Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Renato Lobo - the last breed of pigeon-chested sweet shooters

In 1975, as I was slowly opening my eyes to various sports, I grew a certain fascination with anything that began with the letter "C." I started cheering for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, after cracking the Western Conference Finals (yes, Chicago was at the Midwest Division and in the West back then) to face the Golden State Warriors. It's apparent I also cheered for the Crispa Redmanizers, and their lead stars, Atoy Co and Philip Cezar, despite having 7 male siblings cheering for their arch rivals, the Toyota Comets. In tennis, I was fascinated with Jimmy Connors, who conquered the sport by winning the 1974 Wimbledon, Australian and US Open titles.

Curiously though, Crown Motors, the Silverio-owned franchise in the PBA, never really caught my fancy. Perhaps because they were owned by the arch rivals of Crispa. But the real reason? Renato "Etok" Lobo, the first amateur player I followed closely.

The name Lobo first caught my attention in 1975 when he was already playing for the FEU Tamaraws in the UAAP. His name was always at the top of the boxscores of the winning team, normally scoring in the mid-20s every single game. His name, along with a certain Anthony Dasalla, were the ones I gravitated to and made me want to actually study at FEU.

The two would eventually become inseparable, even up to the pro league. Broadcasters of the 70's used to describe them as a "Mutt and Jeff" combination although Lobo wasn't exactly a midget. The two were teammates in college, in the MICAA, and with various teams in the PBA. They would've retired at the same time as well, had injuries not intervened.

Two Sundays ago, Lobo and I got to meet each other at the FEU Tamaraws basketball reunion ( held at the Vikings Buffet & Restaurant at MOA. We exchanged numbers, hoping I can do his player profile. This Sunday morning, I finally got my chance to meet the one player who epitomized the kind of player I wanted to be: a gifted offensive player, someone who possessed a deadly pair of hands from outside, pigeon-chested - in the same physique as my other shooting idols Estoy Estrada, Jun Papa and Botchok Delos Santos.

Lobo was born on April 08, 1955 at Barangay Pinagkaisahan in Makati City. He played high school varsity ball at Pio Del Pilar HS in Makati for 4 straight years under Coach Moncada. Pio Del Pilar is the same school where future PBA pros Ricky and Molet Pineda hail from.

College Life

Lobo's skills were first discovered by former YCO player Egay Gomez who invited him to practice with the YCO Painters in the MICAA at the old YMCA gym back in 1974. After making a very good impression after sinking basket after basket, Coach Fely Fajardo invited him to try out for the Painters, at that time, was loaded with star players like Freddie Webb, Gomez, siblings Joy and Benjie Cleofas and Lobo's first cousin, Elias Tolentino. Tolentino had no inkling that Gomez would accompany Lobo to the Painters' practice...and no one realized that this was the turning point in Lobo's basketball life.

But since Lobo was barely out of high school at that time, it was best for him to season himself further in the collegiate league. He tried out with the UE Red Warriors and impressed Baby Dalupan. Dalupan instructed UE coach Pilo Pumaren to acquire his services immediately. But Lobo also tried out for the FEU Tamaraws under Turo Valenzona and the latter didn't waste any time in recruiting him.

His very first game as an FEU Tamaraw was in the Dream Invitational Tournament featuring the Warriors and the Tamaraws in the UAAP and the Ateneo Blue Eagles and La Salle Green Archers of the NCAA in early 1975. UE was led by Emerito Legaspi, Tito Varela and Ramon Cruz. FEU had Bokyo Lauchengco, Marte Saldaña, Nic Bulaong, Ben Brillantes, Armando Valencia and rookies Lobo and Dasalla. Ateneo had the likes of Joy Carpio, Fritz Gaston and Padim Israel while the Archers were led by the deadly Lim Eng Beng.

Lobo as the King Tamaraw

FEU was locked in a battle for UAAP supremacy with the mighty Warriors. In the last 4 stagings, both teams won two titles apiece with UE entering the 38th season as the defending champions. FEU strung up win after win only to forfeit around 4 games when Bokyo Lauchengco was found to be ineligible because of academic issues. Still, the Tamaraws went on a run and secured a Finals seat against the Warriors, the latter winning courtesy of a crucial steal by Varela in the final seconds of play.

With Legaspi gone in 1976 (, the Tamaraws took advantage and went on a tear, winning the championship with an unbeaten slate for the entire season. Lobo was at the forefront of that winning season, leading the team in scoring and becoming the best player in the league, upstaging Legaspi's heir apparent, Jimmy Manansala.

Joining the Commercial Leagues

With his first team, Villar Records

As Lobo's name became bigger, it wasn't long before commercial teams would recruit his services. His first team was with Villar Records in the Interclub alongside Dasalla. Other teammates included former national team player Nat Castillo, former future Tanduay player Alex Marquez, and skipper Dick Marquez. Villar went on to win the 1975 Interclub title in impressive fashion.

Winning his 1977 MICAA MVP award

Solid Mills 1977 and 1978 MICAA champions

After his short stint with the Mareco-based rccording company, t was natural for him to move to his mentor, Turing Valenzona, and Solid Mills. With Lobo and Dasalla leading the way, the Denim Makers went on to win a couple of championships in the MICAA and the Interclub. Other teammates included big names like Marte Saldaña, Yoyoy Villamin, Ray Obias, Benjie Chua, Butch Beso, among others. Lobo eventually won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in 1977.

