Former Ginebra coach Robert Jaworski turns 66 on Thursday. Even today, his legend continues to live on. Jaworski has become synonymous with the “Never Say Die” spirit, which in turn has become synonymous with his old team. But while Jaworski enjoyed fame in the PBA from his days as a stalwart of Toyota, one night in 1985 cemented Jaworski’s legend forever.
It was a game between Ginebra against the Northern Consolidated Corporation (NCC) guest team in the semifinals of the 1985 Reinforced Conference.
Jaworski led the Ginebra charge, which also featured his best buddy Francis Arnaiz, former Toyota teammates Arnie Tuadles and Ricky Relosa, and their rebound demon of an import Michael Hackett, among others.
American coach Ron Jacobs, meanwhile, mentored the youthful NCC team, which featured naturalized frontcourt pillars Dennis Still and Jeff Moore – a third naturalized player, sharpshooter Chip Engelland, wasn’t allowed by the PBA to suit up for NCC that conference – as well as amateur standouts Hector Calma, Samboy Lim, Allan Caidic, Yves Dignadice, Elmer Reyes, and Franz Pumaren.
When the game began, NCC played with precision, as usual, working on set plays anchored on Calma’s quarterbacking. Ginebra, on the other hand, was your typical run-and-gun team, who became prone to several errors.
Jaworski, then playing coach for the Gins, usually fielded himself at the start of the second quarter, this game not being an exception. But NCC remained in control even after Jaworski entered the court.
Midway through the second period, Jaworski’s lips ran smack into Jeff Moore’s elbow, cutting and bloodying the Big J’s kisser. Ginebra fans turned silent, as they worried about losing not just the team’s playing coach, but its undisputed leader. Jaworski had to be brought to nearby Medical City’s emergency room to get stitches on his lips.
A pall of gloom engulfed the ULTRA as NCC piled up the points and established a huge margin. Without Jaworski, there was nobody to provide direction and leadership to a rudderless Gins team. Moore was dominant, Still controlled the boards, Caidic was scorching from the outside, Lim had an easy time penetrating the lanes, and Calma took control. By the end of the 3rd quarter, hopes of a Ginebra comeback were slim as the Gins played lackadaisically.
Then the unthinkable happened. Fans roared after seeing Jaworski return to the bench and take off his jacket, even with a bandage covering the seven stitches on his lips. They grew even wilder when Jaworski fielded himself in with just under eight minutes to go in the game. By then, NCC had established a decisive 15-point advantage with no sign of losing control. At least not until the Big J came in.
Jaworski took over the point guard chores for the Gins, and took command of the game. He didn’t score much, ending up with only 3 points, but it was his quarterbacking, leadership and the immense motivation and inspiration that propelled Ginebra to fight back.
Suddenly, Ginebra found it easy to score. NCC, known for its poise and mental toughness, became unusually rattled as the decibels mounted, while the crowd egged the Gins on. Like every Ginebra rally we’ve come to know, they ran, played physical defense, and made not just outside shots but ‘miracle shots’ as well. They slowly chipped off the lead while Ron Jacobs frantically called one timeout after another to regroup his squad.
But there was no stopping the Gins. The tide of momentum had swayed to their favor. Suddenly, Caidic’s guns fell silent, the defense kept Lim from slicing the lanes, and Calma couldn’t re-establish control, while Still and Moore couldn’t hold off Hackett inside.
Ginebra ended up winning the game, 101-97. In the post-game interview, Ron Jacobs shook his head, almost in admiration, for how the Big J re-ignited his team to victory.
I would argue that this game catapulted Jaworski to his demi-god status, making him the most popular player in Philippine basketball history.
Jay P. Mercado is a highly-regarded PBA amateur historian. He serves as a consultant for the PBA Greatest Games broadcast on Pinoy X-treme. This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the sports blog Fire Quinito.