Don’t look now, but had he pursued playing his first loves — baseball and softball — or continued trying his luck in swimming and athletics, Robert “Sonny” Jaworski wouldn’t have earned the sobriquet in local basketball as “living legend.”
Or had he insisted on carrying the colors of Far Eastern University instead of the University of the East in his UAAP career in the ’60s, he wouldn’t have the popularity he is still enjoying up to this day that made him one of only few athletes to have been elected as member of the Philippine Senate which he served with flying colors.
Yes, Jaworski, the “Big J,” or “Jawo” to his legion of fans, played not basketball but baseball and softball in his high school days besides representing Roxas High School, too, in swimming and track and field in Manila’s public school meets.
“I was a small boy when I was in high school, so I shied away from basketball which was even then dominated by big boys,” Jaworski, who turns 66 on Thursday, related to this writer in one of many interviews held when he was still playing-coach of the popular Ginebra San Miguel Club in the PBA.
“Pero before finishing high school, I started growing up, so, sabi ng mga tao, relatives, friends, neighbors (in Beata, a densely populated area in Pandacan) mag-basketball na daw ako,” narrated the Big J, father of four who married UE classmate Evelyn Bautista, scion of a famous family in the entertainment world.
“I didn’t know anything about basketball. Wala nga akong basic na kaalaman sa larong yun. Pero nagtiyaga ako. I was determined to learn the game, kaya bago ako natapos ng high school, nawala na ako sa baseball and softball field at napunta sa basketball court,” he said.
When he reached college, he tried out to become a member of the FEU Tamaraws, then under the wings of late coach Peping Yee. The Tamaraws’ lineup, however, was already filled up with such big names as Arturo Valenzona, who will be Jaworski’s teammate at Yco in the now defunct MICAA, forerunner of the PBA, Engracio “Boy” Arazas, Manny Jocson and other guards.
It was Valenzona, who also turned out to become a heralded bench tactician, who saw Jaworski’s caliber at FEU, as a player who, at 6-foot-1, can play guard, forward and center, and recommended him to a UE student friend.
Valenzona’s friend relayed the message to Warriors’ coach Baby Dalupan, who sent assistant Filomeno Pumaren, father of now coaches Derick, Franz and Dindo, to see for himself if Jawo can fit his roster.
The rest, as cliché goes, is history. The boy with big hands and feet, pug-nose and all, became the new “King Warrior,” succeeding the likes of Constancio “Jun” Ortiz, Rhoel Nadurata, Jimmy Mariano, to mention a few, who would lead UE to three UAAP championships and four National Intercollegiate titles from 1964 to 1967.
Why he did not join his guru Dalupan in the legendary Crispa Redmanizers still puzzle basketball fans until today. The Big J instead landed in Yco in his first post-collegiate campaign before transferring to Meralco, where he and the Reddy Kilowatts challenged former Warriors Rudolf Kutch, Epoy Alcantara, Virgilio Abarrientos and classmates Johnny Revilla and Tito Varela, among others, in a fierce protracted battle for amateur basketball supremacy.
The disbandment of Meralco saw Jaworski donning the Silverio family-owned Komatsu jersey, where he also emerged as its spiritual leader until its transfer to the pro-league carrying the banner of the Toyota Comets.
Jaworski donned the national colors seven times, once in the world championships, three in the Asian Games and four in the Asian Basketball Confederation (now FIBA Asia), last played in Manila in 1973. He spearheaded the Philippines’ last Asian victory with an all-Filipino line up.
Jawo highlighted his coaching career by steering another national team, reinforced by long-time Toyota teammate Ramon Fernandez, Alvin Patrimonio, Allan Caidic, Samboy Lim, Hector Calma and Benjie Paras, among others, to a silver medal finish, the highest after losing the crown in 1966, in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing.
As a pro, he gifted Toyota with nine championships and as a bench tactician he handed Ginebra four. His biggest gift to the PBA, in general, and Ginebra, in particular, is the popularity both entities enjoy up to the present time.