TURO Valenzona has won championships at just about every basketball level. And yet, it’s the one that got away that had a profound impact on him as far as his colorful coaching career is concerned.
For the last man to have ever coached Robert Jaworski as an active Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) player, Valenzona considered the opportunity truly an honor, a distinction no one can take away from him. Never mind if the partnership bore just a runner-up finish in the one full season it lasted.
“I was blessed (na maging coach ni Jaworski),” said Valenzona, now 68, and semi-retired from coaching.
“Suwerte ako na naging player ko si Jaworksi, e hindi naman kami nagkakalayo ng edad niya,” Valenzona, fondly called `Turo’ or `Turing’ in basketball circles, added with a wink.
Former teammates with the Yco Painters in the old MICAA (Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association) during the 60s, Valenzona and Jaworki were reunited in 1984 after the Toyota franchise disbanded and its core of players, including the Big J, bosom buddy Francis Arnaiz, Ramon Fernandez, were sold to Basic Holdings, Inc., owner of Beer Hausen.
The controversial sale led to a falling-out among former Toyota players, with Fernandez accepting the deal and moving to Beer Hausen and Jaworski leading a group that refused to suit up for the club, mouthing that classic line, "Hindi kami karne na por kilo..."
But Gilbey’s Gin, then handled by Valenzona, was more than willing to take in the group.
“Lumapit sa akin si Jawo. Ang sabi niya, 'Pare gusto ko lang na magtapos ako sa basketball na meron akong team',” recalled Valenzona, a member of the 1964 Philippine basketball team to the Tokyo Olympics. “Sabi ko walang problema sa paglalaro. Ang problem, `yung suweldo nila, baka hindi namin kayanin.”
But thanks to team owner Carlos `Honeyboy’ Palanca III, who was also PBA president back then, Jaworski, along with Arnaiz, were warmly welcomed and found a new home in Gilbey’s Gin.
For someone who played with and against Jaworski in the past, it no longer surprised Valenzona at the way his `new star’ player conducted himself as `one of the boys.’
“Wala,” was the quick reply of the veteran mentor when asked if ever Jaworski had star complex while playing for him.
“Basically , wala ka namang problema kay Jawo. He’s a very coachable guy, very professional. He knows where he stands as a player, and me as coach. Laro lang siya ng laro. Kung ano gusto ko, kung ano ang gusto ng team,” said Valenzona.
Gilbey’s went all the way to the finals of the All-Filipino in Jaworski’s first conference with the team. But ranged against a powerhouse Crispa Redmanizers squad, the Gins proved no match and were easily swept in the best-of-five series.
By the time, age was also beginning to take its toll on Jaworski, Valenzona said.
“Medyo nag-slow down na siya noon dahil sa edad niya (38),” said Valenzona, who played for Far Eastern University in college, and suited up for two seasons with U-Tex from 1975-76. “Pero pag nasa loob `yung Jaworski, Jaworski pa rin yan.”
Jaworski, though, never got to finish the season with the Gins. A knee injury kept him out for the remainder of the season as he left for Los Angeles to seek rehabilitation treatment.
By the time the Big J returned home, Valenzona’s three-year contract with Gilbeys Gin was up, and management decided not to give him an extension.
And so the inevitable happened. Jaworski assumed the role of playing coach the following season, when the team was re-christened as Ginebra San Miguel.
That was also the day Ginebra’s Never-Say-Die’ legacy started.
Looking back three decades later, Valenzona said he was proud to have paved the way for the birth of the PBA’s most popular ballclub.
Currently a coaching consultant of San Sebastian in the NCAA, Valenzona said he never doubted Jaworski would end up as a coach – be it with Ginebra or somewhere else.
“Lahat naman ng players kung gugustuhin mag-coach, magagawa e, lalo na `yung mga point guards,” he said. “Bihirang sentro ang gumaling sa coaching, puro point guard kasi nga `yung upbringing mo as a player, ikaw ang nagdadala sa loob, ikaw ang nagko-coach, ikaw `yung court general.”