MANILA, Philippines – Long before he gained infamy for his cheap shot on Ronnie Thompkins which triggered a free-for-all between Swift and Shell, Ricky Relosa was considered one of the PBA’s premier big men.
At 16 years old, he was already recruited to play in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA). He made his bones in the amateur scene as a relentless inside operator for teams like Villar Records, Frigidaire, and Man Diesel.
Toyota coach Dante Silverio tried recruiting a then 19-year-old Relosa to join the Super Corollas, a move thumbed down by Relosa’s father who felt his son was still too young and too raw for the professional ranks.
An integral part of the Philippine team, Relosa helped win the gold in the 1981 Southeast Asian Games held in Manila.
But in the finals against Malaysia, which beat the Philippines by a point in the preliminary round, an altercation between Frankie Lim and Malaysian Leung quickly escalated into a violent brawl. Relosa was right in the middle of the fighting at midcourt.
Elpidio “Yoyoy”Villamin, meanwhile, was a big man who proved himself to be a tough as nails, an immovable force in the low block.
The Camarines Norte native first played for Solid Mills and Apcor in the MICAA before joining PBA powerhouse Crispa in 1981. While serving mostly as a role player, Villamin showed his value by becoming one of the Redmanizers’ top local rebounders.
Villamin eventually became a starter when he moved to Manila Beer after the disbandment of Crispa. He was named to the All Defensive Team in the 1985 and the 1986 seasons.
Villamin joined the Hills Bros Coffee Kings in 1987 after Manila Beer exited the league. The Alaska franchise joined the PBA the previous year and were aiming to become a league contender in its sophomore season.
In Villamin, Hills Bros found the franchise player it was looking for.
There was a general consensus around the league that Villamin was poised for stardom. After all, he was included by the PBA in its “protected list,” a rule back then which disallowed stars like Villamin, Ramon Fernandez, Abet Guidaben, and Manny Victorino from playing together in one team.
But Villamin, nicknamed the Bicolano Superman, was going to team up with Relosa, who was coming off his best year as a pro.
Relosa played for Toyota in 1982 before transferring to Beer Hausen in 1984 and Ginebra San Miguel in 1985. With Alaska, Relosa was named the 1986 Most Improved Player. He also made the All Defensive Team.
Hills Bros, the Uytengsu-owned ballclub coached by Nat Canson, also had three-time MVP Bogs Adornado, former Rookie of the Year Marte Saldaña, NCC stalwarts Naning Valenciano and Teddy Alfarero, Ponky Alolor, Adonis Tierra, Frankie Lim, Tim Coloso, Dennis Abbatuan, and Joey Marquez.
But the team was built around Villamin and Relosa. The two were ferocious rebounders and rugged defenders who made opposing big men and imports have second thoughts about driving the lane or camping in the shaded area.
Known by the fearsome moniker the Bruise Brothers, Villamin and Relosa were also highly skilled scorers who anchored the team offense.
Villamin was a tremendous force underneath with his power moves, while Relosa had one of the most potent jumpers among frontliners in the league.
The Open Conference, however, was a disappointment for Hills Bros as it dealt with import woes. Hills Bros replaced their original import Tony Neal with the comebacking Francois Wise, but they never really got going as they ended 5th after the elimination round and missed the semifinals.
It was in the All Filipino when things came together for the ballclub. The team topped the elimination round and went all the way to the championship round where it faced a loaded Great Taste squad. It was the first ever finals appearance for the Alaska franchise.
The best-of-five finals series, dubbed as the “Coffee War,” was a classic offense versus defense encounter.
Great Taste was the highest scoring team in the All Filipino. Hills Bros was the second-best defensive team anchored on Villamin’s 2.5 blocks and Relosa’s 2.14 blocks per game.
The Bruise Brothers faced a frontline tandem that was their equal.
Great Taste had its own terrible two combination, the Royal Brothers Abe King and “Prince” Philip Cezar.
What made this duel even more intriguing was that Villamin was Cezar’s understudy when they were both with Crispa, while Relosa played mostly as King’s backup in Toyota.
Hills Bros got swept by Great Taste in the finals. The Bruise Brothers and the Coffee Kings, though, gained confidence and momentum going into the final conference where they would be handled by Arturo Valenzona, who replaced Canson as the team’s coach.
In the Reinforced Conference, Hills Bros finished only 3rd in the elimination round. They had to go through a knockout game against Billy Ray Bates and Ginebra for the last finals spot.
Import Jose Slaughter, who early in the conference made history by making 14 triples (still the record for PBA imports), converted on a follow-up with two seconds left to lead Hills Bros to an 89-87 victory.
Hills Bros went up against the Bobby Parks-led San Miguel for the third conference title.
Villamin erupted for 34 points and collared 10 rebounds in the series opener. He did all these while limiting Best Import Awardee Parks to just 5 points in the 4th quarter as the Coffee Kings stunned the Beermen in the opener, 110-97.
The Game 1 victory would prove to be Hill Bros’ final stand in the championship. Injuries to Relosa and Saldaña diminished the Coffee Kings’ ability to keep in step with a young San Miguel squad, which swept the next 4 games to claim the title.
The year-end awards validated the hype that surrounded the Bruise Brothers the entire season.
Villamin finished second to Abet Guidaben for the Most Valuable Player award. He was also named Most Improved Player and earned his only Mythical First Team selection (he made the Mythical Second team 3 times later in his career).
Relosa and Villamin were named to the All Defensive Team. Relosa also was selected to the Mythical Second Team.
The bruising, physical brand of play of Villamin and Relosa, though, would eventually slow down as they dealt with various injuries in the succeeding years.
Neither one was able to replicate the kind of success they accomplished in 1987.
The Bruise Brothers, although unfortunately short-lived, was undoubtedly one of the most exciting and intimidating frontline duos to ever grace the hardwood of the PBA. – Rappler.com