This week 45 years ago, on December 18, 1977, the Toyota Silver Tamaraws made history by becoming the first team to win a PBA championship via a 3-0 sweep, doing it against the visiting Emtex Sacronels team, a Brazilian ballclub that competed here under the name Palmeiras. It was also Coach Dante Silverio’s first ever third conference championship, having lost twice to Crispa in the first two seasons, ensuring themselves of a memorable 1977 Christmas holiday off-season.
As the PBA today features the Bay Area Dragons, a guest team which has cracked the Final Four of the Commissioner’s Cup and are favored to win all the marbles, it would be nostalgic to look back at the time when the league invited foreign guest teams for the first time and how they actually performed.
For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, The Rivalry brings you back at a time when the PBA teams went face to face against world-class opponents and actually beat them in formal competition.
Eight teams competed in the Invitationals, featuring the top six teams of the league in the first two conferences, and two guest teams. Two local teams failed to make it – the Royal Tru Orangemen and the 7/Up Uncolas, two competing soda brands. The two guest teams featured the Palmeiras of Brazil, carrying the brand name Emtex Sacronels, and the Melbourne Panthers of Australia, who bannered the brand Ramrod Blocks.
It was a short two-and-a-half-week tournament. The top two teams then moved to the Finals in a best-of-five series.
All teams were allowed to be reinforced by two imports who could play together at any given time.
Crispa, the defending champions, replaced lemon import Ricky Hicks with the 6’7 Chris MacMurray, an erstwhile 7/Up import who played in the second conference for the Uncolas. But with 7/Up getting eliminated, the Redmanizers opted to utilize him as their second import alongside Cyrus Mann.
Toyota brought back John “Dr. I” Irving and Bruce “Sky” King. U/Tex suited up Byron “Snake” Jones and Charlie Neal, Presto was represented by the prolific Niño Samuel and Dana Lewis, Tanduay was bannered by Gene Moore and Bernie Harris, while Honda had “Big” Billy Robinson and James Day. Emtex fielded Americans Tony Hodges and Rob Torresdal while the Australians opted to field an all-Aussie roster.
The tournament had a tight schedule, with all games needing to be finished a week before Christmas. Not used to playing on a daily basis, the PBA teams understood that stamina would be a key factor.
Emtex flexed its muscle early, whipping all the teams for a perfect 7-0 slate that gave them the first Finals seat. The next seat was up for grabs between the top two local teams, Crispa and Toyota, the former aiming for back-to-back grand slam titles.
But Toyota, utilizing the inside-outside game of Irving and King to the max, took advantage as Crispa was still adjusting with MacMurray not familiar with his new teammates. The Tamaraws clobbered Presto in their first game, 167-134, then finished off the Esquires, 122-114, to forge a three-way tie at first with the Brazilians and the Redmanizers with 2-0 cards.
The two archrivals squared off next and with Crispa struggling to find a solution against the Tamaraws’ vaunted running game, Toyota streaked to its third straight win via a 119-108 victory in front of 20,000 fans at the Araneta Coliseum. Toyota outran the Redmanizers, scoring 62 transition points, in an awesome display of firepower that left the Crispa players breathing for air. Irving registered a triple double with 42 points, 18 boards, 17 dimes and 4 blocks to lead the way and outclass counterpart Mann, who also had a triple double of 30-22-10 apart from swatting three shots. Irving was ably backstopped by the returning Francis Arnaiz, who pumped in 26 markers, Sky King with 19 points, 5 boards and 19 feeds, and Robert Jaworski, who tallied 18. MacMurray made 22 points to go along with his 17 dimes. Among the locals, Atoy Co contributed 17, while Bernie Fabiosa and Freddie Hubalde also had double digits with 14 and 10, respectively.
Silverio, in the post-game interview, liked the team’s chances of winning its first crown since the second conference of the 1975 season. “If we keep on playing like this, we have a good chance of winning the championship.”
They picked up their fourth straight win against the Wranglers, 131-114, before pulling off a tough 143-139 overtime victory against the Honda Panthers.
Their sixth game was against the Sacronels which they lost, 127-106. Fans, particularly the Crispa faithful, wondered if Toyota did not intend to win the game to avoid a possible Finals confrontation with the Redmanizers. The Tamaraws then completed their seven-game sojourn with a resounding 134-126 victory, earning for themselves a trip to the Finals, its first since the 1976 Invitationals. The other visiting team, the Ramrod Blocks, ended up with 2 wins in 7 games.
The finals preview
Given that this was the first-time foreign teams were playing in the PBA, Emtex understood the importance of winning the championship against their hosts to highlight their global dominance of the sport.
