After the San Miguel Beermen defeated the TNT Tropang Giga to win the 2022 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, earning for the franchise its 28th PBA title, there was a resumption of the debate as to who is the PBA’s Greatest of All Time (GOAT). June Mar Fajardo, who won his ninth Best Player of the Conference and fourth Finals MVP, has, without surprise, generated more supporters who believe he’s now the GOAT.
His supporters may have a point. Citing the unprecedented accomplishments of the Beermen the past 10 years when Fajardo joined the team as a freshman in 2012, winning 9 of the 25 conferences that SMB played with the Kraken as their centerpiece, his dominance is unmistakable and without doubt. The 6’10 Cebuano superstar has also won six MVP crowns, the most in PBA history and is set to win his seventh at the end of the season, barring injuries and lemon imports.
“Not so fast”, was the response of another set of fans who are steadfast in claiming that Ramon Fernandez remains the greatest of them all. You can’t blame them – prior to Fajardo’s entry in the pros, Fernandez was the gold standard of Philippine professional basketball.
Four MVP crowns and 19 PBA titles in a total of 1,074 games played in a phenomenal 20-season career, the Franchise’s various accomplishments are viewed as unreachable. Fernandez was also able to win championships for three different PBA franchises when he was the main man of those teams – Toyota, Tanduay and San Miguel, a testament to his ability to carry different teams to the promised land.
The Rivalry attempts to dissect who gets the nod. It lists down three major categories to determine the GOAT – statistics, accomplishments and intangibles.
Statistics (up to the end of the 2022 Philippine Cup)
Given that Fernandez played more than twice as many games than Fajardo, the ideal comparison is to present average numbers instead of cumulative figures. For Fajardo to reach Fernandez’s cumulative figures, he would need to play 650 more games to add to his 405 to make the comparison fairer. Assuming Fajardo plays at least 50 games per season, he would need to still play until 2035 to make the numbers close. Hence, the averaging factor.
Scoring: Fernandez has amassed a total of 18,996 points or an average of 17.7 points per game. Fajardo is slightly lower with 17.4 points per game from his total 7,049 points. Don Ramon had his best scoring performance in 1984 with Beer Hausen when he averaged 27.8 ppg. Fajardo knocked in 20.6 ppg in the 2017-18 season, his most prolific in one season.
Rebounding: Fernandez averaged 8.07 boards per game (6.01 defensive and 2.06 offensive) while Fajardo is far ahead with 12.19 caroms (7.47 defensive and 4.72 offensive). In Fajardo’s first MVP season, he had his most rebounds per game with 14.2 per game. On the other hand, Fernandez had his best rebound tally also in the 1984 season with 11.17 boards.
Assists: Fernandez remains the greatest passing big man, bar none, in league history, averaging 4.86 dimes a game. Fajardo tallied 1.54 a game. His best performance was in 2019 with 1.9 assists while Fernandez had 9.92 average feeds in 1984.
· It’s worth mentioning that Fernandez’s 1984 season can be described as one of, if not the best, season ever played by a local player. He averaged 27.8 points, 11.17 boards and 9.9 dimes per game for the year – a near triple double average – a feat no local PBA player has come to approximating except for Robert Jaworski’s 1978 MVP season when the Big J averaged 20.42 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game in a season when there were two conferences that featured imports of unlimited height.
Steals: Don Ramon stole the ball from his opponents at least 1.21 times per game, making him one of the greatest Sultans of Swipe in the PBA. Fajardo averaged 0.47 pickpockets a game.
Blocks: This is an important statline considering that both are bigs and that they were either the second or third tallest players in the league in their respective eras. Both proved to be effective interior defenders, with Fernandez swatting 1.72 shots per game while Fajardo has notched 1.56 a game.
Two Point FGM / FGA / FG%: Neither player used the three-point shot as a weapon as most of their shots were hoisted within 18 feet. Fajardo has an impressive 58.47% FG percentage while Fernandez had a respectable 47.60% throughout his career.
FTM / FTA / FT%: Both players were fouled by their opponents in their effort to stymie their offensive production. This led to trips to the free throw line frequently, with Don Ramon posting an impressive 76.80% while Fajardo had a lower 66.88%.
The numbers are undisputedly in favor of Don Ramon. Fajardo’s career is still in the upper trajectory so who knows? He may actually approximate, or even surpass, Fernandez’s career averages. Note that Fajardo is the league’s holder of most number of rebounds per game with 31, demolishing a long-standing record of 29 boards held by little-known Jinky Simbulan of the 7/Up Uncolas achieved in the PBA’s maiden season of 1975. But it may be asking too much to expect Fajardo surpassing Fernandez’s statlines in assists and steals.
These two are the most decorated in PBA history. As previously mentioned, they have collected a total of 10 Most Valuable Player Awards already and the number is expected to further increase as Fajardo is a heavy favorite to win this season’s MVP plum. And we will still be expecting more from him.
