On October 23, 1979, the San Miguel Corporation franchise, then carrying the soda brand Royal Tru Orange, punched a ticket to the finals of the 1979 Open Conference, the franchise’s first finals appearance in its five-year PBA career. The Orangemen defeated the Crispa Redmanizers, 110-102, earning for themselves the first finals seat. They ended up facing the Toyota Tamaraws, whom they beat 3-1 in the best-of-five finals to win the first of 28 PBA titles.
The Rivalry takes a quick peek from 43 years ago as to how the team pieced together its first championship at the expense of the mighty Tamaraws and Redmanizers.
Only Crispa and Toyota, the top two teams the previous conference, were “handicapped” and not allowed to play two imports of unlimited height at the same time. The U/Tex Wranglers, the defending champions, were allowed to field both their imports simultaneously.
All nine teams were to play together in a double round robin format for a total of 16 elimination games. The top four teams moved to the semifinals where they squared off twice against one another. The top two teams in the semifinals moved to the Finals for the best-of-five championship.
Having finished in the bottom half of the 1979 All-Filipino Conference, Royal was allowed to hire two imports of unlimited height to play together. Coach Ed Ocampo took the opportunity to tap 6’11 center Otto Moore, the sixth overall pick (first round) in the 1968 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons. The top two picks for that year were Elvin Hayes of the San Diego Rockets and Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets, who later was selected as MVP and Rookie of the Year for that season. The 6’7 Larry Pounds of the University of Washington Huskies was the other import brought in, a fifth-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in the 1975 NBA Draft.
Ed Ocampo also brought in five rookies, namely: Mon Dizon from PSBA, Teodulfo Gregorio of Mapua, Danilo Salvador of San Sebastian, Evalson Valencia of Western Institute of Technology and Paul Velasco of the University of Visayas in a minor roster shakeup. Gone from the team were veterans Botchok Delos Santos, who moved to Great Taste, Norby Rivera who went to expansion team Gilbey’s Gin, and Mollet Pineda, who went to U/Tex.
The road to the finals
Royal immediately flexed its muscles, winning 13 of their 16 games to top the elimination round. Inspired by the dominant games of Moore and Pounds, the locals, led by the veterans Yoyong Martirez and Marte Samson, and upstarts Tony Torrente, Rudy Lalota, Jess Migalbin, Leo Paguntalan and Marlowe Jacutin, displayed poise and confidence as they provided able support to the two American reinforcements. The team, which was one of the poorest rebounding teams in the All-Filipino, surged to number one in the Open, led by Moore’s 16.13 boards and Pounds’ 15.10. The 5’8 Martirez also did plenty of board work, averaging 3.6 rebounds in the Open, just second to Robert Jaworski among locals.
Toyota wound up second overall after the elimination round with a 12-4 card, followed by Crispa’s 11-5 record. Great Taste earned the fourth semifinals seat, tying Crispa with a similar 11-5 card.
Coach Ocampo, who was the country’s greatest defensive player of the 60’s while playing for YCO and the national team, showed his partiality to defense by making the Orangemen the second-best defensive team in the Open, yielding 105.8 points per game, a far cry from their All-Filipino Conference performance where they gave up 114.8 points. They also placed second in the Open in total steals, with Martirez leading the pack. Ocampo unleashed a potent fullcourt press led by Martirez, Pounds, Torrente and Paguntalan and anchored by Moore, who averaged 3.26 blocks.
In the semifinals, Royal continued with its impressive performance, losing only once in 6 games to easily cop the first finals seat. In the first round, they waylaid Crispa, 93-84, in the first game, then toppled Great Taste and Toyota to finish with a 3-0 slate. After losing to RTO, Crispa then defeated Toyota 102-92 and Great Taste, 134-114, to secure a 2-1 record. Toyota beat GTC to gain a 1-2 card.
