MANILA, Philippines – Philippine basketball has been defined by rivalries between equally-matched teams that have stirred the imagination and rabidity of Filipino fans.
But there was another rivalry which was as intense as the encounters between the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the La Salle Green Archers, as keenly anticipated as the Manila Clasico games between Barangay Ginebra and the Magnolia Hotshots, and as heated as the battles between the Crispa Redmanizers and the Toyota Corollas.
It was not even a rivalry between teams, but rather, a very public rift between two of the best players this country has ever produced, the “Big J” Robert Jaworski and “El Presidente” Ramon Fernandez.
The odd thing about the Jaworski-Fernandez feud is that the two of them played together for over a decade.
Both stars were part of the national team that won the gold in the 1973 Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC), finished 4th in the Asian Games, and played in the 1974 World Championships.
They were also teammates under the Komatsu Comets banner in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) before they joined the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) as members of the Toyota franchise.
Jaworski and Fernandez were the most popular players in the first two decades of the PBA. Their playing styles and personalities were seemingly cast in the same mold – charismatic figures and articulate and outspoken leaders who showcased all-around brilliance and made their teammates better.
Long before Russell Westbrook and Luka Doncic started dropping triple-doubles in the NBA, the Big J and Don Ramon were already doing the same in the local scene on a regular basis.
In 1978, the then 32-year-old Jaworski averaged 20 points, 12 assists, and almost 9 rebounds a game and was the clear choice as the PBA Most Valuable Player.
In Don Ramon’s first post-Toyota season in 1984, he won his second MVP award after averaging 27.8 points, 11.17 boards, and 9.92 assists. He also normed 2.09 blocks and 1.53 steals in 40 minutes of play per game.
Jaworski was already 29 years old when the PBA started in 1975. Fernandez, on the other hand, was a raw, reed-thin center who was only 21 years old.
Jaworski became the undisputed leader of Toyota in the early years of the PBA. The club won 7 titles in the league’s first 7 seasons.
In 1982, Jaworski missed almost half the season because of a groin injury. This resulted in the emergence of a new commanding presence in the Toyota locker room in the person of Fernandez.
He led the Super Corollas to two titles – the Reinforced Filipino Conference with import Donnie Ray Koonce (a replacement for Arnold Dugger) where they defeated San Miguel which was led by Norman Black, and the Open Conference with imports Koonce and Andrew Fields which saw them sweep Gilbey’s Gin.
Fernandez won that season the first of his 4 MVP trophies.
The 1982 season had serious implications in the dynamics of the Toyota organization. Renowned basketball historian Jay P. Mercado recounted: “With Fernandez’s success during Jaworski’s absence, he became the team’s new alpha dog.
“When Jaworski returned, obviously, he wanted to get that spot back. However, Fernandez was already the team’s best player.”
In 1983, Mercado said Toyota simply imploded. It registered a woeful 18-27 record for the year. The ballclub failed for the first time to make the finals of any of the 3 conferences.
There was already a simmering, albeit unpronounced power struggle between Fernandez, who was beginning to establish himself as the best player in the league, and Jaworski, who apparently also did not see eye-to-eye with Toyota team manager Jack Rodriguez.
The following year, the Toyota squad was sold lock, stock, and barrel to Asia Brewery which had planned to build its team, Beer Hausen, around Fernandez as the franchise player.
Jaworski and Arnaiz refused to move over to Beer Hausen as they protested the lack of transparency in the sale of the Toyota franchise, a deal described by Arnaiz that treated players as “por kilo.” The two would instead join Gilbey’s Gin under the Palanca group.
The Toyota and Crispa storyline which anchored the league’s development in its first decade of existence was no more as the Floro-owned franchise also disbanded after the 1984 season.
This set the stage for the rivalry between Jaworski and Fernandez to inherit the league’s spotlight.
The two clashed in a blockbuster showdown in the 1986 All Filipino best-of-five finals where El Presidente’s Tanduay team took down the Big J and Ginebra in 4 games.
Fernandez was named the playing coach of league newcomer Purefoods in 1988, setting him up on a collision course with Jaworski, who was on his fourth year as Ginebra playing coach.
This essentially was the beginning of the Manila Clasico rivalry as we know it today.
The two squads made the 1988 All Filipino Conference championship, a dream finals featuring Jaworski and a Ginebra squad known for its rough and physical play characterized by the likes of Rudy Distrito, Dante Gonzalgo, and the Loyzaga brothers against Fernandez and a Purefoods team which paraded rookies Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codiñera, and Jojo Lastimosa.
Fans, however, were deprived of seeing Fernandez and Jaworski go at each other in the finals.
Fernandez was benched in Game 2 of the championship on orders of Purefoods management.
With their leader relegated to the role of a helpless spectator the rest of the series, the young Purefoods team simply could not hang with the veteran-laden Ginebra squad in the clutch as Jaworski’s troops won Games 3 and 4 to clinch the crown, 3-1.
Fernandez was traded before the third conference to San Miguel for Abet Guidaben. El Presidente would redeem himself by teaming up with Samboy Lim, Hector Calma, playing coach Black, and import Michael Phelps to win for the Beermen the Reinforced Conference over Bobby Parks and Shell Rimula.
Fernandez went on to win his fourth MVP award that season. A 42-year-old Jaworski was still good enough to make that year’s Second Mythical Five.
There is a misconception among Filipino hoop enthusiasts that the cold war between the two most dominant figures in PBA history started to thaw when coach Baby Dalupan made them shake hands after they conspired on the last play of the 1989 All-Star Game that led to a buzzer-beating victory by the Veterans over the Rookies/Sophomore.
The truth is, there were efforts to mend fences between them even before that with Jaworski taking the initiative.
During a 1988 year-end awards ceremony hosted by sportswriters, both Fernandez and Jaworski were recognized for their accomplishments that season.
While the two were onstage to accept their awards, Jaworski approached and congratulated Fernandez.
As it did not happen in full view of the audience, only a few sportswriters and guests witnessed the first time in years the bitter enemies shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.
The reconciliation was merely cemented in the 1989 PBA All Star Game. When Jaworski was named the coach for the 1990 Asian Games of the first ever national team made up of PBA players, the first player he named to the squad was Fernandez, whom he also appointed as team captain.
That brought to an end any tinge of animosity left between the two.
The Jaworski-Fernandez rivalry, though unfortunate, also played a huge part in the growth of the PBA in the 1980s. It made for compelling drama and a human-interest storyline.
Perhaps, fans and the media were looking to fill the void left by Toyota and Crispa. Having a bitter conflict between two larger-than-life personalities in Jaworski and Fernandez was the perfect script to keep fans engaged and sustain the PBA’s popularity. – Rappler.com
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