Basketball

Revolution, evolution, and the tale of the undersized PBA forward

Courtesy of Emerito Legaspi

THE PHILIPPINE BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION opened its doors on April 9, 1975, exactly 37 years ago on Monday. Asia’s first professional basketball league was formed by nine owners of teams from the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association, an amateur league that was then the premiere basketball organization in the country.

The PBA was a result of a revolution by those owners, who were disgruntled with the policies of the Basketball Association of the Philippines, headed by Gonzalo “Lito” Puyat. Among the key bones of contention was the fact that the BAP could just take players away from teams to suit up for the national squad.

Only one team did not join the PBA: the Manila Bank Golden Bankers, which was owned by the Puyat family.

But the MICAA did not vanish immediately with the formation of the pro league. PBA teams opted to have farm squads in the commercial league, which allowed them to secure top amateur players directly. The PBA draft wasn’t instituted until 1985, which allowed teams to hire directly from the amateur ranks, making it appealing for the pro team to have amateur counterparts.

PBA teams could pay its players salaries as professionals, whereas the MICAA squads were only allowed to give them allowances. Established stars such as Robert Jaworski, Danny Florencio, Yoyong Martirez, and Bog Adornado, among many others, moved up to the pros.

THE MOVE OF ESTABLISHED STARS TO THE PBA allowed new talent to bloom in the MICAA. In 1976, the league saw a historic feat as Emerito Legaspi, a rookie playing for Toyota farm team Crown Motors, won the Discovery of the Year (equivalent to the Rookie of the Year) and Most Valuable Player awards after averaging almost 28 points per game.

In the MICAA, Legaspi was the total package. He was capable of scoring anywhere from inside 20 feet with his soft and elegant outside touch, and he could drive the lanes to score from inside.

Legaspi, a scoring machine out of University of the East, was an unlikely basketball star. A high school valedictorian, he enrolled in the school’s Mechanical Engineering program as a full scholar, with no plans of being a varsity player.

He also happened to be a star player on his varsity team in high school, and in his sophomore year, UE coach Filomeno Pumaren (the father of Derrick, Franz, and Dindo) recruited Legaspi to join the Red Warriors. He led UE to titles in 1974 and 1975, helping the school re-establish UAAP dominance after losing the previous two seasons to Far Eastern University.

In the MICAA, Legaspi followed up his dominant rookie season by leading Crown Motors to the league title in 1977. Some of his more notable teammates included Pol Herrera, Pablo Javier and Abe King, who would later be his teammates at Toyota, as well as Joey Marquez, who would gain more renown later as an actor and politician.

After the MICAA campaign, Legaspi was called up by Toyota to the PBA that same year. The Tamaraws were embarking on a rebuilding effort after arch-rival Crispa won the PBA’s first Grand Slam in 1976. Only Robert Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Francis Arnaiz, Rookie of the Year Gil Cortez, Fort Acuña, Oscar Rocha, Orly Bauzon and Aurelio “Boy” Clarino were retained from the previous year’s team. It was his time to shine in the big leagues — or so he thought.

LEGASPI MADE HIS TOYOTA DEBUT in the 5th game of the season, after finishing his commitments with Crown. In a provincial game in Lucena, he scored 13 points, third-most in the team behind stars Fernandez and Arnaiz.

But adjusting to the pros proved to be difficult for Legaspi. At just 5-foot-11, he played forward for UE and Crown, but was only tall enough to play the backcourt in the PBA. And the Toyota backcourt featured Jaworski and Arnaiz, arguably the best guard tandem in the league.

Even though he ended up being the team’s fourth-leading scorer in his rookie season, Legaspi saw Toyota bring in star after star ahead of him. In 1978, the team signed established stars Danny Florencio, who led Toyota in scoring that season, and Estoy Estrada, who became the squad’s sixth man. The following year, when Florencio took a leave of absence from the team, Toyota brought in Arnie Tuadles, who won the starting small forward position and the Rookie of the Year award.

Late that season, Fort Acuña was appointed coach of the Tamaraws after the resignation of Dante Silverio. The coach had accused Fernandez, King, and Estrada of fixing games, and benched them. But Toyota owner Ricardo Silverio, Sr. overruled the coach, his nephew, which led to Dante’s departure.

Acuña’s entry meant more playing time for Legaspi, since the new coach favored using his younger players more extensively. But soon, Acuña also got himself into a tiff with a Toyota star, this time with Jaworski. The coach was fired during the finals of the 1980 All-Filipino Conference after refusing team manager Pablo Carlos’ orders to field Jaworski into the game. The coaching change meant that Legaspi had to play spot minutes behind Jaworski and Arnaiz once again.

Courtesy of Emerito Legaspi

LEGASPI WAS SHOCKED TO READ IN THE PAPERS that the Toyota franchise had been sold to Lucio Tan-owned Basic Holdings Inc., which in turn owned Asia Brewery. Only a few days before, Toyota owner Ricardo Silverio, Sr. and team manager Jack Rodriguez assured that the team wouldn’t disband.

Jaworski and Arnaiz, refusing to move to the new team, transferred to Gilbey’s Gin, while Tuadles and Loyzaga joined Great Taste. King had earlier signed by Gold Eagle Beer (later San Miguel). The rest of the Toyota players, including Legaspi, ended up comprising the new Beer Hausen squad.

Legaspi spent two uneventful seasons with the Brewmasters. His coach, Bonnie Carbonell, insisted on using him as a shooting guard, since his lack of height made him undersized to play his natural forward position. He also had to share minutes with other guards such as Itoy Esguerra, Bert Dela Rosa and Abet Gutierrez at Beer Hausen.

In 1985, after nine seasons in the PBA, Legaspi decided to hang up his sneakers. Observers wondered if he would have the same scoring star in the PBA that he was in the amateurs had he ended up playing for a team other than Toyota.

LEGASPI COULDN’T HELP BUT ADMIRE the athleticism and mobility of modern players, which he attributes to more sophisticated training methods. He thinks coaching has also improved by leaps and bounds, allowing today’s players to understand the game better.

Could he have played in today’s game? Of course, he wouldn’t cut it as a 5-foot-11 forward. But perhaps, with the more sophisticated training and coaching available, he would have been able to transform his game.

His playing style draws comparisons to 1992 PBA Most Valuable Player Ato Agustin, a player who was about the same size. Like Legaspi, Agustin was also a star forward in college. But unlike Legaspi, Agustin’s game undertook an evolution once he hit the pros, playing both guard positions for San Miguel on his way to blossoming into a PBA superstar.

But Legaspi has no regrets, even if he had to spend his whole PBA career playing in the shadows of his more illustrious teammates. Today, Legaspi is financially-secure and content. He has been married to his wife for 37 years, with three adult children.

For Emerito Legaspi, it was enough to have been a member of the Tamaraws, an experience which he will continue to cherish 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.

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