As a national team member

It wasn't long before the call to serve the country came. Lobo suited up for practically every national team in 1977 - the 5th-placed Philippine team in the 1977 Asian Basketball Confederation in November, the 1977 Asian Youth competitions which the Philippines won for the 4th straight time in Kuwait, the victorious team that participated in the Pesta Sukan league in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and the gold medal-winning team that played in the 1977 Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur. In all those sojourns, Lobo was a main cog as the leading offensive weapon of the team.

Jumping into the pros

It wasn't a surprise that Lobo (and Dasalla) eventually found themselves playing for Solid Mills' mother team, the U/Tex Wranglers, in the PBA. Lobo was able to meet with representatives from Crispa and Toyota who were interested to lure him into their respective teams. But he eventually settled for his comfort zone - as Andy Jao, U/Tex's team manager, was also running Solid Mills. He was signed for two years with the Wranglers.

First PBA team - the U/Tex Wranglers

And just like with FEU, Villar and Solid Mills, Lobo brought his good fortune to the Wranglers. In only his second conference as a pro, Lobo provided bench support for Tommy Manotoc's charges in ending the Crispa-Toyota championship duopoly in the PBA. Reinforced by the tandem of Byron "Snake" Jones and Glenn McDonald, the Wranglers demolished the defending Open Conference champions, the Crispa Redmanizers, via a 3-0 sweep to collar its very first PBA title. Lobo averaged 7.45 ppg and 3.90 boards for the two seasons, including a single game high of 22 points registered in the 1979 season.

Lobo with the Cuenca-owned franchises, Galleon Shippers & CDCP

A higher offer came Lobo and Dasalla's way before the start of the 1980 season when new team Galleon Shippers took over the Filmanbank franchise. The Rodolfo Cuenca-owned squad paraded a lineup that had the likes of former Bankers' Boy Kutch, Larry Mumar, Angelito Ladores, Romy Palijo, Nilo Cruz, plus Lobo and Dasalla good enough to make this Nic Jorge-mentored team competitive right away. The succeeding year, Galleon was re-branded as CDCP (Construction Development Corporation of the Philippines), another company owned by Cuenca. They lost Mumar and Kutch but acquired the services of Manny Paner and bolstered their lineup further with rookie Gary Vargas who used to play for the APCOR Financiers in the MICAA. CDCP made PBA history by assembling two of the tallest imports in the league, featuring the 6'11 Edmond Lawrence and the 6'9 James Lister, who was later replaced by their previous season's reinforcement, the 6'11 Jeff Wilkins. CDCP wasn't able to crack the playoffs in their two-season stint, despite compiling a winning record. Lobo jacked up his scoring average to 9.36 points, 4.64 rebounds and 1.86 assists, including a single game high of 32 points in November 25, 1980.

Lobo as a Beerman

With CDCP disbanding at the start of the 1982 season, Lobo, Dasalla and Paner went to the San Miguel Beermen, the first two reuniting with new SMB coach Tommy Manotoc and Paner rejoining his original PBA team. The Beermen, powered by import Norman Black, went all the way to the Reinforced Finals in the first conference, losing to the Toyota Super Corollas in heartbreaking fashion, in Game 7. But SMB came back in the 2nd conference, the Asian Invitationals, and defeated Crispa in Game 3 of their best of three Final series, 103-102, to clinch their second franchise title.

Manotoc eventually left the Beermen in 1983, joining Crispa to replace multi-titled coach, Baby Dalupan. Nat Canson took over and this was the period when Lobo finally flourished as a pro. With Canson putting his full trust in him, Lobo blossomed, especially in the 1984 and 1985 seasons, regaining his deadly touch from the outside. It was unfortunate that sometime in the latter part of 1985, Lobo injured his left knee. He continued receiving his salary with SMB despite the team going on a leave of absence while rehabilitating his knee. He started practicing with Tanduay Rhum Makers in the 1987 pre-season under his original coach, Valenzona, and was about to secure a roster spot but re-injured his knee and never got to play competitive basketball again. He retired soon after and left for Chicago in April, 1987.

Life in America

Lobo went to the United States with his mother-in-law, with wife, the former Lina Lacsamana, staying behind to attend to the children. He did odd jobs like helping out in a factory that made home furnishings. Lina eventually followed him after seven months, while the kids were able to join their parents in 1990.

Lobo is presently working at a warehouse for a hospital company, Cardinal Health Midwest Distribution Center of Waukegan, Illinois. He's been employed there since 1989.

Lobo has 4 children who are all based in the United States, the eldest being 38 and the youngest at 28. The youngest was born in the United States after Etok and Lina migrated to the US in 1987.

Personal Musings

Lobo recounts his May 25, 1982 game versus the Crispa Redmanizers as his most memorable ever. In that game, San Miguel beat Crispa, 118-113, with the sweet-shooting forward knocking down 25 points, just behind import Black's 37 points. The Redmanizers led practically the entire game, and was nursing an 88-87 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter when Lobo and Black conspired to give the Beermen the win. Glen Hagan led the Redmanizers in a losing cause with 32 points, with Atoy Co chipping 24.

He credits Turing Valenzona, Egay Gomez, Elias Tolentino, Andy Jao and Tommy Manotoc as the most influential personalities in his career. The late Tony Dasalla was his closest buddy, having been his teammate in practically all the teams that they played for - FEU, Villar Records, Solid Mills, U/Tex, Galleon / CDCP, San Miguel and the national teams. They would have been teammates also with Tanduay in a reunion with Valenzona if not for the left knee that Lobo re-injured early 1987.

