When the Big J won his first PBA game as playing coach
On April 11, 1985, On the second game of a twinbill at the ULTRA, Robert Jaworski finally won his first game as playing coach of the Ginebra San Miguel franchise when they repulsed Manila Beer Brewmasters, 118-104. Curiously, the Big J achieved this milestone while going up against his arch rival and nemesis, Ramon Fernandez, who spearheaded the Lucio Tan squad.
On this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, The Rivalry recalls the circumstances before and after that game that cemented the legacy of Jaworski as a cult figure and the face of the PBA.
The La Tondeña franchise joined the PBA in 1979 using the famed international brand, Gilbey’s Gin as its PBA name. Having been runner-up three times for three consecutive seasons in the 1982 Open (losing to Toyota, 3-0), the 1983 All Filipino (losing to Crispa, 3-0), and the 1984 All Filipino (also to Crispa, 4-1) under the able stewardship of MICAA and collegiate multi-titled coach Turo Valenzona, team owner Carlos “Honeyboy” Palanca, III decided to make crucial changes.
The first was the name. Palanca wanted to use the local brand, Ginebra San Miguel, to replace Gilbey’s Gin. It wasn’t easy as it took at least two months of negotiations with their London affiliate until it was agreed upon that Gilbey’s was to sell the team’s name rights to Ginebra.
The decision to use the Ginebra brand was logical, not to mention providential. Already the country’s top-selling gin brand then, La Tondeña obviously wanted to milk the popularity of the PBA to give maximum exposure to their locally-produced product. As the PBA coverage, both in television and radio courtesy of Vintage Productions, was reaching the nook and cranny of provincial and rural households all over the country, what better way to further strengthen the Ginebra brand to generate higher revenues?
Management’s next step turned out to be complimentary to their re-branding – whether this was done intentionally or by twist of fate, history will never know. After acquiring Jaworski and Francis Arnaiz from Toyota the previous season, Palanca appointed the Big J to become the league’s first playing coach in history. (A few days after, Magnolia appointed Norman Black to serve as playing coach, replacing Nat Canson).
Jaworski’s appointment seemed to fit the bill like hand to glove. Back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the former Toyota glamour player became the chief endorser of the Toyota Macho, Cerveza Negra, Juvelon E+, among many other men products. He was the epitome of manhood, the perfect definition of macho. Jaworski and Ginebra San Miguel were a seamless and ideal combination, even though the Big J rarely drank alcoholic drinks in real life.
The Big J’s first move was to appoint former Toyota teammate Rino Salazar as his assistant coach. Salazar dabbled into coaching at Toyota, backstopping Ed Ocampo on the bench. He then secured former Toyota teammates Arnie Tuadles from Great Taste and Ricky Relosa and Nic Bulaong from Beer Hausen. From the inaugural draft, the playing coach plucked beefy guard Rey Perez, who was projected to be the next Jaworski because of his built, playing style and ruggedness. Another Toyota player, Terry Saldaña, was retained, and as such, six of 14-man Ginebra roster were former Tamaraws. The other players retained were Steve Watson, Joey Marquez, Romy Mamaril, Ed Ducut, Alex Clariño, Rolly Buhay and Joseph Herrera.
With the Open Conference kicking off the 11th season hostilities, it meant all teams were allowed to secure one import of unlimited height. Jaworski tapped the services of Harold “Truck” Driver, a relatively unknown 6’6 reinforcement from obscure Quinnipack College in Connecticut. For the opening ceremonies on March 3, 1985, beauteous model Cathy Sta. Maria was brought in as muse.
If Jaworski thought playing and coaching at the same time would be a walk in the park, he realized soon enough it wasn’t easy. In Ginebra’s first game on opening night, the team lost to defending champions and title favorites Great Taste, 102-99. Four days after, Ginebra trounced Tanduay, 89-86, in what could have been Jaworski’s first official win, but the game was ordered replayed by the PBA Commissioner’s office on April 14 after a couple of crucial officiating errors in the endgame.
Bad luck continued to hound Jaworski’s wards as the team fell to Magnolia, 97-87; Manila Beer 109-101; Northern Consolidated, 112-99; Shell, 90-84; Tanduay at the start of the second round, 95-80; and to Shell once more, 102-95. They were the only team with a winless record of 0-7, and critics were already pouncing on Jaworski, citing the difficulty of being a player and a coach at the same time.
It didn’t help that Driver, the reinforcement, chose to play in the perimeter instead of Jaworski’s preference for his import to dominate inside. Driver had paltry numbers compared to his counterparts, averaging 19 points, 10.75 boards but only dished out 0.5 dimes before Jaworski gave the pink slip after 4 games. But not after coming up with another classic Jawo quip: “Akala ko, Driver yun nakuha ko, yun pala kutsero!” (“I thought we got a Driver, turned out he was a coachman!”)
Jaworski was hoping to rehire a former Toyota teammate, Andy Fields, to replace Driver. But with Fields playing in Europe, Ginebra settled for monster rebounder, John Campbell, a 6’10 center drafted 59th overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 1980 NBA draft. Campbell was a defensive demon, swatting 4.8 times a game while ruling the glass with 21.7 rebounds. But Campbell wasn’t much of an offensive player, and ranged against prolific imports like Norman Black, Joe Binion of Great Taste, David Pope of Tanduay, Lew Brown of Manila Beer and Rich Adams of Shell, he couldn’t carry the team and lost his first four games.