Fernandez, though, may have a case for six MVP titles himself. He lost out to the balloting in 1979 against Fortunato “Atoy” Co, Jr. despite being ahead in the statistical category and with both their teams figuring in the Finals. In 1989, despite leading the San Miguel to its first and only Grand Slam title and ending up second in the MVP race, he eventually lost out in the balloting to then rookie Venancio “Benjie” Paras. It’s not surprising that these two awards are considered the most controversial as well. What’s amazing about Fernandez’s four MVPs is that he won each on a different team: 1982 with Toyota, 1984 with Beer Hausen, 1986 with Tanduay and 1988 with Purefoods/SMB.
In 20 seasons, Fernandez won 19 championships – nine with Toyota, three with Tanduay, and seven with SMB. Fajardo has nine, all with SMB. Both players were the focal points of their respective teams most of the time during these championship runs.
Fajardo has seven All-Star appearances while Fernandez had six. The latter’s number though, is disputable given that the PBA only recognized the All-Star game starting in 1989. But there were other All-Star games that were held in the 70’s, sponsored by different companies (Most and Trust, Mello Yello, Crispa vs. PBA All-Stars, etc.) – all of which Fernandez was a part of.
Fernandez is a 13-time member of the PBA Mythical First Team while Fajardo is a seven-time member. We would be expecting Fajardo to gain more Mythical First Team appearances in the coming years in a bid to surpass El Presidente’s feat.
Fajardo has won the Defensive Player of the Year once while Fernandez wasn’t able to win this award, given that the plum was only handed out a season prior to Fernandez’s retirement from the PBA (1993).
This one is close but given Fajardo’s six MVP awards, we’ll give the slight nod in this category to the Kraken.
There’s no denying that their dominance of the game goes way beyond the numbers. Fans who side with June Mar have cited these non-measurable factors as the basis of their GOAT choice. The other side argues that while the intangibles cited are undisputed, many of these fans were too young to see Fernandez at his prime – starting in 1979 when he first contended for the MVP award, and how he dominated the 80’s.
Fajardo is today’s most dominant player and no one comes close. Opposing teams have to figure out defensive schemes to prevent SMB from running roughshod against them. Most of SMB’s offense is anchored on Fajardo at the low block, and management has rewarded him by providing able shooters to loosen up the interior defense for him to take over inside.
What many wouldn’t know though was that Fernandez attracted the same kind of defense from opposing teams as well. He was the very first local player to draw double teaming defenses against him, and given how exceptional Fernandez was as a passer, it’s no surprise he churned out double digit dimes and triple double games at ease.
Fajardo has been described as someone who makes his teammates play better. His mere presence alone makes it easy for guys like Marcio Lassiter, CJ Perez, Jericho Cruz, Simon Enciso, Chris Ross, and before that, Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot, to score heavily. Cruz and Enciso are two good examples who performed very well in the Finals of the recent Philippine Cup but may not have had the same success with their past teams.
On the other hand, Fernandez not only attracted the defense towards him, he also made them pay because of his ability to find the open man. The Franchise also possesses one of the highest basketball IQs the sport has known, and his teammates attribute their own successes because the 6’4 beanpole simply made them look and play better.
The G.O.A.T. recognition is all about winning, and we have two players who can lay claim to such. Given Fernandez’s longevity, his 19 titles may be extremely difficult to topple, but if there’s one player who can do so, it would be June Mar. Fernandez has a Grand Slam in his belt while Fajardo is still searching for that elusive prize.
Experts would also cite the level of competition as a critical ingredient in making the choice. Fernandez started with a total of nine teams in the PBA, which eventually fell to six, but grew back to eight upon his retirement. Fajardo started with 10 teams that became 12 when Blackwater and KIA (now Terrafirma) joined the league in 2014. Fernandez had to contend with an arch rival, Crispa, which won more titles than his Toyota team in the first nine years of the league. Later on, with only six teams remaining, league parity became evident as all teams were capable of vying for the crown on any given conference. In today’s setup, while there are 12 teams, at least two are finding difficulty winning games alone while the others have remained mid-tier as the league has been dominated by the two conglomerates that own three teams apiece. As such, while the talent level may be better today in Fajardo’s time, it was more difficult to win championships during Fernandez’s era.
So who’s the G.O.A.T.?
The Greatest of All Time Player argument is one topic that has no ending. And we only focused on two players here; some would ask, where’s Jaworski? Where’s Patrimonio? And while these two charismatic players can make a cause for themselves, when pruning the list to the Top 2, Fajardo and Fernandez are the logical picks.
Younger fans would gravitate towards the Kraken, having had the opportunity to see his greatness in their era and how he was able to excel in a more sophisticated and technical playing environment. Older fans would side with Fernandez, having seen him and Fajardo play, their argument is that they have the benefit of watching both men play and are in a better position to make the comparison.
Cases can be made for both players, and these may all be correct. In a mythical rivalry like this, other permutations can be made to heighten the justifications – like – who will you pick from the two to lead your all-time PBA teams? Or who would you want to give the ball when your team is down by a point with six seconds left? Different answers from different perspectives. In the end, though, the only sure thing with this rivalry is that there’s no one who can absolutely say that one is clearly greater than the other.