Robert Jaworski was already a basketball legend when I started falling in love with the game. I have only known The Living Legend in 1986 when his Ginebra San Miguel was battling the Manila Beer in the PBA’s Reinforced Conference, an import-laden tournament. The imports then were Ginebra’s Billy Ray Bates and Michael Hackett vs. Manila Beer’s Michael Young and Harold Keeling. My sisters then who were high school and college students were basketball crazy although they were straight and feminine. But my father was the “promotor” numero uno when it comes to watching basketball, although he always sided with the team going against Ginebra.
Our black and white TV which had a rotating switch not a remote control for changing channels became like a zapping Bermuda Triangle for it magnetized our full attention to it whenever “Jaworski and Ginebra” was in the match, whether it was a championship or just an elimination game. Thursdays and Sundays were just top-rating prime-time moments for IBC 13 who televised the PBA back then. In the ’80s and some seasons in the ‘90s, PBA mattered over NBA for most of the millions of Filipino basketball fans. How much more in the late ‘70s, when Crispa and Toyota were at the helm? But let’s go back to The Big J and Ginebra for it is fitting to discuss about this since Jaworski’s jersey No. 7 will be retired by the PBA, come July 8, 2012.
This is an account by a true blue fan of Ginebra and the Big J. I have been and always will be part of the legions of masses that followed and supported the saga of the Big J and the Ginebra PBA franchise.
Legendary Moment # 1: 1988 All-Filipino Conference Championship, Game 4 of the best of five. Ginebra (Anejo that time) Vs. Purefoods. Jawo was 42 years old, playing alongside and against players who were on their early 20s like Purefood’s Alvin Patrimonio, Jojo Lastimosa, and Jerry Codinera and Ginebra’s Dondon Amplayo. For the first three quarters, the undersized and underdog Ginebra was battered by the sweet-shooting young guns of Purefoods who led for as much as 19 points, a lead seemingly insurmountable. Of course, in the long run, that lead was vanished by the Never-say-die Ginebra. In the dying seconds of the fourth quarter, Purefoods leading by two, 119 -117, Jawo took a jump shot at the wing side but was bothered by a defender so he had to do a little bit of a pump shot to dodge the block. He missed but got his own miss inside the shaded lane and made another jump shot that finally went in. The jampacked arena erupting with the roar of Ginebra fans. But the loudest roar I heard were from my folks and my friends with whom I watched the game with from our television. During those days, public viewing was already in style only that there were no big screens yet like the ones used for Manny Pacquiao’s fight. And public viewing could be held by a neighbor not by some politician. LOL.
Purefoods failed to convert on the next possession. Overtime, Ginebra won, clinching the series and championship via 3-1. Jaworski scored over 20 points. I don’t remember anymore how many assists and rebounds. If there was a Finals MVP back then, Jawo could have won, unanimously.
Legendary Moment # 2: 1989 PBA All-Star Game – PBA Rookies, Sophomores, Juniors (RSJ) Team Vs. a Robert Jaworski- and-Ramon Fernandez-led Veterans Team. Jaworski and Fernandez back then was known to have a cold war which is why their reunion in the Veterans team was much anticipated. Fernandez, was a legendary player in his own right and arguably the most versatile center of all time as he could play multiple positions and could even bring down the basketball from court to court unlike many big men at that time. As if a legendary moment required legendary figures, Jaworski and Fernandez would connive in the last four seconds of the game with the score tied. Jaworski inbounded the ball to Fernandez who escaped a couple of defenders and made his famed baby shot of a lay up to steal the victory over the RSJ.
Legendary Moment # 3: Toyota Vs. Crispa Reunion Game. It was Fernandez’ time to return the favor to Jaworski. At a crucial point of the ballgame, under a minute left, Crispa was able to close in with Toyota via a three-point shot by Bogs Adornado to make the score 62 -61. In the next play, Jaworski put himself strategically at the Rainbow Territory aka three-point area. Fernandez, who was dribbling and posting up a Crispa defender, found the Big J waiting for the pass. Wasting no time, the Big J sank the big three, his lone 3-pointer and only shot taken during that game. And just like the old-Toyota and Ginebra days, the fans exploded a wild cheer of “Jaworski, Jaworski, Jaworski.” Toyota eventually brought home the bacon via a 65-61 final score.
What Jaworski and Ginebra Meant to me and all of their Fans
The late ‘80s Jaworski-led Ginebra days were glorious times for the PBA. The Purefoods – Ginebra rivalry was a major recurring (sometimes hostile) topic in my grade school class, my sisters’ own class in their respective universities and colleges, and in my father’s workplaces in Quiapo and Binondo. In many, many Filipino families or groups, Ginebra was a source of inspiration and entertainment…of a big celebration when they win, but also of deep sadness and frustration when they lose. I still remember frowning all day when they would lose. It’s like a cut to the heart, though in those tender years of mine, I did not know yet what real heartache was. The team was, and still is or will always, be the team of the masses.
Ginebra and Jaworski demonstrated in glaring fashion the real meaning of teamwork, courage, tenacity, hardwork, and believing in yourself despite being an underdog. Ginebra and Jaworski were more than meets the eye. They looked like misfits that were more likely to lose, but they ended up winners.
In the late ‘90s, the glamour boys of Ginebra continued the never-say-die spirit with Robert or Sonny Jaworski mostly doing coaching chores. This time they were a talented team on paper as they now had a number of the so-called “strong” (malakas) players such as Marlou Aquino eventually known as “The Skyscraper”, the sought-after amateur who became their top-pick of the 1996 PBA draft; Noli Locsin monacred “The Tank” because he was fat and burly yet so agile, a monster rebounder and scorer; Bal “The Flash” David, a University of Sto. Tomas standout point-guard; Vince Hizon, who was a spitfire of a slasher and fastbreak finisher and was also called “The Prince” because of his prince-like good looks; EJ Feihl, the 6’11 twin tower of Marlou Aquino; Wilmer Ong, a fierce rebounder, defender, and fouler; Jayvee Gayoso, the other prince-like good-looking guy with a knack for the unexpected and dramatic three point shots; Pido Jarencio, the reliable shooter, point guard, and fast break finisher; Benny Cheng, the best man-to-man defender much like Freddie Abuda of San Miguel and Rey Evangelista of Purefoods (now BMEG).
Although the Ginebra of this era was a formidable line up, they didn’t immediately gain a championship ring. At the start of the 1996 All Filipino Cup, it was frustrating to watch their rookies falter against veteran players of other teams. Gordon’s Gin, as they were now called, even lost an elimination game to Pepsi, who was then known to be a push-over, bottom-dweller kind of a team. Imagine the boos Ginebra players got during and after that game. Lebron James might just be the best man to empathize with them as he also experienced this for a long time before clinching a first NBA championship trophy last June 2012. Eventually, Ginebra played Alaska in a one do-or-die game to have the right to meet Purefoods in the finals of that conference. Ginebra lost. Alaska, which was coached by Tim Cone and led by Jojo Lastimosa, Bong Hawkins, and Johnny Abarrientos, came to be known as Ginebra’s major nemesis—the Villains in the eyes of the Gin Kings’ fans. Ginebra and Alaska’s rivalry in the late ‘90s was comparable in popularity and intensity with the Purefoods and Ginebra of the late ‘80s.
Despite the losses, Ginebra’s never-say-die spirit and heart never waned. I remember one time after Ginebra lost a crucial game, Jawo said in an interview “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I was in college and also had some personal problems. What he said created an impact right down to my gut and soul. It became one of my lifetime mantras.