On his 75th birthday, some recollections about Robert Jaworski

Published March 8, 2021, 9:27 PM

by Tito Talao

Robert Jaworski is celebrating his 75th birthday on March 8, and it would have been a thrill to be able to greet him in person, shake his huge hand and ask him about his plans for the next 75 years.

But with the pandemic still wreaking havoc in most parts, a face-to-face meeting, like so many encounters on the playing court and in locker rooms, would not have been possible. Also, word is the Big J has not been too well recently although mutual friends say he is on the mend.

One need not be surprised, however, if Jaworski, called the Living Legend of Philippine basketball, suddenly makes a limited appearance somewhere, or goes viral on social media to address well-wishers from his Barangay Ginebra San Miguel days.

The man, after all, had picked himself up from so many adversities – dating back to his UAAP and MICAA days to 23 seasons in the PBA and his retirement as playing-coach of the country’s most popular ballclub – answered the call of numerous challenges and battled back every time to remain revered as ever.

His exploits are too many to mention, and the list has probably gone through countless countdowns in print, websites and blogs leading up to this personal milestone. Bringing them up here would therefore be an exercise in Herculean labor.

But a couple of instances may be worth recalling, if only for their personal circumstance.

The game against Northern Consolidated Cement back in October 1985 is probably the most memorable of all.

Jaworski, cut in the mouth by an inadvertent elbow from NCC’s Jeff Moore late in the first half, was rushed to a nearby hospital had the gash sutured. He returned to the court amid bedlam minutes later, his swollen upper lip heavily bandaged, with blood traces seeping through the nine stitches and visible from the press box. Heroically, Jaworski scored all of his 17 points after his comeback as Ginebra rallied from double digits to win the game.

PBA historians believe the never-say-die spirit of Barangay Ginebra that carried on more than three decades to this day was born that unforgettable evening.

Jaworski’s unparalleled popularity as a basketball superstar could never be witnessed and sworn by often enough, and he would always get mobbed before and after every game, be it at the Araneta Coliseum, the ULTRA in Pasig, Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City or in provincial sorties.

But as nightmarish as these occasions may be to venue security and organizers, nothing, however, would compare to the chaos that would erupt during his coveted visits to opening day of summer basketball tournaments around Metro Manila – like when he first accepted an invitation to toss the ceremonial ball in the inaugurals of a barangay league in Tondo, Manila called Barrio Obrero Youth Athletic Association in the ‘90s.

Jaworski and his entourage, aboard a beige-colored van, were fetched by several league officials, including BOYAA’s Eddie Balacania, at a pickup point near SM North EDSA at around 3 p.m. and the plan was to have the unmarked vehicle drive slowly into the vicinity hopefully unnoticed while pre-scheduled events were unfolding onstage in front of the overly-packed open playing court; among the spectators were scores of Jaworski fans from far off Valenzuela who had arrived in loaded passenger jeepneys in the early morning.

They reached the site by 4 p.m. The van proceeded cautiously a hundred meters from the court, with the driver told to turn right into a side street for Jaworski and his companion to alight and sneak into the house of BOYAA officer Alex Rodriguez. Twenty meters away, however, the emcee, apparently made aware of the incoming vehicle, and in a fit of uncontrolled excitement and overzealousness, announced on the microphone in thunderous fashion the arrival of their most-prized guest.

Pandemonium broke out.

Within seconds, the huge crowd spilled out of the court with a roar and engulfed the van, rapping on the tinted windows, knocking on the hood, clambering up the steel rear and side bars.

The entourage barely made it out and into the one-story house, with uniformed policemen brought in to help secure Jaworski valiantly fending off diehards, who stepped and broke PVC water pipes as they sought to catch a glimpse of their idol.

Through a labyrinth of low-hanging ceilings and maze of back alleys to escape the huge crowd massed in front, with the six-foot-one Jaworski ducking to avoid hitting his head on wood beams, he finally made his way onstage from the clubhouse behind, his appearance welcomed with deafening applause and ear-splitting chants of his name.

Hard to recall what Jaworski talked about that day, but he spoke for maybe 30 minutes or more, his amplified voice drowned out by the rolling cascade of admiration, adulation and sheer fanaticism.

He never made it down to the playing court to make the ceremonial toss.

Lastly, and this is something that will forever be seared in the mind, there’s the memory of sitting across Jaworski on a big desk in his Senate room in early 1999 and being asked, “Can you guess what I intend to do?” or words to that effect.

Jaworski had been overwhelmingly elected to the Senate the year before and his continued tenure as playing-coach of Barangay Ginebra, with its demands for time and focus, was being discussed not just  in sporting circles. But a sudden  change in the composition of the Kings’ coaching staff might have hastened an early decision and triggered the need to get an interview with the Big J before the advent of social media.

So there he was, grim and solemn, telling his interviewer, “I know that we haven’t seen each other eye-to-eye on some issues in the past, but I appreciate you coming here to talk to me.”

Then he announced that he was stepping down as Barangay Ginebra coach, spelling out his reasons.

The weight of remembering being told that remains heavy to this day.

He asked to speak on the phone to two sportswriters close to him – Recah Trinidad, founding editor of the tabloid Tempo, and Rudy Navarro, sports editor of the same paper. The calls were arranged and Jaworski talked to them quietly for about 10 minutes, one after the other.

A media briefing where Senate reporters were summoned to a conference room followed, and maybe a press release was even written, quotes from Jaworski included, and emailed to the sports desks.

A firm handshake, an arm around the shoulder and some reassuring words from both sides wrapped up the almost surreal evening at around 8 when Robert Jaworski, the Living Legend of Philippine basketball, retired from active coaching and playing, and actually entered the realm of the legendary and the mythical.

The long walk from the Senate to a watering hole in front of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum is vivid still.