By: Emmanuel B. Villaruel
The Sports Fanatic
Manny Villaruel is the Sports Editor of Cebu’s ‘The Freeman’. He wrote this article on one of the country’s – and the PBA’s – most prominent players for a new magazine, ‘The Sports Fanatic’. Mon Fernandez is retired in Cebu. Though retired, he still keeps himself busy with his private business enterprise, plus occasional talks and clinics on basketball.
Ramon ‘El Presidente’ Fernandez is already past his prime as a decorated hardcourt warrior; but he remains – and will always be – an important and prominent figure in Philippine basketball. Though no longer active inside the playing court, he continues to make an impact with his valuable insights and fearless comments on vital issues concerning the country’s basketball affairs.
A few months back, he made the Sports pages once again when he pioneered an impassioned fund-raising plea to help Samboy Lim, who had suffered a stroke while playing basketball for a soon-to-be formed veterans’ league.
Recently, he hit the Sports section once again after skipping the grand celebration of the PBA’s 40th Founding Anniversary at the Resorts World Manila. He was also highly critical of the manner by which Chot Reyes called the shots for the Gilas Pilipinas during the FIBA World Cup last year in Spain. He was among those who called for Chot’s resignation, saying that Reyes could have done better in handling the national team from whom we had great expectations of scaling back greater heights in the world stage.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Filipino basketball legend gamely shared his thoughts on practically everything under the sun – from his early years as an amateur cager donning the jersey of the University of San Carlos (USC) Warriors in Cebu up to his glorious days as a pro cager and decorated national team player. This vast experience in the amateur and professional leagues molded him and thus, galvanized his road to greatness. He also talked about his storied clashes with arch-rival, Abet Guidaben; and gave some nuggets of wisdom on the present state of Philippine cagedom.
In snubbing the PBA rites honoring the addition of 15 new icons to form the league’s 40 Greatest Players, Fernandez – arguably the most brilliant center to showcase his talent in the PBA – explained that it was a matter of principle.
“Since they have already honored me with my inclusion in the 25 Greatest Players in the 25th Anniversary, I found no need to grace the event for the 40th Anniversary with the awarding of the 40 Greatest Players,” said Fernandez.
While he has so much respect for the league, he laments the fact that the selection process was done in haste, a fastbreak of sorts in hoop parlance; and he strongly disagrees with the inclusion of active players in the elite list. (Ed’s note: In the NBA, players are eligible for the Hall of Fame after they have been fully retired from play for at least five years.)
“I didn’t agree with naming 15 players more in this event, and besides, active players should not be included in this list. I believe it would have been appropriate if they named 50 Greatest Players on the 50th Anniversary. More so with the haste that they did in adding the 15 players in less that three hours of deliberation by the selection committee. If it was just a simple celebration, just like the 10th, 20th, and 30th, I could have perhaps attended the event,” he added.
Fernandez first rose into prominence as a key member of the USC Warriors in the defunct Cebu Amateur Athletic Association way back in early ’70s. He still vividly recalls – with a tinge of embarrassment – the moment when his first attempt was swatted away by a player shorter than him.
“My first game with the USC Warriors was against Corcord Polytechnic School in the CAAA then. I went for a left handed layup, but a 5’4” player blocked my shot. I was 6’2” then,” he said.
In 1972, after a few years of playing college ball, Fernandez joined the San Miguel Braves in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA). The following year, he transferred to the Komatsu Komets, who were later renamed the Toyota Comets. His stint in the commercial circuit seasoned him and became his springboard to reach greater glory in the pro ranks. Eventually, he would become a vital cog in the Philippine Team that would win numerous championships during his time.
Fernandez is one of only two players to win the coveted MVP award four times. Interestingly enough, he clinched these with different teams (Toyota, Beer Hausen, Tanduay, and San Miguel Beer), using different line-ups and different coaching strategies. The only other cager to have accomplished this feat is Alvin Patrimonio, now team manager of Purefoods Star Hotshots.
As a pro, Fernandez has wonderful recollections of his decades-old rivarly with Abet Guidaben, which he describes as intense, but highly productive.
“My rivalry with Abet spanned for 21 years, from 1973 to 1994 to be exact. It was a lot of fun while it lasted. It pushed us to try to be the best we can be,” said Fernandez, in a clear salute to a worthy adversary.
In the international arena, the country’s prestige and might may have faded over the years due to the emergence of new basketball regional powers such as China, Iran, Japan and South Korea, but Fernandez is highly optimistic that the Philippine still has what it takes to reclaim its lofty billing and lost glory in the world stage.
“Gone are the days when the Philippines lorded it over the other Asian countries in basketball. The sport has become so popular worldwide that almost all countries have developed their skills in the sport. Fortunate are those races which are gifted with height and heft,” noted Fernandez, who was enshrined into the PBA Hall of Fame Class of 2005.
“With the easing of the eligibility rules, our chances of regaining supremacy here in Asia has definitely become better. Height has always been our disadvantage, especially with the entry of China in the league. With a tall and talented naturalized player, plus our local giants, we do now have a chance to regain the no. 1 spot in Asia every now and then. But this is a short term program,” he added.
To achieve our dream in the long term, Fernandez said the country’s major stakeholders in the sport must have a sustainable grassroots development program for basketball.
“An honest-to-goodness grassroots program should be developed starting from the elementary grades supported by tournaments. By the age of 14-15 years old, we should have players with solid basketball/athletic skills ready for the collegiate leagues and graduating to the professional level,” he said.
Fernandez has already achieved so much in life. He is the PBA’s All-Time Scoring Leader with 18,996 points, with Abet Guidaben a distant 2nd with 15,775 points. He is 1st in Most Free Throws Made with 3,848 points; 1st in All-Time Most Minutes Played with 36,624 minutes; 1st in Career Shot Blocks with 1,853 rejections; and 1st in All-Time Most Rebounds with 8,652 boards. He was also 2nd in Most Games Played with 1074 (next to Guidaben); 2nd in Career Assists with 5,220 (next to Bobby Jaworski); and 2nd in Career Steals with 1,302 (next to Johnny Abarrientos), clearly dominating the PBA Career leaderboard. Together with the 4 PBA MVP awards he collected, he was also named MVP in the 1973 Asian Basketball Championship (now FIBA Asia Cup).
Aside from the individual awards El Presidente has also led many teams to clinch the PBA championship series. He bagged nine titles with Toyota, led Beer Hausen to a title-series loss to Great Taste in 1984, powered Tanduay to three PBA titles, and collected seven titles with San Miguel, his most treasured team.
“I would say that returning to San Miguel Beer was one of my most memorable moments as a pro. It was something special, it was like a homecoming for me. San Miguel Beer, with coach Ning Ramos at the helm, was the team that recruited me from Cebu. During my very first tournament in 1973 National Seniors, the team won its first championship since joining the basketball league. In my last tournament that I played for the team before retiring, we also won the All-Filipino Conference in 1994,” he said.
With all the plaudits and laurels that adorn his illustrious career, Fernandez said there is still something he would like to accomplish. Surprisingly, it’s not about the sport that used to literally be a part of every beat of his heart.
“We cannot stop dreaming. I would want to see our country get over the moral decay in our society, the drug problem and environmental concerns. I am fortunate that I was able to experience swimming in pristine rivers, waterfalls and lakes. I really do hope and pray that we can instill in our youth the morals and virtues that can help them with the challenges of the times,” Fernandez concluded. Indeed, despite his advancing age, Fernandez continues to dream big for a better Philippines.
Pics courtesy of GMAnetwork, philboxing.com, pinoyexchange.com, spin.ph, interbasket.net)