Teammates salute late Jake Rojas, great court-general of '60s PH national team
MANILA, Philippines – It was a merry Tuesday, January 30, when comrades from the fabled Yco Painters basketball team met. Ed Roque, Felix Flores, Arturo Valenzona, Nonong Belmonte and Orly Castelo were joined by Jimmy Noblezada, the muscular 1970s forward. Their merriment became somber when they received news that the man who gave them assists in the national team or who stole the ball from their guards passed away that morning.
The great court general of the 1960s, Joaquin Rojas, 79, had been ill for the last few years in Cebu. His close friend, Julian Macoy, said the wake is at St Peter's in Imus, Cebu City.
Macoy, famous for scoring 126 points for University of San Carlos against Cebu Normal School in the Cebu Collegiate Athletic Association in 1958, was a contemporary of Rojas, who excelled in a different way.
"Without a doubt, Jake was the best court general in our period," said Valenzona in a phone interview. "He was low key but very effective. He could shoot, pass, penetrate, and even rebound and I am taller by an inch," added Valenzona of Rojas, his backcourt rival, who was 5-8.
In this old Free Press magazine, Rojas (seated #12) is a member of the legendary Philippine Olympic Team bound for the 1968 Mexico City Games.
Macoy, in a separate interview, said Rojas was not fast but he was quick. "Remember the (University of Washington) Huskies team which came here? Jake intercepted the ball several times and the opposing guard said he was the best he ever played against," said Macoy.
Ramon Fernandez, the Philippine Basketball Association star now a commissioner with the Philippine Sports Commission, said in a Facebook post that Rojas was his "inspiration," "RIP Dong, thank you for inspiring me to pick up the sport."
These days, Macoy said, the point-guard shoots. In our time, the play revolved around the point-guard, he added. And Rojas played that role superbly. The teams he played became champions: Ysmael Steel, the national team that regained the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) title in 1967, Mariwasa and in the maiden season of the Philippine Basketball Association, the Toyota Comets.
A product of Eddie Gullas' first University of the Visayas champion squad which upset Ateneo in the 1957 intercollegiate, Rojas took time to bloom. As the 1960s emerged, he was one of three players recruited from Cebu by Macoy to play for Yutivo and after a year, Rojas went to Ysmael Steel where his reputation was made.
From 1965 to 1971, Rojas led the national team in a period where the Philippines lost the Asian basketball title, regained it and lost it again as regional foes became more disciplined, taller and fitter.
In the 1966 Asian Games quarterfinal, leading by 10 points vs South Korea in the second half, Rojas fouled out. The Philippines resorted to a slowbreak and lost its momentum. A last-minute bid to wrest victory ended in a fumble. South Korea won 83-82, dethroning the Philippines.
But in the 1967 Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) championship, Rojas' heads up play and the clutch free throws of Danny Florencio gave the title back to the Philippines, 83-80, over South Korea.. In the 1968 Olympics, Rojas' playmaking was in-form especially in the second half against the US team led by future NBA stars JoJo White and Spencer Haywood where the Philippines lost to the Americans, 96-75.
In the 1969 ABC tournament, a wayward Japanese elbow to Rojas' brow blunted his form but it took a last second reset of the final moment of play for Japan to prevail, 78-77. Still, the Philippines marched to a finals showdown vs South Korea, where Shin Dong Pa scored 48 points as they wrested the title away from the Filipinos, 95-86.
"He never raised his voice in calling plays. He never called attention to himself. They just followed him," said Valenzona. Former national coach Nemie Villegas added: " He doesn't look at the receiver but knows where he is. He can drop pass or even kick the ball out. "
In the 1971 MICAA championship between Mariwasa and Crispa, Rojas penetrated the defense for his trademark layup against 6-8 American import Paul Scranton, who never managed to block it, or to pass to a cutting teammate. Mariwasa won in a big upset.
At 37 years old, Rojas, donning number 22, played a season for the Toyota Comets in the first Philippine Basketball Association season in 1975-76. His skills were no longer as they used to be but for moments, Rojas gave the crowd and those on the TV set glimpses of the form that made him one of Philippine basketball's great court generals. – Rappler.com
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