This series, which takes a look back at Robert Jaworski’s four titles as playing-coach of Ginebra, is part of 7 Days of Jaworski, InterAKTV’s special tribute to the Living Legend, whose jersey will be retired on Sunday, July 8.
History was stacked against Robert Jaworski when his Gordon’s Gin Boars went up against the formidable Alaska Milkmen in the 1997 Commissioner’s Cup. Jaworski had not beaten Tim Cone in two previous finals matchups, and the Milkmen was in the midst of their dominant run.
Alaska flexed just enough muscle to get the first finals berth, while Gordon’s Gin had to go through the wringer in a sudden-death game against San Miguel Beer that went into double overtime, 106-100.
The Milkmen were reinforced by former Pepsi import Kevin Holland. Gordon’s Gin meanwhile, brought in Chris King as a late replacement for the high-flying Tyrone Hopkins, who was given the pink slip at the end of the elims despite the Boars’ 6-3 card.
Jaworski felt that he needed a more complete player to reinforce the team, so while Hopkins was no slouch, Jaworski pulled the trigger on the import change.
Their marathon duel with the Beermen just three days before the start of the finals had Boars fans worried.
But Jaworski had some tricks up his sleeve. He kept himself on the bench all game, relying on speedy Bal David and sniper Pido Jarencio to quarterback the team. Jaworski also assigned sophomore center Marlou Aquino to cover Holland in the post one-on-one. In the first game, Aquino even outscored Holland, 24-21, while King had a triple-double to lead Gordon’s Gin to a surprise 99-89 victory.
Game Two turned out to be a pivotal game. With his confidence oozing, King went for a slam at the end of the third quarter, but suffered a hamstring injury in the play. King had to be subbed out, allowing the Milkmen to grab control. With Alaska ahead 95-93, Jaworski sent King back into the game, and the import responded by nailing a dagger three-pointer that inspired Gordon’s Gin to a 102-96 victory. Jaworski and co. surged to a 2-0 lead, but a dark cloud hung over Ginebra fans because of the injury to King, who was a doubtful starter in Game Three.
But Gordon’s locals stepped up to the challenge. With the hampered King playing just 15 minutes, Jarencio and reserve Terry Saldaña went to work. Jarencio sizzled all night long with seven three-pointers for 23 points, while Saldaña did a solid 26-minute relief job, scoring 10 points and hauling down 12 rebounds while outrebounding the entire Alaska team in the third quarter. With 1:20 remaining and Alaska ahead, 86-84, Jarencio sank his seventh trey to put Gordon’s ahead, 87-86, the same score when the buzzer sounded. Jarencio’s seven treys was one short of the PBA record owned by Jaworski, which he established way back in 1980.
Alaska battled back to win the next two games, 108-90 and 86-81, primarily through the heroics of Jojo Lastimosa.
With pressure mounting, Jaworski summoned every single ounce of his players’ collective strength to focus on Game Six. The Living Legend wanted his players to give everything and play like there was no tomorrow.
The players responded, as four locals backstopped King with twin digits. After taking a 46-44 lead at the half, Gordon’s Gin turned the game into a rout, exploded for 33 points while limiting Alaska to just five. Gordon’s took a 79-49 lead going into the fourth quarter, and wound up with the 105-79 victory.
“Pinagpaguran namin ito. Hindi ito drawing o chamba. Our focus to win was there and I’m glad that everyone responded to the challenge. If they just use their minds, it would be our biggest weapon. It’s just a matter of being focused and the boys were able to accomplish that,” said Jaworski after copping his 4th title as a playing coach of the franchise.
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.