EXACTLY 40 years ago tomorrow, on April 3, 1979, the Barangay Ginebra franchise, then an expansion team that carried the colors of Gilbey’s Gin, made its PBA debut in the All-Filipino (First) Conference.
But unlike the most popular and multi-titled PBA team that it is now - 11 championships to be exact, fifth-most among all franchises in league history and fourth-most among the active ones, and inclusive of three of the last seven conference championships - the then Gins, as their original monicker was then, had a forgettable start in their maiden conference in the PBA.
Not only did Gilbey’s Gin lose its first game on that historic April 3 date four decades ago, 103-98, to Royal Tru-Orange (now San Miguel Beer), the Gins actually had a 0-9 start in the league, losing by an average margin of 19.3 points.
That five-point loss to the Orangemen was actually Gilbey’s Gin’s fewest losing margin in its first nine games.
“Wala superstar player ang Gilbey’s team na yon noon, lalo na kung ikukumpara mo sa Crispa at Toyota,” revealed the Ginebra franchise’s first-ever head coach, Filomeno “Pilo” Pumaren.
The Gins’ top players then were Willy Tanduyan, a transferee from Crispa, Norbie Rivera, a transferee from Royal Tru-Orange, and Luke Dacula, another transferee from Honda-Mariwasa. However, they got an underrated rookie big man from the collegiate ranks in Eusebio “Bing” del Rosario.
Pumaren, father of former PBA players Franz and Dindo and former champion coach Derick, explained how tough it was to get good players for Gilbey’s Gin back in those pre-draft days when it joined the league under the banner of La Tondena Inc.
“Dati kasi halos lahat ng PBA teams noon, may mga farm teams sa MICAA,” said Pumaren, referring to the now-defunct Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association, the top basketball league in the country before the PBA was born in 1975 and which eventually played its last season in 1981.
“So ang mga nakuha na lang namin talagang players noon ay 'yung hindi na kailangan ng ibang teams saka napilitan na talaga akong maghanap noon sa mga nasa college. Kaysa mga matatanda ang makuha ko, eh di bata na lang kinuha ko noon at dinevelop,” coach Pilo continued.
Since the PBA Rookie Draft didn’t begin until six years later in 1985, recruiting players for PBA teams then was really a tough, cut-throat competition where oftentimes the best players ended up with the highest bidders.
But the Gins got a bit of luck with Del Rosario, a rookie which Pumaren plucked out of the University of the East where he spent many years as assistant coach to the late coaching legend Baby Dalupan.
Del Rosario averaged a third conference-best 13.1 rebounds in the All-Filipino conference, ranking up there with the likes of Ramon Fernandez and Manny Paner.
Aside from Tanduyan, Rivera, Dacula and Del Rosario, the Ginebra franchise’s pioneers were Jesusito “Chito” Martin, Ulysses “Uly” Rodriguez, Ricafort “Ric”Martin, Roehl Deles, Bienvenido Dela Cruz, Armando Torres (another transferee from Crispa), Porfirio “Pong” Rodriguez, Javier Garcia and Ernesto “Ernie” de Leon, who went on to become a top referee in the PBA.
Aside from Del Rosario, Martin, Mallari, Dela Cruz, Rodriguez and Garcia were all rookies back then.
Largely because of inexperience and still lacking in chemistry, it would take more than a month and a half before Gilbey’s Gin notched a first win, a 123-116 decision over Honda.
The Gins finished their maiden conference in the PBA in ninth and last place with a 1-15 record.
Pumaren had a two-year contract then as head coach but resigned after four conferences, or after the 1980 Open Conference, to become head coach of De La Salle in the NCAA.
The Ginebra franchise’s rise to prominence would not begin until 1984, or four years after Pumaren left the team, when Robert “Sonny” Jaworski joined the ballclub following the disbandment of Toyota.
But little do people know that it was Pumaren who had a hand in Jaworski’s joining the University of the East where his star shone and grew under him and Dalupan, resulting in two championships with the Red Warriors in 1965 and 1966.
Jaworski actually began playing in the streets and basketball courts of Pandacan, Manila where the Pumarens also used to reside.
“Una kong nakita' yan akala ko bata pa 'yun pala high school graduate na at nagre-residency sa FEU. Sabi ng kumpare kong pulis bakit daw di ko na lang kunin sa UE,” said Pumaren. That was exactly what he did and Jaworski agreed.
“Siya ang kauna-unahang player ng UE na binigyan namin ng quarters,” narrated Pumaren. “Pero sa garahe lang noon 'yun ng UERM na nilagyan lang namin ng double deck. Pero free board and lodging sya noon at sa canteen kumakain.”
Jaworski became very close to the Pumarens that he sometimes offered to fetch Dindo and Franz from school when the latter were still in elementary school.
“Close sa amin 'yan si Sonny. Tingnan mo noong nasa PBA na sina Franz at Dindo, hindi naman niya tinitira ang mga anak ko na yan,” the elder Pumaren beamed with pride.
“Kahit si (Rudy) Distrito, ako din nag-recruit niyan sa UE at mabait din sa mga anak ko sa PBA yan,” said Pumaren, now 84 years old.
It’s something Dindo Pumaren, also now a retired PBA player, remembers very well of Jaworski, a physical player during his time.
“Bungguan lang na normal naman sa basketball pero yung pisikalan talaga, wala,” Dindo says of the Big J. “Mabait sa 'kin si coach Sonny. Respeto malamang ke papa. Kaya suwerte ko din.”
The two Pumarens are expected to be on hand on Wednesday night when Barangay Ginebra, under the San Miguel umbrella since 1987, faces NorthPort in the very final gameday of the 2019 Philippine Cup elimination round - exactly 40 years to the day the franchise played its very first game in the PBA.
So how does the elder Pumaren feel about holding the distinction of being the first-ever head coach of the most popular team in the PBA today?
His quick reply: "Wala naman nakakaalam yata niyan eh. O kung meron man, kakaunti lang."
Well maybe after today, not any more.