Lobo finds Philip Cezar and Abe King as the best defenders who have ever guarded him while Bogs Adornado being the player that is most difficult to defend. Speaking of defense, if there's one chink in his armour that he would have wanted to improve, that would have been his ability to defend his guard better, as Lobo has always been known as a knockdown shooter from outside.

Renato "Etok" Lobo entered the basketball scene at a most unfortunate time when the big names joined the PBA in 1975. And when he joined the PBA in 1978, these big names remained dominant for another decade until the new guns like Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codiñera, Benjie Paras, Jojo Lastimosa and Ronnie Magsanoc entered the scene. Lobo struggled to earn playing time at the onset, having to play behind guys like Lim Eng Beng, Romy Cabading, Romeo Frank, and later, the revered Bogs Adornado, among others. And since his game was founded on confidence, he needed the floor burn to become effective. Alas, when he found his game and started to enjoy playing basketball again, that was when injury struck.

During the 70's, Philippine basketball had an abundance of exceptional outside shooters. Curiously, a lot of these players had a common physical trait: they were pigeon-chested. Guys like Jun Papa, Estoy Estrada, Botchok Delos Santos, Joy Dionisio, among others were deadshot gunslingers from the perimeter. Lobo perhaps was the last breed of deadly barrel-chested shooters in the league, capable of knocking down an outside shot from almost every angle. His offensive game was varied as he was also capable of penetrating the interior and get some easy layups, using his nifty pivoting that offset his average quickness.

With Rey Lazaro and Lobo
Etok Lobo today

The first time this blogger met Lobo was at the FEU Tamaraws basketball reunion held at the Vikings Buffet Restaurant at the Mall of Asia a couple of Sundays ago. It was a surreal moment for this blogger, and when he confessed to Lobo that he was a fan, he didn't really think the ex-pro took it seriously. He has received countless similar admissions, albeit loosely done, from people from all walks of life. What he may not have realized was that he was standing beside a genuine fan who followed his career since 1975 when this blogger was only seven years young.  Lobo shaped his life as a basketball fan, influencing the teams that he rooted for, including the university he initially wanted to study in college. Wherever Lobo went, this blogger followed his path.

Philippine basketball today has a dearth of deadly consistent outside shooters. It's unfortunate especially in this era when the three point shot is regarded as the great equalizer, particularly for small teams like our national teams. Lobo would have a flourishing career today as a designated spot up shooter from beyond the arc or fake the defender and come closer for a 15 foot jumper. But it was his sweet-shooting crafty style that made him special. More than that, Lobo was a clutch player who won several games because of his late game heroics, and was a winner wherever he went. One UAAP title, a couple of MICAA and Interclub championships, gold medals in the SEA Games, Pesta Sukan and Asian Youth championships, and two PBA titles - plus an MVP title in the 1977 MICAA season make Lobo one of the most decorated players to ever join the PBA back in the 70's.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Chancing upon a PBA Legend...

Not that many younger fans would recall the name, Rey Lazaro. He wasn't in the same elite star level as a Robert Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Alvin Patrimonio or Bogs Adornado. He didn't reap that many individual awards as well, his primary accomplishments being a member of the 1982 PBA All Star competition held in Manila and Cebu where he played for the North team, and as a surprising runner-up to Fernandez in the 1982 Hardcourt King One-on-One competitions held in between the two games.

Yes, you read it right, there was a one-on-one tournament held a couple of times in the early PBA years. Three years before that, in 1979, Philip Cezar became the Keyhole King when he beat Fernandez in the Finals. But with Cezar not participating in 1982, Fernandez was the odds-on favorite to  win the crown. There were two divisions - one featuring players below six feet tall (won by Willie Generalao), while another that had players going up against each other who were 6'1 and above. On his way to the Finals, Lazaro defeated the likes of Arnie Tuadles and Manny Victorino to set up a showdown with El Presidente.

It was in 1977 when I first heard of his name. He joined the Far Eastern University Tamaraws under Coach Turing Valenzona but became a fixture in many national teams, notably the 1979 FIBA-Asia tournament held in Nagoya, Japan under Coach Freddie Webb, and in the 1980 FIBA World Youth held in Brazil and as captain ball for the 1980 FIBA Asian Youth Championships in Bangkok. Even during that time, I was already following his game closely as he became part of my first favorite amateur team, the Solid Mills Denim Makers. At that time, Solid Mills had Valenzona as their coach so it was natural that the FEU players suited up for the team.

But when Valenzona was "pirated" by Herdis Group of Companies Chairman Herminio Disini to form the APCOR Financiers team in the MICAA, Solid Mills lost some of their star players who joined their coach with the neophyte team. Despite the success that Solid Mills achieved in the MICAA, winning titles in 1976 and 1978, they couldn't stop Valenzona and his wards from leaving. APCOR naturally became the super team of the MICAA, with a roster that was practically the national team at that time already - guys like future pros Yoyoy Villamin, Gerry Samlani, Bay Cristobal, Ramon Cruz, Padim Israel, Zaldy Latoza, Gary Vargas, Terry Saldaña, Marte Saldaña, Alex Clariño, Rad Pasco and Lazaro forming the dreaded roster.

True enough, APCOR won multiple MICAA championships and was already forming a dynasty of its own. There were reports that Disini wanted to join the PBA as early as 1981 and bring with him the core of his amateur team directly to the league (there was no PBA Draft at that time). Had he done so, APCOR would probably have become extremely competitive, judging from the Financiers' ability to beat the mighty Crispa Redmanizers in tune-up games.