In the second round, Crispa lost once more to Royal, 110-102 while Toyota repeated over GTC. With similar 2-2 records, the Crispa-Toyota game was extremely crucial as the winner would have one foot inside the finals already. Toyota beat Crispa, 95-93, in a highly physical encounter that saw Andy Fields overwhelming the duo of Mann and Chattman, scoring 18 points and salvaging 20 boards – a herculean effort as partner Bruce “Sky” King sprained his left foot three minutes into the game. Royal then did its part by demolishing GTC for its fifth straight win.
The Orangemen’s only loss was against the Tamaraws in their final game, 113-100, a no-bearing one for them since they were already in the finals. Ocampo used the opportunity to give floor burn to his rookies in this game, which turned out to be a crucial factor in the Finals series. Toyota’s win, their fourth in six games, gave them the second Finals seat.
While the Orangemen appeared to be the slight favorites in this series because of their more impressive win-loss record, Toyota was still the oddsmakers’ choice to win because of their championship experience.
But Royal was equally brimming with confidence. In an interview with Martirez in Episode 20 of the popular online basketball show, “An Eternity of Basketball,” the Sultan of Swipe answered host Sid Ventura’s question on what made Royal different in this 1979 finals compared to their other conferences, Martirez replied, “Otto Moore and Larry Pounds. May depensa at opensa kami, labas loob. Bago sila maka-layup, papahirapan muna namin sila sa labas. Pagdating dun sa loob, andun yun Otto Moore, andun yun Migalbin, ibig sabihin, mai-ilang ka nun. Hindi pwede bale walain, kakagaling ni Moore lang sa NBA nun. Si Ed Ocampo ang coach namin nun.”
Royal continued with its incredible run, beating the Tamaraws in the first two games, 104-99 and 100-95. While the youthful Fields was able to match up well against the veteran Moore, there was no one from the locals who could stop Pounds from scoring at will. Acting Coach Fort Acuña utilized various players from Abe King to Mon Fernandez to Nic Bulaong to no avail. In Game 3, the Tamaraws were able to prevent a shut out by pulling off a 99-98 hairliner, giving Royal only its fifth loss in the tournament after 20 wins.
In Game 4, Pounds exploded with 51 points to lead all scorers. But it was the collaboration of Moore and Martirez that paved the way for the title-clinching victory. Moore gave a nifty pass to Pounds for a go-ahead easy basket off Jaworski’s defense, giving Royal a come-from-behind 102-101 lead with six seconds remaining. Toyota didn’t sue for time, and Arnaiz rushed to the frontcourt only to see the ball being batted away from behind by Royal’s team captain, giving the SMC franchise its very first championship. Royal also became only the fourth team to win a PBA title after Toyota, Crispa and U/Tex.
Coach Ocampo, after the game, said, “we were very lucky. I think the tournament was really meant for us.” He added, without taking anything away from the locals, that “Otto and Larry were the two strongest pillars of our strength. They provided us with what we needed to take on and beat the tough teams of the league.”
Ramon Dizon, when he guested on Episode 106 of “An Eternity of Basketball,” remembered that fateful Game 4. “In the first three games,” he said, “nasa bench lang ako. In the All-Filipino, I was given so much playing time. I wasn’t expecting to play, pero masama laro nila Tony, Rudy at Leo. Pag matalo kami sa larong ‘to, magiging 2-all, ang momentum, nasa Toyota na by then. Panay setup lang ako kay Larry since alam ko kaya niya yun dumedepensa sa kanya. Ayun, unti-unti nabawas yung lead, 17 points ata yun lamang ng Toyota pero nabawas namin, at eventually, nanalo kami.”
San Miguel didn’t win another title until the 1982 Asian Invitationals when Norman Black led the Tommy Manotoc-mentored Beermen to a 2-1 Finals victory over Crispa. They eventually became the league’s winningest team and the second franchise to win a grands lam title in 1989 after the Redmanizers’ twin successes in 1976 and 1983. From their initial struggles, they painstakingly figured out how to win, starting with this 1979 massive upset victory over Toyota.
Jay Mercado is a school administrator and part-time graduate school professor who used to write for FHM Philippines and SLAM Philippines. His area of concentration is Philippine sports history.