A royal conversation with PBA legend Abe King

Ariel Ian Clarito
A royal conversation with PBA legend Abe King
Abe King charted an iconic PBA career that saw him etch his mark as one of the best defenders and rebounders in league history

MANILA, Philippines – I was initially scared of the prospect of talking to Abe King. You see, when I began following Philippine basketball in the mid-’80s, my mental construct of him was a tough-as-nails big man who never backed down from anybody. He was not one to start fights, but even the most notorious roughhousers of the no-harm, no-foul era of the PBA did not dare mess with him.

As a 19-year-old rookie in 1977, King was already part of the regular rotation of the powerhouse Toyota Corollas. It is hard to imagine any teenage player today from the collegiate ranks who can enter the PBA and become a key component or an immediate starter for any of the top teams. 

Even as a 17-year veteran in 1993, King’s guile enabled him to grab 18 rebounds in a crucial finals game to help Coney Island/Purefoods win the All-Filipino championship.

For younger fans, think of Marc Pingris’ versatility in guarding multiple positions, Nelson Asaytono’s leaping ability in snaring kalawit (hook) rebounds, and Eric Menk being a pillar of strength down low. You combine their toughness and you get Abe King.

This intimidating image of King began to demystify in my eyes when I watched him in the podcast An Eternity of Basketball. He was very entertaining and wore his heart on his sleeve. He tore up when he talked about his college coach. He answered questions candidly and burst out in contagious laughter when he recollected light stories from his decorated career.  

When I finally got to interview King, I immediately felt at ease with the man who exuded warmth and joviality. I was still awestruck, but no longer daunted. Rather, I became immersed in an engaging conversation with an iconic figure who regaled me with stories of his basketball journey. I came to know the man behind the myth that was formed in my mind.

Early beginnings

King is 8th all time in the PBA rebounding list. There is a reason he was dubbed the “Chairman of the Boards.” He was a ferocious rebounder who combined his hops with good positioning and veteran smarts.

He told me things I wish I already knew when I was still playing competitive basketball.

“In defensive rebounding, the most important thing is to properly box out. That was the first thing Caloy (Loyzaga) instilled in me. Create and occupy a big space,” said King. “In offensive rebounding, you need quickness. Read where the ball will bounce. You cannot simply rely on power. You try to confuse the one boxing you out. Even if he is able to box you out, you make sure it tires him out or he loses his footing.”

King began his basketball journey when he was 10 years old in the barrio tournaments of Imus and Cavite City. He credits the two coaches who mentored him in high school – Felipe Mahusay and Jun Nazareno – for teaching him the basics. 

It was when he moved to Manila to play for San Beda College in 1976 that he had the opportunity to be coached by arguably the greatest Filipino cager of all time, Caloy “The Big Difference” Loyzaga. It was from Loyzaga that King learned the finer details of the game.

King, though, mentioned that the players he tried to pattern his game from as he was growing up were the prominent bigs of the 1960s such as Rudolf Kutch, Elias Tolentino, and Marte Samson.

He was one of the first to show that it was possible to achieve superstar status in the PBA even if one specialized on defense and rebounding. Toyota was loaded with players who could light up the scoreboard, among them Sonny Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Francis Arnaiz, Estoy Estrada, Danny Florencio, and Arnie Tuadles. 

“I knew from the onset what my role was. No offensive plays were being designed for me in my early years with Toyota. I had to find other ways to help the team,” King said. 

Quintessential team player

Someone had to do the dirty work. That became King’s calling card.

He mastered the unglamorous part of basketball, providing bone-crushing screens, cleaning the glass, and defending the best big man or import of opposing teams. He became the quintessential team player who made the lives of his teammates easier and his opponents a living hell.

“I spent time studying the players I was tasked to guard – how they positioned their feet, how they held the ball, how they raised the ball when they were about to shoot. When they moved, I tried to block the path where they wanted to go and prevent them from finding their favorite shooting spots.”

Because of his brand of play, King suffered numerous injuries in his career, including a broken nose 4 times. One was due to an inadvertent elbow from Norman Black in 1985. The last was courtesy of Alvin Patrimonio. He had to undergo surgeries to put his nose back in place.

“Those were unfortunate but were really nothing more than accidents. Everyone knows Norman is patient and a truly good guy. Alvin has never been known to hurt players intentionally. Part of the game,” he said matter-of-factly.

He may have been known as a defensive and rebounding specialist, but King was no slouch on offense either. He once scored 60 points in a game in his junior year in the PBA. In the 1982 season, he was among the league’s top 10 scorers and made the Mythical Team. When King moved to Gold Eagle Beer, he averaged 18 points a game in the 1984 season.

The PBA began to hand out the Defensive Player of the Year Award only in 1993. It is not farfetched to assume that if the league institutionalized the award over a decade earlier, King would have won it a number of times. He was, after all, one of the toughest defenders in the first two decades of the PBA.

King became the mold for defensive bigs who came after him such as Terry Saldaña, Alvin Teng, and Bong Hawkins – bullstrong and immovable forces in the low block who were also tireless operators willing to sacrifice their own bodies.

For those who had the good fortune to watch King at his peak, it seems sacrilegious that he was not named among the PBA’s Top 40 Greatest Players. Twenty-six years since he retired, King is still often referred to as the yardstick of defensive players in the PBA.

I cannot say my mental picture of King has changed since I interviewed him. Rather, it has been enhanced as I got to know a side of him that I was not able to see when he was still in the PBA. 

In my mind, I now see a tough guy who I remember getting thrown out in a game for an altercation with the “Destroyer” Rudy Distrito, but had the big heart to also spearhead a movement to help Distrito deal with his legal woes years ago in the United States. I see a bubbly man who writes witty captions on his social media posts. 

I was fortunate I had the chance to get to know Abe King. He is not only a legend of Philippine hoops but a basketball royalty.  Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.