the half-court shot fell through. I turned in disbelief to a media colleague, our jaws falling at the same time. Did that just happen?
It wasn’t just the distance of the basket. It was the sudden convergence of so many improbable details. Ross had missed every shot he had taken. Jay had started the season 0-2 and wasn’t supposed to reach the state tournament. The Mustangs did not even win their district.
Dallas Kimball – and future NBA player Acie Law – entered the finals heavily favored and led until the final shot. With 5.4 seconds left, Kimball had a chance to extend a 2-point lead to four when Fred Campbell approached the free throw line.
Campbell, though, missed the front end of the one-and-one. Teammate Jason Grabb got a hand on the rebound until Ross swooped in and stole it. Ross dribbled up court and bumped into fellow Mustang Jeff Davis, losing his balance. As the clock ticked down to almost nothing, Ross released the double-clutch prayer.
As the ball spun through the air, Jay’s best player, Steve Goff, turned to walk off the court. “I felt there was no way it would go in,” said Goff, who teaches special education at Jay.
Goff played with a broken heart. The grandmother who helped raise him had died five days before the game. Doctors had kept Delores “Yobie” Walker on life support until Goff reached her bedside in Savannah, Ga. He missed the entire week of practice. In the championship game, he scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and blocked four shots. He did all he could to deliver a promise he had made to his dying grandmother: Jay would win state for her.
After the buzzer, Goff noticed teammates running and jumping. “When I realized we had won, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I ran one way and everybody else was running in the opposite direction. I picked up the basketball and began crying in disbelief.”
“The Shot” even flummoxed Vela, Jay’s coach.
“When the ball went in, I was thinking it was a 2-point shot, that the score was tied,” he said. “When everybody started going on the court, I knew it had won the game.”
A 50-foot shot at the buzzer to win a state championship is rare. Mike Thurston produced one for Maine’s Caribou High in 1969. Paul Andrews did it for Kentucky’s Laurel County High in 1982. Mike Christensen drained a 75-foot heave at the buzzer for Idaho’s Declo High in 1998. In 2014, North Carolina’s Alex Putman made a half-court winner to capture the girls state title for Bishop McGuinness.
Of this select group, only one is still winning championships and MVPs: the U.S.-born, Filipino star who turned 32 on Thursday, the 15-year anniversary of “The Shot.”