Basketball

Jaworski before Ginebra: A look back at the Big J’s Toyota years

This feature is part of 7 Days of Jaworski, InterAKTV’s special tribute to the Living Legend, whose jersey will be retired on Sunday, July 8.

When the PBA opened in 1975, 29-year-old Robert Salazar Jaworski was already a bona fide star. A veteran of many international competitions, including the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Toyota coach Dante Silverio wanted Jaworski to suit up for the Comets. The coach was confident that a starting unit of Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz, Ramon Fernandez, Rodolfo “Ompong” Segura, and Alberto “Big Boy” Reynoso would lead the Comets to greatness.

It was no surprise then when Toyota won the league’s first two titles at the expense of the Crispa Redmanizers. Powered by import Byron “Snake” Jones and, later, Stan “Sweet” Cherry, Toyota romped to two championships and were poised for a Grand Slam right in the PBA’s very first season. But Crispa prevented a triple crown for Toyota in the season-ending tournament, dashing the Comets’ dreams.

In 1976, Toyota was still good enough to contend in the finals in three straight tournaments. Unfortunately, the squad lost all three titles to the Redmanizers, who ran away with the Grand Slam that year.

Silverio revamped the team, recruiting Abe King and Emerito Legaspi from the amateur ranks. Jaworski, meanwhile, took over the leadership role on the team. In 1977, he led the squad to the title in the Third Conference, where Toyota defeated guest team Emtex Sacronels in the finals. The Sacronels were composed of stars from the Brazilian national team, and Jaworski’s matchup with Milton Setrini, whom he shut down in the finals, was a highlight of the series.

Undisputed leader

But it was in 1978 when Jaworski truly dominated. In what was probably the single finest season by a local PBA player, the 32-year-old point guard led Toyota to the All-Filipino and Invitational titles and averaged a scintillating 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game for the season, making him the undisputed Most Valuable Player.

His rebounding numbers were astounding, considering that he played in two conferences that allowed imports of unlimited height. Toyota also suited up two dominant reinforcements that season, the prolific Bruce “Sky” King and rebounding demon Carlos Terry, and Jaworski still managed to put up those crazy numbers.

Over the next couple of seasons, Jaworski was the undisputed leader of Toyota.

Finals controversy

But controversy hounded the team in the finals of the 1980 All-Filipino Conference. Crispa was on a dominant run, having won 19 straight games, and the Redmanizers held a 2-0 lead over Toyota in the finals.

In Game Three, Toyota coach Fort Acuna kept Jaworski on the bench for the first half of the game, defying the instructions of team manager Don Pablo Carlos. At halftime, Carlos fired Acuna on the spot, and took over coaching duties of the team. He fielded in Jaworski at the start of the second half, and the Big J provided his team a huge emotional lift that resulted in a 97-94 victory for the Tamaraws, who dealt the powerhouse Redmanizers their only loss that conference.

In 1981, Toyota and Crispa met for the last time in the Open Conference finals. Crispa featured former Utah Jazz draftee James Hardy and ex-Toyota import “Snake” Jones, while Toyota had Andrew Fields and Victor King. Jaworski was instrumental in defending Redmanizers hotshot Atoy Co, and made clutch plays for Toyota, who had the last laugh against its bitter rival, winning the series 3-2.

The Big Three of Toyota: Jaworski, Arnaiz, and Fernandez

The power struggle

Jaworski suffered an assortment of injuries in the 1982 season, including a groin problem that kept him out for most of the year. With Jaworski out, Fernandez became the focal point of Toyota, which still found much success with a talented cast that featured Arnaiz, King, and 1979 Rookie of the Year Arnie Tuadles.

Despite Jaworski’s injuries, Toyota won two titles that season.

When Jaworski returned to full-time action in 1983, a feud had begun to simmer between Jaworski and Fernandez. Toyota failed to win a single title, as Crispa won its second Grand Slam that season.

Meanwhile, reports of a rift among the Toyota players worried the team’s diehard fans. Jaworski reportedly had the support of veterans like Arnaiz and Tuadles, while guys like Ed Cordero, Tim Coloso, and Pol Herrera, among others, were allegedly in the Fernandez camp.

Keen observers noted the “cold war” between Jaworski and Fernandez, who seemed to refuse to pass the ball to each other on the court, although the players kept talk of the feud away from public.

Goodbye Toyota

While the team struggled on the court, rumors surfaced that Toyota was about to disband at the end of the 1983 season, which caused anxiety among its players. Team manager Jack Rodriguez reassured the players, including Jaworski and Fernandez, that Toyota would not be sold. But just a week after, a report came out that the Toyota franchise had been sold to Basic Shareholdings Inc., the holding company for Asia Brewery.

Jaworski went berserk, and appeared on television to blast the move of Toyota management to sell the team without informing the players. In one memorable interview with Jullie Yap-Daza on “Tell the People,” Jaworski and Arnaiz criticized the lack of loyalty on the part of Toyota management, while declaring their refusal to be part of the sale, taking offense at the idea of players being sold “por kilo” to another company.

Toyota fans were devastated. Some rabid followers even sent donations to Toyota management to keep the team together.

But the sale had been finalized, and the Toyota basketball team was no more. Beer Hausen, which took over the Toyota squad, declared that Fernandez would be the team’s franchise player.

Sensing an opportunity and not wanting further controversy to affect the league, PBA president Carlos “Honeyboy” Palanca III acquired the services of Jaworski and Arnaiz for his La Tondeña franchise. It was the team that would go on to become Ginebra, where Jaworski went on to seal his legend forever.

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.

Want to join the Big J’s big bash? Upload your favorite Jawo photo and get a chance to get two (2) PATRON TICKETS for Sunday’s event.

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