Fate, though, had other plans. Disini was forced to flee the Philippines in the Dewey Dee caper and the company had no choice but to disband its basketball team. Almost everyone in the team went on to suit up for different PBA teams midway in the 1981 season - Cristobal, Israel, Villamin and Cruz for Crispa, Samlani went to U/Tex, Vargas suited up for Galleon Shippers, Latoza and Lazaro joined forces at YCO/Tanduay, Clariño and Pasco went to Gilbey's Gin. Only the Saldañas, Terry and Marte (not related), joined the year after with Terry donning the Toyota jersey while Saldaña hooking up with the San Miguel Beermen. Terry was on the cusp of winning the ROY award in 1982 but a melee in a PBA game against the visiting South Korean national team where Saldaña kicked a Korean opponent, knocked him out of the race. Marte, who was then running second, eventually won the award.

Before joining YCO/Tanduay, Lazaro received feelers from the Toyota camp who expressed interest in acquiring his services. Lazaro, a one-on-one specialist, would have fitted well with the then Super Diesels, backstopping Arnie Tuadles at the small forward position, or rotate at the power forward slot, spelling Abe King. But Webb, who coached Lazaro in the 1979 national team, convinced Lazaro that the ideal team to go to was the Esquires as he would be guaranteed playing time. True enough, Lazaro, as a rookie midway into the season, became a starter right away, supplanting resident forward Abet Gutierrez. Lazaro played a phenomenal rookie year but couldn't earn enough statistical points to overtake Rafael "Cho" Sison of Presto for the ROY award. Had Lazaro been able to join the PBA at the start of the season like Sison, he would have crowded Sison for the award.

1982 was a breakout season for Lazaro. He started becoming Tanduay's go-to guy at the slot, in tandem with former San Beda Red Lion JV Yango. In October that year, he was selected to play for the North team in the PBA All-Star Series sponsored by the soda brand, Mello Yello.  North won the series, losing in Cebu, 122-119, but winning in Manila, 123-118. The cumulative scores of the two games saw North, with 242 points, nipping South which scored 240. Only on his sophomore year, Lazaro was already a bonafide PBA All-Star.

On the same year, he surprisingly beat Victorino and Tuadles to set up a showdown with Fernandez in the Hardcourt King One-on-One tournament. Fernandez had the advantage in both height and experience, two factors that proved pivotal to his win. Lazaro gamely tried to compete but Fernandez, then already recognized as the best player in the league, proved too much for him. Still, it was a major coup for the 6'2 forward who wasn't even expected to figure deep in the tournament.

He played for two more seasons with Tanduay until his contract expired and was given offers by other teams. The most notable was the offer coming from incoming playing coach Jaworski, who was then putting up his team at Ginebra after taking over the coaching chores from Valenzona. Lazaro and the Big J struck a verbal agreement for the former to play for Ginebra, thereby reinforcing the Gins' interior that already had Ricky Relosa, Terry Saldaña, Romy Mamaril, Ed Ducut and Nic Bulaong. But Webb, who was taken in to coach the new franchise, Shell Azodrin Bugbusters, came into the scene once more and made Lazaro decide to play for the new team instead. It was Webb's commitment to make Lazaro an outright starter for the team that convinced him.

At Shell, he played the #4 position, alongside center Philip Cezar, small forward Bogs Adornado, shooting guard Bay Cristobal and point guard Bernie Fabiosa. Shell proved that despite being a new team, they were already worthy contenders, placing second to Great Taste in their very first All Filipino conference in the PBA, losing the Best of Five series, 3-1. Lazaro played a crucial role in Shell's cause, being the team's best offensive weapon inside the paint. Unfortunately, they came across a very motivated Great Taste team led by Ricardo Brown, Abe King and Manny Victorino, then aiming for a rare Grandslam to end up second overall.

Lazaro's reputation as one of the league's best one-on-one players of all time became evident at Shell when he had three consecutive 40-point games in a mighty display of offensive firepower. His confidence brimming and playing at peak form, Lazaro was at the cusp of superstardom.

In one game against the popular Ginebra team in the 1986 Reinforced Conference, Lazaro figured in a near brawl with import Terry Duerod. The Shell forward got clipped on the chin by a wayward elbow from Duerod. In the return play, Lazaro undercut Duerod that led to a dangerous fall by the import, and the refs immediately assessing Lazaro a technical foul. Ginebra fans howled and jeered Lazaro endlessly and from out of nowhere, authored a now familiar chant - "Lazaro, Gago (silly)!" This chant later morphed into different variations - from the now immortal "referee, gago," to any player with a 3-syllable surname that earned the fans' ire. When many fans thought this chant was originally meant for the zebras, it was actually Lazaro who became the first "victim" of this.

As such, Lazaro became one of the biggest villains in the eyes of the Ginebra multitude. It didn't help that he would play his best games against Ginebra, and figured in physical battles with Ginebra big men like Dondon Ampalayo, Saldaña, Mamaril, among others. He would also figure in clashes with the fans in the hope of silencing them. But he later realized that the best way to quiet the crowd was to play his game and score inside.

