BY now, most fans know Ramil Cruz as the stand-in coach who led the University of the Philippines Maroons to their first win in almost two years in the UAAP men's basketball tournament on Saturday.
What most fans don't know is that UP wouldn't have won its only UAAP title without Cruz.
Former UP coach Joe Lipa said as far as he is concerned, one man made the most crucial play that rescued the Maroons' quest for the 1986 UAAP championship. And his name wasn't Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, or Eric Altamirano but, yes, Ramil Cruz.
“Sa totoo lang, kakaunti na lang ang nakakaalala at nakakaalam, pero kung wala si Ramil Cruz, hindi kami nag-champion nuong 1986,” said Lipa, who kept track of UP’s victory over Adamson last Saturday while supervising a barangay league on the island of Manicani in Guiuan, Eastern Samar.
"Hanggang ngayon, walang titulo sa UAAP ang UP kungdi dahil kay Ramil."
The former national coach became animated as he recalled Cruz's late-game steal and basket that bailed out the Maroons in their do-or-die semifinal match against Far Eastern Univiersity in 1986.
“Down kami noon by one point, eight seconds to go. Bola pa ng FEU, inbound sa midcourt. May play kami nun, lahat pinag-aralan namin para ma-trap ang FEU, pero nakalusot si (former Tamaraws guard) Ramonito Roa,” Lipa said, telling the story like it only happened yesterday.
“Tingin ko talaga noon talo na kami. Kaya tumingala na ko noon at sinabi ko: ‘Lord, ginawa na po namin ang lahat. Kayo na po ang bahala,” Lipa added.
And a miracle did happen, Lipa said.
“Pagyuko ko nun at pagdilat ko, maniwala ka, nakita ko yung Ramil Cruz, naagaw ang bola. Nagdi-dribble ng tuloy-tuloy. Kinabahan pa nga ako nun, kasi baka kako madapa at hindi siya bihasang magdala ng bola,” he said.
“At sa isang hudyat ng tadhana, na-i-shoot niya yung layup. Panalo kami,” Lipa of the shot that set the stage for the Maroons’ final date with the then twice-to-beat University of the East Red Warriors.
“The rest was history,” he added.
The Maroons went to beat a UE side led by Jerry Codinera twice in the finals, 86-75 and 98-89, for the only UAAP championship in State U's history, and players like Paras and Magsanoc became household names before becoming big stars in the pro ranks.
The hard-working forward faded quickly into the background. Although he had a long career in the PBL, Cruz never got to play in the PBA and - after a stint as head of referees in the PBA - resurfaced as one of Rey Madrid's assistant coaches at UP.
True to his character, Cruz gave the credit to the banned Madrid after Saturday's win.
“Siya naman ang nag-design ng plays. Present siya nung practice namin the day before. Sinunod ko lang mga pinagawa niya sa team,” said Cruz shortly after the Maroons' 77-64 victory which ended a 27-game losing streak that stretched back to 2012.
Former UP basketball official JB Baylon, who was part of the 1986 championship team, claimed that Cruz has always been humble.
“Si Ramil kasi walang ka-ere ere. Never as a player and as a PBA official. He just does his work and he does it well,” said Baylon, former governor of Coca-Cola's PBA team and now the vice president for corporate affairs of NickelAsia.
“Kaya you tend to overlook him. But most of the time he delivers,” he added. “I supposed Ramil kasi is only after simple joys and he enjoys the game.
“So, now we know if coach Rey gets suspended because of his mercurial temper, we’re in good hands with Ramil.”