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With a 0-7 card, their morale low and the team at the cusp of being the first to get the boot, Jaworski marshalled his troops prior to their 7:30PM game against Manila Beer and discussed the importance of winning their remaining five games. The Brewmasters were toting a 4-4 card, Shell was on a four-game winning streak and a 4-3 record, Magnolia was also at 4-4, Great Taste had a 5-4 slate, NCC was at 5-3, and Tanduay held a 6-2 record for tournament leadership honors. The Gins were down three games against Manila Beer, which meant that another loss would be virtual elimination.
Taking advantage of the Holy Week break that gave them 10 days to rest, recuperate and recover, the Gins started strong and never looked back, defeating the Brewmasters, 118-104. With Campbell putting the defensive clamps on two-time balik-import Lew Brown (first played for Great Taste in 1980 then for Crispa in 1982), Jaworski turned to his bigs Ricky Relosa and Terry Saldaña to take advantage of a recurring ankle injury that Mon Fernandez suffered back in January in a volleyball game. Fritz Gaston hounded Jaworski all game long but the Big J, motivated to finally win his first game, went toe to toe against his younger yet equally physical adversary and won out.
Tuadles also delivered in the stretch, finally recovering from a slump that hampered his game since the start of the conference. The Cebuano debonair attributed his difficulties to adjusting to the new “no harm, no foul” rule implemented at the start of the season. “That’s partly the reason why my game has been rather bad,” Tuadles said. “And you must’ve noticed na hindi ko katawang pang ‘no harm, no foul’ ngayon. I lost 15 pounds kaya medyo hirap ako.”
Curiously in the same interview conducted by esteemed writer Beth Celis, Tuadles revealed that it was his opinion that Jaworski is “not yet ready to assume the dual role of player-coach.” When asked to clarify, he declined further comment out of respect for his teammate / coach.
Given Ginebra’s terrible start, it was understandable that the Gins were disappointed. Tuadles, having come from a Great Taste team the previous season that won the last two PBA titles, was apparently the most affected. Having only won once in eight games, Tuadles also blamed himself for Ginebra’s struggles. “Hirap ako sa bagong rule, kailangan magpa-kondisyon para makasabay.”
A curious visitor at the Ginebra- Manila Beer game was Dante Silverio, former coach of the disbanded Toyota Tamaraws. There was a rumor circulating that Silverio would be joining Jaworski as a consultant and this further got fanned by his attendance at the ULTRA.
Three days after, on a Sunday, the PBA started earlier at 3PM to stage the replayed game between the Gins and the Rhum Makers. Riding on the crest of their big win against the Brewmasters, Ginebra sustained their run, demolishing the David Pope-led Tanduay, 106-94 to notch their second win in nine games.
But the run was short-lived. They ran smack against Joe Binion and Ricardo Brown of Great Taste and got ambushed, 123-109. Coupled with Manila Beer’s win over Shell in the first game of the April 16 setto, Ginebra needed to win their last two games while hoping that Shell, toting a 4-6 record, would lose their remaining pair. Shell eventually lost both games to NCC, 111-106, and Tanduay, 119-110, to end up with a 4-8 card. But the Gins squandered the opportunity, losing to Norman Black and Magnolia, 89-82, in Olongapo City, to become the only team to be eliminated from the playoff round. They finished the conference decently with a 3-9 record, toppling NCC, 89-84, in their final game.
When the buzzer sounded to end the game, the entire Gins team waved their hands to the crowd as a gesture of goodbye and expression of apology for their inability to live up to the public’s expectations. The fans repaid the gesture with a standing ovation, with several of them trooping outside to see them one last time.
In the All-Filipino Conference, Ginebra played much better and ended the eliminations with a 5-5 card. By the end of the semifinals, they were tied with Shell at 8-8 for second spot, behind Great Taste’s league-leading 12-4 record. The Coffeemakers earned the first Finals spot while the Bugbusters and the Gins were to slug it out for the second finals slot in a do-or-die game. Shell won that game, 89-76, to set up a championship extravaganza against Great Taste.
The Reinforced Conference was a different story as the Gins paraded 6’5 Michael Hackett. One of the most prolific and dominant interior players ever, Hackett carried the team to the semifinals but lost steam to end up third place. The Mighty Bucket, though, established the league’s best single game record for most points with 103 markers.
When Ginebra’s season ended, Jaworski was asked to assess his first year as playing coach. While disappointed that he wasn’t able to give Ginebra a championship that year, he also admitted there were still a lot of things needed to be done. “Winners are very hard to find. They come with time. They come after hard work. That’s what I always tell my players. I always tell them to play with dedication, to give out their best at all times. After all, playing basketball is their job. For some, it is the only job they know. Players should be honest with themselves and considerate to the people they represent and the paying public. I always play hard. I always give my best. And I know that we’ll be exhorting that word ‘CHAMPIONSHIP’ someday if only we work hard enough for that gold. Who knows, maybe next season?”
True enough, Jaworski and Ginebra finally won their first championship the succeeding year. He went on to give the franchise three more championships before running for the Senate in 1998.