BASKETBALL legend Ramon Fernandez owns the most number of championships won by any player in PBA history and still holds most of the major league records, 16 years since his retirement.
For all his greatness and the personal feats he established, the man that has come to be known as ‘El Presidente,’ has one memorable moment in his 20-year playing stint that topped his bucket list.
And it came just when Fernandez, 66, was on the sunset of his career.
“Madami siya actually, but up there was when the pros were finally allowed to play in FIBA games again,” said Fernandez on Thursday as he took a trip down memory lane as the PBA, Asia’s first ever play-for-pay league, celebrates its 45th-year anniversary.
“That enabled me to play for flag and country again in the 1990 Asian Games.”
That moment was a historic one not only for Fernandez but the league as well as it finally got to form and send an all-pro national team to international tournaments 15 years after its birth on April 9, 1975 at the Araneta Coliseum.
Fernandez, the first to ever win four PBA MVP titles in history and arguably, the greatest cager the league ever had, was the only player in that star-studded squad who was around when the PBA was born.
Fellow league pioneer and former Toyota teammate and rival Robert Jaworski was at the helm as head coach along with another PBA original, Rino Salazar, as deputy coach.
The team reached the finals of the Asiad held in Beijing, but settled for the silver medal after losing to the host, led by Ma Jian and Gong Luming, in the gold-medal game, 90-74.
For Fernandez, who won a record total of 19 PBA championships, it was his first stint with the national team since the 1974 World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) in Puerto Rico and the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran.
When the PBA was established, it all but ended his hopes of carrying the country’s flag as professional players were banned then from suiting up for their national teams by FIBA.
Or so he thought.
“I thought that was it,” said the 6-foot-6 native of Maasin, Leyte, who holds the all-time record for most points scored (18,996), rebounds (8,652), blocked shots (1,853), free throws made (3,848), and playing minutes (36624:30) in a PBA career that spanned two decades.
But a momentous move by FIBA, through the late secretary-general Borislav Stankovic, in 1989 to allow pro players in the ‘open era’ to finally represent their countries in international competitions, changed all that, and paved the way for Fernandez to realize his long-cherished dream again.
Looking back, Fernandez doesn’t regret of his decision to turn pro after nine commercial ballclubs broke away from the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) to establish the PBA.
As the country’s premier amateur basketball league in those days, MICAA also served as the source of talent of the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) – then under the leadership of the late Gonzalo ‘Lito’ Puyat - in forming the national team.
Several MICAA team owners were not pleased with the BAP practice of tapping their players and disrupting the league calendar, that their way of getting away from the stranglehold of the country’s basketball federation was to form Asia’s first ever play-for-pay league.
From there, history was made.
Fernandez thought it was also the perfect time for the country to have its own pro league back then.
“I believe so, it was to the players’ advantage,” stressed Fernandez, now a commissioner of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC).
“MICAA was semi-pro na rin. Ang pinagkaiba lang, you just have to be employed with the company you play for,” the cage legend said, who played for the San Miguel Braves and the Komatsu Cometes (later renamed as Toyota) in the MICAA.
As far as Fernandez can remember, his first basic salary as a pro was around P8K, an already huge amount during the time.
“OK na yun kasi how much was the peso-dollar rate nung panahon na yun, $1 is to P7 yata,” he recalled.
That’s apart from the bonuses the team gets when it wins a championship.
“Meron of course. But even naman during MICAA days, meron na (bonus),” said Fernandez.
With the PBA now facing its most challenging times with the current threat of the coronavirus pandemic which forced all major leagues worldwide – the PBA included – to suspend their seasons, Fernandez still believes the 45-year-old league will stand the test of time.
That has been his faith in the PBA when he saw its birth in 1975.
“It’s still a cheaper marketing tool. Media exposure is far greater than conventional marketing campaigns,” said Fernandez. “Just put up a competitive or a strong team, then it’s an instant household name.”