Emtex was mentored by Carlos Gonzales, who opted to use a short rotation for the entire tournament. He had international veteran Ubiratam Maciel, a stockily-built 6’10 who played the big man role facing the basket. Sentinel Milton “Carioca” Setrini was the country’s best point guard who quarterbacked the team in the 1978 World Championships held in Manila. They also had a 19-year old budding superstar named Oskar Schmidt, a 6’8 long-limbed and versatile player who could score practically from everywhere. Gilson Jesus, a 6’6 forward was methodical with a deadly short high vertical jump shot with arms fully extended was also one of their major scorers. They also had guard Jose Lima, a long-range shooter. Hodges and Torresdal were the imports but surprisingly, it was only Hodges who got enough floor burn as Gonzales opted to bench the former Portland Trailblazer draft pick.
Curiously though, Silverio also had a very similar short rotation featuring the two imports, Jaworski, Arnaiz, Ramon Fernandez, Abe King and Fort Acuña. Rino Salazar was also given a few minutes of playing time in the Finals series, but much of the load fell on their starters.
The battle lines were drawn. Jaworski was expected to go mano-a-mano against Setrini while Arnaiz picked up Lima. The two imports would try to barnacle Maciel and Schmidt with Fernande and King took care of Hodges and Jesus.
The championship series
Gonzales knew what to expect – Toyota would look for every single opportunity to run and gun and get easy transition points. With Irving dominating inside, he could easily spot and make the outlet pass to a teammate running on all four cylinders for the breakaway. The Tamaraws were deadly at the break, with finishers like Jaworski, Arnaiz, and even import Sky King doing the honors.
“This is going to be tough,” exclaimed a serious-looking Silverio on the eve of the match. But the young tactician may have been undermining his team’s chances to give their opponents a false sense of security. In Game 1, Toyota was described by 7/Up coach and basketball analyst Lauro Mumar as “like a team that can’t do anything wrong” as the Tamaraws steamrolled past the Sacronels, 115-99, leading by as many as 20 points in the game.
The Brazilians sought vengeance in Game 2 and even led after the third quarter until their short rotation finally gave in due to exhaustion. Losing their wind in the fourth, the Tamaraws went on a running spree to put the series at 2-0 with a convincing 113-108 win.
It was Sunday, December 18 when Game 3 was played at the Loyola Center along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City. The venue was packed to the rafters with more than 7,000 fans watching the game, hoping to see their local team pick up the broom. And the Tamaraws didn’t disappoint as they danced their way to a 129-108 rout against a tired and ravaged Brazilian team that didn’t know how to stop Toyota’s transition offense. The championship was the third for the Silverio franchise in nine conferences, the other 6 having been won by their arch rivals.
A very proud and cheerful Silverio could only say, “We finally made it,” amid the celebratory atmosphere of the Toyota dressing room after the game. “We really tried hard, not only tonight but all throughout the conference.”
Silverio added, “Jaworski, Fernandez and Arnaiz have regained their forms totally and were great supplements to Irving and King, without whom our championship would not have been possible.”
Toyota’s loss to the Sacronels in the eliminations may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. First, Emtex was able to secure the first finals seat, virtually eliminating Crispa in the mix. The Redmanizers were bruited to be the more dangerous opponents for the Tamaraws, given Coach Baby Dalupan’s deep bench and a resurgent Mann expected to dominate once more. The element of winning a second grand slam would serve as a major motivational tool that Dalupan intended to use heavily had Crispa went on to the Finals.
Another reason was that Fernandez, who didn’t play in the elimination game against Emtex due to an ankle injury, prevented the Brazilians from plotting a game plan against a complete Toyota roster. Fernandez turned out to be a pivotal factor in the Finals as he out-psyched Jesus all series long.
Finally, Silverio was cunning enough to use that elimination game as an opportunity to crystallize their game plan while preparing and making the necessary adjustments. Given the short period, the former race car driver-turned-coach made full use of whatever time was given to him to plot the strategy that would overwhelm the Brazilians. And since Emtex didn’t have a post-game play to boast of, Silverio utilized both Irving and Sky King to prevent the lob passes and alley-oop plays of Emtex by switching to the player being defended by either Fernandez, Abe King, or Acuña. But most importantly, Jaworski was able to barnacle Setrini with his leech-like defense that prevented the Carioca from setting up the plays.
It was a portent of things to come as the Big J would go on to win the Most Valuable Player award the next season while averaging 20 points, 11.8 boards and 8.4 dimes for the entire season in dominant fashion.
What this meant
It was in 1977 also when the visiting People’s Republic of China played against Crispa and Toyota and got demolished by the two top PBA teams with all-local rosters. There was widespread belief, and yes, evidence, that the Philippines was still the top basketball country in Asia if professional players were allowed to represent the country in international meets. But the victory against the Sacronels and the Panthers, coupled with Toyota’s demolition of FIBA world champion Yugoslavia and sixth placer, Canada, the succeeding year showcased just how good the PBA teams were – with or without imports. It was a time when the PBA was still regarded as a world-class league featuring globally competitive players.