Despite the skirmishes, it is curious to note that Lazaro and Jaworski remained in good terms even beyond their retirement years. Jaworski has always admired Lazaro's interior game, his tough mental approach, and his one-on-one ability. The Big J was always known to have a post up player go one-on-one - whether it was Saldaña or Michael Hackett, or Noli Locsin or Steve Hood, or Marlou Aquino or Chris King. Heck, even his point guards have to know how to play the post, something that guys like Leo Isaac, Rudy Distrito and Joey Loyzaga took advantage of when going up against smaller defenders. Lazaro was the perfect fit, because he was genuinely crafty and skilled with his post game. His classic move is playing behind the basket, pushed his way inside the paint for his sweet spot, then turn around just below the ring, but suspend himself in mid-air, and take the reverse shot instead. It was a thing of beauty, an art mastered by someone who knew how to score inside despite being guarded by bigger and taller imports. Older folks who used to play the game would oftentimes ape the elegant shot of Fernandez, or the barreling drive of the Big J, or the turnaround fadeaway jumper of Atoy Co. Yet, there were also many who want to do the Lazaro undergoal reverse stab, as, in local parlance, the term, "pinahihirapan yun tira" became popular. "Eh ang ganda nga naman tingnan talaga, di bale nang hindi pumasok, basta maganda porma," was the common quip among neighborhood toughies.

In 1988, Lazaro moved to the Alaska Air Force who was then coached by, you guessed it, Valenzona. Turing was later replaced by Lazaro's Shell teammate, Adornado, but with the entry of young and exciting rookies like Bong Alvarez, Ric Ric Marata and Boy Cabahug, his playing time dwindled. With Tim Cone replacing Adornado as head coach, Lazaro was benched and by the 1990 season, he opted to leave Alaska and the PBA quietly and flew to the United States. He is presently based in Miami, Florida, working as an accounts receivable specialist for a sports and events management group. He is married to the former Diana Laurel, with whom he has four children - Daryl (36), Reynaldo, Jr. (34), Dennis (32) and Aurora (22).

Being one of my favorite players of all time, it was a privilege to have met and talk to Lazaro up close and personal. He remains the shy, softspoken player we've known, whose viciousness can only be evidenced inside the playing court. He enjoys the time away from the hardcourt, but has his own personal sentiments that lingered: what would have happened if he responded positively to the Toyota feelers? Would he have a longer PBA career, would this have made him popular, or would he find himself retiring when the franchise disbanded at the end of the 1983 season? What if he pursued his verbal deal with the Big J to play for Ginebra - would he have been a big name like many Ginebra players? Would he have become a darling of the fans and the media? Could he have won individual awards along the way? Would he have won a coveted PBA title?

The same questions linger in the mind of this blogger. Having been a Ginebra follower from 1986 to 1998, what would have been like cheering for a personal idol back in the 70's while playing for his favorite team? When Philip Cezar joined Añejo Rum in the 1989 season, I cannot hide my excitement seeing the Scholar play alongside the Big J. It would have probably been the same sentiment had Lazaro ended up playing for Jaworski and Ginebra.

Then again, Rey Lazaro is one legend difficult to forget. The guy who brought so much class when scoring underneath the basket, when posting up against a taller defender and cunningly score against him was a totally awesome sight to look at, when crunch time comes and you have an extremely reliable player capable of scoring in the clutch - the memories that Lazaro brought to the court and mesmerized the fans will never, ever, be forgotten...

When "old" Tamaraws meet...

A few months back, I received a PM from Lito Lazaro, the younger brother of former PBA pro Rey Lazaro, asking me if I can do the latter's player profile. Having done the profiles of former Toyota sentinels Abe King, Emer Legaspi and Arnie Tuadles, I readily agreed. Except that I needed more information on Rey. Lito claimed that Rey will be in Manila (he's based in Miami, Florida) sometime January and he can hook me up for an interview.

It was 4PM of Sunday, February 11, 2018, when Rey, Lito and I met at a doughnut shop in Blue Bay along Macapagal Avenue. The interview went well, except that we had to cut it short as the two will be attending the FEU Tamaraws basketball team grand reunion at Vikings Buffet at the MOA. They invited me to come, and with hesitation, I went with them, not knowing what to expect.

Turned out to be a surreal moment for this writer. You see, when I was 7 years old, I stumbled on several newspaper articles of the exploits of FEU in the UAAP. It not only became my favorite school in the UAAP at that time - I actually wanted to study there for college! My first favorite amateur player growing up was Renato "Etok" Lobo, a pudgy, barrel-chested forward capable of shooting the lights out from anywhere. As a young kid, I was particularly partial to these type of players - guys like Jun Papa, Estoy Estrada, Botchok Delos Santos, among others, caught the eyes of this kid. Lobo was also the reason why my first favorite amateur team was Solid Mills, a contrast to my male siblings who cheered for Toyota and naturally gravitated towards Crown Motors / MAN Diesel / Frigidaire.

When Rey introduced me to Lobo, he even teased me, telling Etok, "pare, nagseselos ako. Akala ko, ako idol nitong si Jay, yun pala, ikaw yun pinaka-idol niya talaga!" Etok gave a genuine smile I will never forget. It wasn't much because I was warmly received by an idol, it was also the face of amusement and acceptance. Hearing how I followed his exploits way back in the mid-70's, Lobo warmly accepted me like a long-lost younger brother. Or at least, that's how I felt....

The surrealism increased when I started seeing familiar faces. Bay Cristobal (who, after Lobo, was the one I followed closely at FEU), Jojo Valle, Rad Pasco, Glenn Capacio, Vic Pablo, Andy De Guzman, Vic Pablo, even coach Turing Valenzona, the man responsible for giving the Tamaraws at least three championships from 1976-1980 - just seeing them in one gathering already made my Sunday night.

