RUMOR: Former Ginebra San Miguel star Cresencio ‘Dondon’ Ampalayo died after helping the PBA’s most popular ballclub win the 1988 All-Filipino championship against Purefoods.
FACT: Nine years before Michael Jordan, Ampalayo had his own version of the ‘Flu Game,’ as he came alive for Anejo Rum 65 (the brand the Ginebra franchise carried back then) in Game 4 of the All-Filipino Cup Finals against the highly-favored Hotdogs despite being sick just hours before the memorable Sept. 13 match.
The Anejo big man, known for his pivot moves and fancy footwork inside, fell ill on the day of the game and had to be hospitalized and put on dextrose six hours before the 7:30 p.m. encounter at the ULTRA.
Joey Loyzaga, one of Ampalayo’s closest friends in the team, vividly remembered how the 1986 Rookie of the Year went to the game straight from the hospital.
He couldn’t quite recall however, what exactly ailed the 6-foot-3 Cebuano power forward out of University of San Jose-Recoletos.
“Alalang-alala kami. Will this guy be able to play (that day) because he was really bedridden with dextrose,” said the now Australia-based Loyzaga. “The whole time until game time, that was the only time he took out the dextrose.”
The 65ers led the best-of-five series, 2-1, and were looking to end the war that same night.
Ampalayo, dubbed the ‘Magic Man,’ typified Anejo’s never-say-die spirit as he hardly showed the effects of the flu and contributed immensely to the 65ers’ cause.
“Laro pa rin siya and he did perform,” said Loyzaga, 58.
The third overall pick in the 1986 draft, Ampalayo didn’t start the game and wasn’t fielded in until early in the second quarter with Anejo behind, 35-30.
But as Anejo’s most reliable player at the frontcourt, he had the unenviable task of taking on defense a young, bull-strong rookie by the name of Alvin Patrimonio, while needing to contribute heavily on offense for the underdog 65ers.
“Dondon was like a Philip Cezar para sa amin,” said Joey, one of the playing sons – along with Ginebra teammate Chito - of Filipino basketball legend Carlos Loyzaga. “He had a variety of shots, variety of moves. Hewas very dependable and a vital cog in the team.”
Anejo played catch up for almost the entire game and trailed by as many as 21 points (76-57) in the third quarter.
But true to their fabled mantra, the 65ers clawed their way back from the grave, with no less than playing-coach Robert Jaworski Sr. engineering a mighty comeback.
With the pro-Anejo crowd cheering them on, the Big J joined forces with Ampalayo and Joey Loyzaga to catch the Hotdogs, 119-all, in the final two seconds of regulation on a Jaworski follow-up basket after a missed three-pointer to force overtime.
Playing on borrowed minutes, Ampalayo, huffing and puffing, failed to finish the intense ballgame after committing his sixth and final foul late in the extra period. He went to the showers with 20 points and seven rebounds, but not after sparking a closing 12-5 run by the 65ers with a pressure-packed three-pointer in the final 2:26 mark of the fourth period and Anejo trailing, 107-114.
Following Ampalayo’s exit, Jaworski and Joey Loyzaga picked up the cudgels for the team as the Hotdogs imploded with a series of turnovers going home.
A pair of free throws by the Big J – including a first one where he was caught saying, ‘Thank you, God,’ by lip readers – gave Anejo a 128-122 lead with 45 seconds remaining.
It was bedlam shortly after as the 65ers claimed the championship following a 135-124 overtime win fashioned out before some 12,000 roaring crowd at the Pasig venue.
Joey Loyzaga topscored for Anejo with 28 points to share scoring honors with Jaworski, who, at 42, also came through with the same output together with some clutch baskets along the way.
A drained Ampalayo never got to savor the victory as he went back to the hospital where he was again put on dextrose.
The morning after, news spread like wildfire that Ampalayo, now 57, had died.
“There was that rumor that he passed away,” said Loyzaga of the reports that came as a big surprise to the entire team. “After the game, umalis na siya agad and the following morning, pumutok na ang balitang kutcherong pulpol.”
Good thing, according to Loyzaga, social media wasn’t born yet during those days. Otherwise, it would have set the internet on fire, given the popularity of the 65ers and the superstar status of the Cebuano forward.
“But (it would be) fake news,” he said.
Loyzaga, who for a long time stayed with Ampalayo at the Anejo headquarters, said his buddy simply shrugged off the issue.
“Dondon and I used to stay in the quarters of Ginebra (Anejo) so parang kapatid ko na siya,” said the now retired cager. “You know Dondon is a very private person, but he’s also loving, nakakatuwa yan.
“Simple lang si Dondon. He’s not (the) outgoing type. Very reserved si Dondon.”
Ampalayo’s condition would eventually take its toll in the next tournament.
He was no longer allowed to play by doctors in the PBA-IBA World Challenge Cup, a four-team invitational meet which Anejo likewise ruled with Bobby Parks – on loan from Formula Shell – reinforcing the 65ers.
The meet kicked off five days after Anejo won the All-Filipino championship.
“Dondon was told to rest during the PBA-IBA,” Loyzaga related.
POSTSCRIPT: Purefoods benched veteran star Ramon Fernandez in Game Two and never saw action again for the rest of the title series. According to then coach Cris Calilan, there was an order from the ‘higher ups’ not to play the lanky center 30 minutes before the game.
Purefoods president Rene Buhain refused to comment on the management move, but he did confirm there was such a directive, giving rise to speculations that Purefoods’ leader was ‘not playing his best.’
The turn of events came after the 65ers stunned the highly-favorite Hotdogs, 111-105, in the series opener where Fernandez finished with 18 points.
Purefoods later on traded Fernandez to San Miguel Beer in exchange for Abet Guidaben. He quickly redeemed himself by steering the Beermen to the season-ending 1988 Reinforced Conference championship to clinch a fourth MVP trophy – becoming the first ever player in league history to achieve the rare feat.
Ampalayo would win one more championship with Ginebra during the 1991 First Conference, but never approximated his previous success as nagging knee injuries would ravage his career. He eventually parted ways with the franchise following a trade with Shell in 1993 in exchange for Bobby Jose. After winning a championship with Alaska in the 1994 Governors Cup, he retired by season’s end.
Incidentally, the choice of Anejo went down between him and Joey Loyzaga for the team’s protected list when expansion franchises Republic Flour Mills (RFM) and Pepsi Cola Philippines entered the league starting the 1990 season. Ampalayo got the nod of management as the last player to make its protected list despite being out of action for most of the 1989 campaign due to injury.
He later migrated to the US and worked as a nurse, but is reportedly now back in Cebu.
*The Anejo championship was considered one of the biggest upsets in league history as the 65ers toppled a Purefoods team that was on the rise and powered by talented rookies such as Patrimonio, Jojo Lastimosa, Jerry Codinera, Jack Tanuan, and Glenn Capacio. The Hotdogs also had on their roster a young Al Solis and Jojo Villapando along with veterans Willie Generalao, Padim Israel, JV Yango, Totoy Marquez, and Fernandez.
*The title was the first and only All-Filipino championship for Jaworski as playing-coach.