The glory years of Philippine basketball happened in the 1950s and 1960s when the country was the undisputed king of Asia and regarded as one of the world’s best. In the 1954 FIBA World Basketball Championships held in Rio de Janeiro, the Philippines copped the bronze medal behind the United States and host Brazil. In the next staging held in Chile in 1959, the Philippines wound up eighth overall.
The Philippines continued to dominate basketball in the region by winning three of the first four stagings of the FIBA Asia Cup (then called the Asian Basketball Confederation) from 1960 to 1967. As such, the Philippines became a regular fixture in Olympic basketball, serving as representatives of Asia in the quadrennial Summer Olympiad from 1936 to 1972.
This wasn’t surprising as the Philippines started basketball ahead of its regional neighbors. The sport was introduced to the country as early as the 1900s with the first national team being formed as early as 1913. The first basketball league in Asia was formed in 1938, the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) featuring various private companies and their employees in various sports events. The Philippines also participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where it placed fifth overall to this day the highest finish by an Asian country in Olympic men’s basketball.
The first rivalry
The first dynastic team in the MICAA was the YCO Painters, owned by the Elizalde family. In 1954, it won its first MICAA title, then won two more in 1956 and 1957. YCO was led by Carlos Loyzaga, the best center in the 1954 World tournament. Other YCO players included Antonio Genato, Martin Urra, Ramoncito Campos, Eddie Lim, Tito Eduque, Rafael Hechanova, Pablo Cuna, Antonio Beltran, Pocholo Martinez, Freddie Campos, Kurt Seeberger, Francisco Legarejos and Cesar Sequera and coached by the PBA’s first Commissioner, Leo Prieto.
The Painters dominated amateur basketball, running up a 40-game winning streak from 1954 to 1957 while winning seven straight national championships from 1954 to 1960. The 40-game streak was snapped when they lost to unheralded Manila Yellow Taxi Cab in what many considered a major upset.
The Ysmael Steel Admirals, owned by the financially-prominent Ysmael family, were an up-and-coming team that gave YCO the biggest challenge. The Admirals won the 1958 MICAA and later went on a romp and grabbed six straight national championships starting in 1961. That year, they dethroned the Painters in the Finals, 100-89, in front of an overflow crowd at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. They also placed second to the Painters in the 1960 MICAA in what may be regarded as the start of the first rivalry among commercial league teams in the country.
Some of Ysmael’s prominent players that time included Alfonso “Boy” Marquez, Narciso Bernardo, Cesar Jota, Geronimo Cruz, Cristobal Ramas, Ed Roque, Manuel Jocson, Engracio “Boy” Arazas and Bachmann.
YCO dominated the ‘50s as Loyzaga reigned over everyone else. But when Ysmael was able to acquire the services of a premium center in Bachmann from the Chelsea Clippers, the Admirals were able to face the Painters man for man. With Bachmann around, Ysmael was the only team capable of matching up against the Painters. They became the team of the 60’s, winning the MICAA title in 1961, 1962 and from 1965 to 1967.
Basketball fans found themselves cheering for either the Painters or the Admirals. Because of the mestizo features of their players, like Loyzaga, Freddie Webb, Campos, Bachmann (who also played for YCO), among others, YCO had the more “elite” fans with the colegialas swooning at their every move. Ysmael, on the other hand, with players bearing native features like Bernardo, Jimmy Mariano, Marquez, Jun Papa and Big Boy Reynoso, attracted the masses.
Curiously though, YCO’s fans were more rabid and louder, not unlike today’s Barangay Ginebra. But there was no middle ground – you either cheered for YCO or Ysmael. The two faced each other seven times in the MICAA finals from 1960 to 1967, with Crispa Floro being the only team to break the duopoly in a losing cause against Ysmael in 1965.
It’s not a surprise therefore that this rivalry had its own share of controversies and memorable encounters. In the 1961 MICAA best of three finals, YCO won the first game but Ysmael came back to win the second. Before Game 3, YCO, through its team owner, Don Manolo Elizalde, said that they didn’t want to play at the Araneta Coliseum for “psychological” reasons. The MICAA Board met a few days after and declared YCO losing by default and awarding the MICAA championship to the Admirals. It was an unfortunate and anti-climactic ending to what was a spectacular series that could have gone either way.
YCO won seven straight National Open titles from 1954 to 1960. They were gunning for an eighth title only to get waylaid by Ysmael in 1961. The Admirals made a similar run, winning six straight National Open titles until 1966. In 1967, gunning for their seventh title that would have tied them with YCO for the record, they succumbed to the Painters made up of a star-laden crew featuring Ed Ocampo, Robert Jaworski, Danny Florencio, Sonny Reyes, Ed Roque, Turing Valenzona, Felix Flores, Elias Tolentino, Francis Wilson, Billy Manotoc and Dodo Martelino. Their hearts broken by the setback, the entire Ysmael team, including its owner, Baby Ysmael, coach, Tito Eduque, shaved their heads in uniform dejection. That team was made up of Benardo, Marquez, Arazas, Jocson, Papa, Reynoso, Jota, Mariano, Gerry Cruz, Serafin Vida, Mentong Dela Cruz, and Tata Carranceja.
During the pre-World War 2 era, the Painters had outstanding players like Herminio Silva and the Fajardo brothers, Fely and Gabby – who all later became notable coaches. Silva, whose coaching specialty is well-known as “The Deep Freeze,” was the coach who handled the 1954 national team in the 1954 World Championship. Fely and Gabby Fajardo became coaches in the MICAA with Fely even handling the Tefilin team in the PBA.
Apart from the Loyzaga-Bachmann battle inside the paint, another noteworthy rivalry featured the sweet-shooting Narciso Bernardo of Ysmael versus YCO’s defense-minded Ed Ocampo. The two would tussle every game as Ocampo was assigned to put the barnacles on Bernardo. Both eventually became head coaches in the PBA with Bernardo even serving as Deputy Commissioner. Bernardo won his only PBA title as head coach with Crispa while Ocampo won a couple of titles with arch rivals Toyota.
Ysmael, by then already called the Steelers, disbanded after winning the 1967 MICAA crown, a few months after losing the National Open title to YCO. Their players eventually moved to other teams – Crispa, U/Tex, Mariwasa, Meralco and even YCO.
YCO, on the other hand, remained in the MICAA as Elizalde stayed committed to his team. Opponents like Crispa, Meralco and Mariwasa became stronger and the Painters found it more difficult winning titles. In 1975, the Elizaldes joined the PBA using the Tanduay brand while retaining YCO in the amateur league. They won the 1975 title after a 12-year drought. They also won the first of three titles in the PBA in 1986 before disbanding at the end of the 1987 season because of a major blackeye that led to the company’s near bankruptcy.