But there were two faces that I didn't recognize - I even had to ask Lito (who himself was also a member of the 1980 and 1981 Tamaraws team) who these guys were for validation. The first was Nicanor Bulaong (FEU, '73 champions),  perhaps the most popular bench player from the Toyota franchise. As a Crispa fan, Bulaong broke my heart when he sank the go-ahead buzer-beating basket that gave Toyota a 120-119 victory against the Redmanizers in the second game of the opening night of the 1983 season. Bulaong wasn't as popular as his teammates but he was one of the fan favorites, always capable of providing quality minutes while spelling the great Ramon Fernandez. Bulaong remained tall and imposing with a ready smile, but he just looked, uh, more "mature."

The other was Federico "Bokyo" Lauchengco. Older fans would remember Lauchengco as perhaps the longest-serving national team player during his time. Lauchengco was already donning the national team colors as early as 1976 and was still part of the pioneer group that made up the NCC Training Team formed by then Ambassador Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Jr. in 1980. Once described by the late Joe Cantada as "Prince Valiant" for his moptop hairdo, it's almost impossible to recognize Bokyo today, minus the bangs. He's a very cheerful person, extremely amiable, and pleasant to talk to. Donning a red bullcap may be his vain attempt to conceal the receding hairline, but no one will ever forget his exploits.

How can I not admire this FEU team? They were the UAAP titlists in 1972, 1973, 1976 (led by the dominant duo of Etok Lobo and Tony Dasalla (+)), and a majestic 3-peat from 1979 to 1981. In 1980 and 1981, they ended up unbeaten in the eliminations. That's 24 straight wins! Give me a chance to repeat that, 24 straight wins with no loss.

They had a dominant American player who was taking up Medical Technology at FEU - his name is Anthony Williams, now a retired Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer. He was 6'4 and was an absolute beast. No one held a candle against him - not even the 6'5 Ed Cordero of the UST Glowing Goldies. To date, when many younger fans would claim Ben Mbala being the most dominant player in UAAP history, I would always beg to disagree. It was Williams, who averaged close to 25 points and 15 boards a game who led the Tamaraws to that 24-win run. Williams had teammates like Chris McGarry, the sweet shooting Valle (himself a former National Youth team member back in 1980), and wily point guard Danny Manalastas to help him out. Cristobal was still with the 1979 team, while Alfred Amador and Glenn Capacio joined in 1980.

Anyway, back to the event - the party started around 6:30PM with Rey doing the opening remarks. All the players got their chance to introduce themselves. A couple of wisecracks here and there, Cristobal waxing nostalgia while honoring Valenzona, never-ending "groufie" photos, plus a live band getting everyone to sing along "We Are The Champions" by Queen with them, it was goosebumps galore. They even showed old photos on the widescreen of FEU's past accomplishments, most of the photos courtesy of Valle.

But the night belonged to the venerable Valenzona. A multi-titled coach in the MICAA, National Seniors, UAAP, NCAA and the PBA, Turing deserved every single accolade he got from his ex-players that night. When Turing was younger and playing for the Tamaraws against the likes of Robert Jaworski, Danny Florencio and Jimmy Mariano, he was already known to be a rugged, physical defender willing to exchange faces with his opponent just to snatch the ball away from him. He feared no one, just as he feared no coach when he was already giving FEU their multiple titles.

It was Valenzona who coached Solid Mills when the team won a couple of titles in the MICAA in 1976 and 1978. He was also the catalyst behind the formation of the multi-titled APCOR Financiers team owned by Herminio Disini. When APCOR was formed in 1979, Disini "pirated" Valenzona from Solid Mills, a team made up mostly of Valenzona's players at FEU. He brought some of these players to APCOR - guys like Lazaro, Cristobal, Pasco, Marte Saldaña, and others like Yoyoy Villamin, Gerry Samlani, Zaldy Latoza, Alex Clariño, Mon Cruz, Padim Israel, among others. The Financiers were the undisputed MICAA titlists from 1979 to 1981, beating opponents like the YCO Painters, MAN Diesel, Imperial Textile Mills (ITM), Bax Jeans, and yes, Solid Mills.

The party went on until the restaurant's closing time with the live band providing musical entertainment, churning out hits from the 70's and 80's. But it was the conversations, the jokes, the laughter, and the memories shared that made this night unforgettable for these once star cagers. While many can only reminisce their past exploits with their colleagues - the stories shared, the friendships forged, and the rekindled memories - all these were recaptured on that one night when the FEU Tamaraws took a nostalgic trek back history lane when they stood together as one, chanting in unison, "We Are The Champions!"

They truly were...

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Ginebra “favorites” – a list of the most reviled personalities during the Big J era

        When Ginebra became the favorite team of the hoop-loving Filipinos in the mid-80’s, it’s no small wonder that they also generated their own “hitlist” of personalities that they disliked. This could be attributed for several reasons: plays with “angas” against Ginebra, always plays his career game versus the Gins, likes to “mix” it up with the crowd (ala Belga and Abueva today), or just plain grudging respect where fans can simply shake their head in amazement and awe.

