JIMMY Alapag was barely five years old and Cyrus Baguio only two. Heck, Jayvee Casio wasn’t even born yet when Donnie Ray Koonce was adjudged Best Import of the 1982 PBA Open Conference.
Yet, these three local players were the ones who caught the fancy of Koonce when he personally watched Game 4 of the PBA Philippine Cup semifinals series between defending champion Talk `N Text and Alaska Friday night at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Spending the holidays in the country with his family, the former prolific import who first played for the legendary Toyota squad, admitted being impressed with the backcourt tandem of both the Tropang Texters and Aces, in particular Alapag, Casio, and Baguio.
“The guard play was pretty good,” Koonce said after the game won by the Aces, 104-99.
Now 53, Koonce had some nice words for the boys of one of his former rivals in Asia’s first ever pay-for-play league in the 80s, Norman Black, who’s now head coach of Talk `N Text.
“Norman (Black) had some pretty good players outside, who can shoot when they get to set their feet to take an open shot.
“I like to see them take it stronger to the hole. But I’ll be back to watch more games and see who the better players are,” added the 6-foot-3 Koonce, who played both guard positions for the Tamaraws, whom he powered to a 3-0 sweep of Gilbey’s Gin during the Open conference finals.
Koonce, who also suited up for San Miguel and later on, Alaska where he ended his PBA stint as an import in 1986, recalled the great times he had in the league, particularly in 1982, when he both won a championship and at the same time, named as the Best Import.
“It was unbelievable. We would have twenty-five to twenty-eight thousand people at Araneta (Coliseum) and the fans would go wild. It was very enthusiastic,” he recalled of those good, old days.
“And to win the championship and the MVP (Best Import) -- against Norman, no less -- it was the cream on top of the cake.”
His playing days well behind him, Koonce, who obviously gained some weight, is now an executive at the Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Since retiring from playing, Koonce said he has been to the country four times already, and is amazed with the changes.
“We’re just enjoying the city, the development. Things have changed so much. I get lost when I go around the Philippines now.”
But his fourth visit here also marked the crowning achievement of his heydays.
“This is the thirtieth anniversary of me being the most valuable import,” he declared with a laugh.
Thirty years later, Koonce said the fast-paced PBA game has evolved.
“There may be a slower paced game, they run more plays I believe,” he said. “I think the players are more physical, they’re much bigger than what they were back when I played.”
But Koonce believes they had more marksmen during his time in the league, rattling legendary names familiar to local basketball fans.
“I think we may have had better shooters, Atoy Co, Sonny Jaworski, and Ramon Fernandez (among others). They may be better ball handlers here (now), but we had better distributors with Rudy Distrito, Yoyong Martinez, Danny Florencio, and some of the old Toyota teammates of mine.”
Koonce said he could conduct a clinic to help the players now, but that would only be the extent of his association with basketball.
“I may do a clinic but, my basketball playing days are over, unfortunately.”