Let’s list down the ten personalities heavily despised by the GInebra faithful from 1985 to 1998 when the Big J was still the undisputed leader of the team. Before we begin though, allow me to list a couple of honorable mentions:

1.     Elmer Cabahug – yeah, Cabahug never really figured in any fisticuff or trash talking with Ginebra players or the fans. What many may not know was Cabahug’s nick, “The Silencer,” may have come from his ability to quiet the Ginebra crowd with his timely three-point sniping. He wasn’t totally “hated,” but as any diehard Ginebra fan back then would admit, whenever Cabahug would take the last shot for his team for the win, a part of their respective lives passed away with that killer shot. Imagine the thrill of the fans when, in a game vs. Alaska, Cabahug missed two FT’s with no time left, sending the game to OT and Añejo winning. When the two teams met again, Cabahug was given a “standing ovation” by the GInebra faithful for what he did the last game.

2.      Alvin Teng – “Robocop” was a scorn of Ginebra because of his penchant to pull down crucial offensive rebounds in the stretch. But what made Teng stand out was his willingness to rough it up against the Ginebra defenders, including a near skirmish with Rudy Distrito. There was no doubt that the Big J wanted to have Teng on his team because of his work ethic, but never got the chance. Fans though, were able to express their frustration by coming up with a chant against Teng that wasn’t too pleasant to hear – “Teng…Ina mo!”

3.     Onchie Dela Cruz – whenever Ginebra and Tanduay duked it out, it was a relishing sight. While Ginebra may be physical, Tanduay wasn’t exactly pushovers. They had guys like Vic Sanchez, Itoy Esguerra, Willie Generalao, Mon Fernandez, and yes, Onchie Dela Cruz who wouldn’t be intimidated. There were speculations that the Big J was wary of Dela Cruz’ ruggedness that he started Distrito to “soften” him up a bit. Perhaps the one image that stood out was Onchie throwing a ball of spit at the face of Ginebra import Wes Matthews that nearly led to a melee.

4.  Willie Generalao - curiously, the Little General first played for the Gilbey's franchise in his ROY season in 1980. He was also a teammate of the Big J and Arnaiz in the 1984 season, but eventually went to Tanduay to join his mentor, Turing Valenzona. Generalao had several tough battles with the Big J and other Ginebra guards and seemed to play his best against his former team. He wasn't intimidated by anyone, even the hostile crowd, and despite his small frame, was ready to duke it out against anyone. Wily as he was, Generalao earned the goat of fans brought about by his intensity and apparent dislike for his former team.

5.     Rudy Hines – not as a player, but as a referee. Hines became the all-time villain among the officials among Ginebra followers because his calls were perceived to be against Ginebra most of the time. Hines was one of the three referees who covered Game 6 of the 1990 Open Conference Finals between Shell and Añejo. With a lot of key players in foul trouble with still 2:56 left in the first half, Añejo center Rey Cuenco couldn’t take it anymore, and slapped him on the nape (“binatukan”), leading to his banishment. Another referee reviled by the faithful was Ogie Bernarte, but it was Hines who truly stood out.

6.     Harmon Codiñera – You may wonder why the elder Codiñera is in this list when he was part of the franchise. In Harmon’s case, he is no different from Chris Ellis today – a player who fans would want to see more on the bench. Not to say Harmon was not serviceable, because he was. It’s his penchant to commit head-scratching mistakes and faulty decisions that can only make the Ginebra follower say, “WTF!” The fans’ favorite quip back then? “We got the wrong Codiñera!”

Now for the Top 10 list:

10  Angelito “Itoy” Esguerra

Itoy Esguerra started out as one of the top hotshots to come out of the NCAA, leading the Letran Knights to the crown in the 1979 season. He eventually essayed an “enforcer” role in the PBA, particularly when he moved to Tanduay where he joined forces with equally tough guys Sanchez, Dela Cruz, Generalao, and Fernandez. Fans would remember with disdain Esguerra’s deliberate throwing of the ball to Chito Loyzaga while inbounding that almost turned to a brawl. Esguerra relished his role to the hilt, and while hated by Ginebra and its followers, was considered an asset by their arch rivals.

9.  Romy Dela Rosa

The Big J was revered so much by his followers that anyone who would turn him down is regarded a villain. Dela Rosa was an unknown entity when he joined the 1989 PBA Draft, and many were surprised to see him drafted by Jaworski at #4 overall. Even more surprising was Dela Rosa turning down Ginebra’s salary of P60k a month, preferring to suit up for Shell who were willing to give him P10k more. This forced the hand of the Big J to trade him to Shell for Rey Cuenco. While the trade eventually evened out, there were several instances when Dela Rosa and Cuenco had brushes against each other, a compelling side story to a brewing rivalry.

8.  Totoy Marquez

If there was one player who had “angas” written all over his face, it was Totoy Marquez. Known to play physical defense against the Big J, the two would eventually find themselves trading shots against each other during the game. But of course, you don’t do that to the Living Legend, in the eyes of the Ginebra faithful. Everytime Marquez held the ball, fans jeered him endlessly. It peaked further when he played for the rookie franchise Purefoods TJ Hotdogs in the 1988 season. In Game 4 of the All Filipino Finals that Añejo won, Marquez committed three straight fouls in the final minutes, eventually fouling out. In disgust, Marquez took off his wristbands and threw them towards the bench obviously affected by the heckling.

7.  Atoy Co

Early Ginebra followers were mostly Toyota supporters who gravitated towards the Big J and Francis Arnaiz when the Silver Coronas disbanded at the end of the 1983 season. It’s no coincidence that the one player that they disliked the most came from Crispa and the face of the franchise – Atoy Co. When Co’s game started to dip, It gave more opportunities for fans to jeer him. It started when Co missed an unmolested layup against Ginebra, shattering his confidence in the process. When Co was dribbling the ball towards the frontcourt, fans were already egging him to take the shot – 60 feet away from the basket! It was utterly frustrating for Co who got affected by the jeers and tried to quiet them down. And like any other “favorite” player of Ginebra fans, he had his own chant from the faithful – “Co-Pal!” (try saying it out loud repeatedly)

6.     Ronnie Magsanoc

The Point Laureate was genuinely respected by Ginebra fans, but he became public enemy #1 in the 1990 season when he practically “destroyed” the defense put against him. Jaworski put every single body possible in trying to stop the former UP Maroon to no avail – he was virtually unstoppable. Distrito was practically “roughhousing” him in the 1990 Open Conference Finals but Magsanoc simply shrugged this off and retaliated by scoring trey after trey. In an ultimate sign of respect, Distrito was seen on camera high-fiving Magsanoc during the game, acknowledging the latter’s phenomenal performance. Like Cabahug, while Magsanoc wasn’t genuinely “hated,” he was feared more by the Ginebra faithful. Later that year, the Big J selected Magsanoc as part of the 1990 national team and even gave him more floor burn over then top point guard Hector Calma in the Beijing Asian Games.

5.  Frankie Lim

Who would have thought Frankie Lim ending up as a Ginebra coach abeit, for a short period of time? Seeing Lim at the Ginebra bench was a queer sight for elder fans, as there’s no love lost between him and the fans. Lim was one of those who could face Jaworski head-on without getting intimidated. He also was capable of giving his own licks to the Big J without regard to the constant howling of the fans. And then, with the game on the line, the former San Beda King Lion would seal the win for his Alaska Air Force team with a dagger of a trey at the most crucial episode of the game. Lim was the epitome of players stepping up and rising to the challenge of a hostile atmosphere known as the Ginebra faithful.

4.  Rey Lazaro

When Ginebra fans dislike an opponent, they make sure their sentiments are heard. Perhaps the first time a player got cussed by the fans happened to one of the best one-on-one players at that time, Shell’s Rey Lazaro. Lazaro wasn’t a dirty player, but knows how to retaliate when there’s a need. He made the “mistake” though of doing this to the Living Legend, thereby earning the ire of the fans. From out of the blue, the ULTRA burst with angry unison screams of “Lazaro, Gago!” For the first time in PBA history, fans vented their anger towards one particular opposing personality, something that became a common soundbyte in the coming years. Lazaro, though, was tough as nails, and didn’t let the jeers affect him mentally, continuing to menace the Ginebra defense with his acrobatic undergoal stabs. This chant later morphed into “referee, gago” or insert name of player / team here, gago”

3.  Abet Guidaben

Abet Guidaben was perhaps the most disliked player among Toyota fans in the Crispa roster. The sentiment escalated further when the two teams disbanded and Jaworski became an icon. Guidaben was always a thorn to Ginebra so long as he kept his temper in check. Unfortunately, he had a short fuse and got riled easily. Jaworski and the fans know this and made sure that his mental game would be disrupted. Guidaben’s reactions against bad calls, hard fouls, and trash talking made him an easy target among the fans. Add to the fact that the Big J and Guidaben seemed to have a genuine dislike with each other – in one game between Ginebra and Pepsi Mega (Guidaben’s team), the two had a staredown that was riveting and lapped by the fans. Guidaben would ape Jaworski by walking gingerly with an imaginary cane holding him up, in apparent reference to the Big J’s age. Jaworski would retaliate by doing push-ups after he found himself floored after a play. Just one of those super rivalries among personalities that made the PBA the center of entertainment back in the 80’s and 90’s.

2.  Jojo Lastimosa

A rivalry among two teams can have an effect on relationships among players. Jojo Lastimosa was one of the most admired players in the young Purefoods team that even Ginebra fans would want to see him playing for their team. That all came to an end one evening when Lastimosa undercut Jaworski while going for a layup. IN the next play, the Big J, apparently losing his composure, gave a phantom punch on Jolas’ stomach, an incident clearly seen on TV cameras but was missed by the three zebras. Then Commissioner Rudy Salud suspended Jaworski for the deed, and the two didn’t seem to see eye to eye from thereon. The Ginebra faithful fanned the flames further when they jeered Jolas endlessly all the way until his Alaska years. From admiration to disdain – Lastimosa unfortunately became one of the most loathed players ever among Ginebra fans.

1.     Ramon Fernandez

Let’s face it, the feud between Jaworski and Ramon Fernandez brought about by the Toyota disbandment was perhaps one of the top reasons why the PBA peaked in terms of popularity back in the 80’s. The simmering conflict was apparent in practically every setting – when the two teams faced each other, when Fernandez also became a playing coach for Purefoods in 1988, when the two personalities became post-season awardees and didn’t even greet each other despite standing next to one another, and the rivalries among their respective teams – Ginebra vs. Tanduay, Ginebra vs. Purefoods, Ginebra vs. San Miguel. Ginebra fans didn’t exactly despise Fernandez but they know there was a feud between the two. And because Fernandez was the greatest thorn on the side of Ginebra at both ends of the court, it’s not a surprise that the team almost always struggled against Don Ramon-led teams. The detest was also mostly out of respect – El Presidente was so good that the Ginebra faithful can only shake their respective heads when they end up at the losing end. No surprise that the most memorable All-Star game in PBA history was in 1989 when the two, engaged by their coach Baby Dalupan, shook hands at the end of the game after collaborating to author a win at the buzzer.