The generation of sportswriters who covered his early PBA playing days called him The Big J. The more recent one christened him The Living Legend. To everyone else, meaning the rest of the Philippine population, he is known simply as "Jawo".
Whatever nickname he goes by, he's a certified basketball god. And since he's turning 75, starting on March 2 up to his birthday on March 8 ESPN5.com will be publishing seven - it has to be seven - articles on Robert Jaworski, Sr.
In the fifth of our seven "Jaworski at 75" features, ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna brings us back to Sonny Jaworski's first nine seasons in the PBA with the legendary Toyota franchise
THE TOYOTA COMETS were part of the pioneer group of nine teams that joined the newly-formed Philippine Basketball Association in 1975. Part of the breakaway group from the MICAA, the Silverio-owned company brought in its players from the amateur ranks, led by multi-national team member and former Olympian, Robert Jaworski. Jaworski was already a household name, having already achieved considerable, if not outstanding, success from his university days at University of the East, into the amateurs, and at the international level. He was one of the reasons why Toyota was one of the two most popular teams in the PBA from the get-go.
Jaworski and the Comets quickly made their mark, winning the first two championships against league arch-rival Crispa. With Francis Arnaiz and Ompong Segura leading the scoring parade in the first conference, the man referred to as "The Big J" contented himself with orchestrating the plays from the backcourt. His season averages would end up being 14 points, six boards and five dimes per game, but he tended to raise his numbers when it counted most. He stepped up his game in the First Conference Finals, padding his score line to 18.5 points per game, including 26 points in Game 1. He did the same in the Second Conference, averaging 16 a game in the Finals, though he did get suspended in Game 2 for hitting Crispa's Rudy Soriano in retaliation to the latter's punch right on the nose of Ramon Fernandez.
The aforesaid Game 2 suspension was not only a testament to the intense rivalry between the two top teams, but it was also a validation of the Barreling Big J's acclaimed blue collar traits, ruggedness, physicality, and willingness to stand up for a fallen teammate. "Jawo" was known for being a bruiser, not afraid to go mano a mano against opponents. Teammates and opponents alike mentioned on the An Eternity of Basketball (AEOB) vodcast that you had to be prepared for his famed "karate chop", "tapak sa paa" (stepping on the foot), and "palo sa kamay" (striking the shooting hand), as part of the regular Jaworski menu. He was an intimidator par excellence who loved to stand face-to-face with opponents, even if they were bigger than he was, and he always had a smart retort to any complaint the opponent had about his style of play. As a result, the fans, who Jaworski always treated with esteem, fell in love with him. Arnaiz, when he was on AEOB, attested to Jaworski's loyalty to his teammates, saying, "People call me 'Mr. Clutch'. I think he was Mr. Clutch before me. As a teammate, you always knew that he had your back. He would give a hundred and one percent every game, so what more can you ask?"
At the cusp of what could have been the PBA's first Grand Slam, Toyota was a win away from achieving the rare Triple Crown, but the team stumbled in Game 5 of their Third Conference Finals series against Crispa, falling 96-91, in front of a record 32,000 fans watching at the Araneta Coliseum.
The next five conferences saw Crispa dominating the league, including grabbing the coveted Grand Slam in 1976, which Crispa almost repeated a year later, but, alas for the Redmanizers, the team failed to make the Finals of the 1977 Invitational Conference. Toyota, on the other hand, was always known to play much better while going up against foreign teams, and the Invitational was no exception. Two guest teams from abroad were invited to play in the tournament: the Emtex Sacronels from Brazil, led by a young Oscar Schmidt, and the Ramrod Blocks of Australia. Jaworski defied the odds when he toyed with Brazilian national player and star point guard Milton Setrini, as hescored 30 and 26 points against him in two of their four games.
At 31 years old, the Big J was at the peak of his game and was undoubtedly the most dominant point guard in the Philippines, if not its best player, at that time. His ability to rise to the occasion and play competitively against international opponents only proved that he was one of the best court generals in the world outside the NBA.
But Jaworski wasn't done yet. In perhaps the finest season ever played by a local in PBA history, the Toyota leader led the franchise to two championships in 1978. He had season averages of 20.42 points, 10.2 rebounds and 8.24 assists - remarkable numbers given that two of the three conferences featured imports with unlimited height playing together. For a 6'1" guard to average double digits in points and rebounds when he had top-tiered imports in Bruce "Sky" King and NBA veteran Carlos Terry playing alongside him was extremely impressive. He also played heavy minutes, but never seemed to tire - a testament to his conditioning and healthy lifestyle. Arnaiz said, "Sonny was in good condition, in good shape all the time...he showed me by example how a player should be...gave his best every single game, be in shape very single game, give your heart for your team...as a teammate, what can I say?" Jaworski ended up as the pro league's indubitable Most Valuable Player (MVP) that year.
That same year, the Philippines hosted the 1978 World Basketball Championships (now called the FIBA World Cup). Two countries came in early to acclimatize - Yugoslavia and Canada - and sought to have competitive games against the PBA's top two teams, Crispa and Toyota. Yugoslavia, which eventually won the World Championships against the Soviet Union, was led by world class players Drazen Dalipagic, Dragan Kikanovic, Zoran Slavnic, Kresimir Cosic, and Mirza Delibasic, among others. Canada, on the other hand, had future NBA players Leo Rautins and Jim Zoet, who, three years after, played as an import for the Finance Funders in the PBA, and future NBA draftee and head coach Jay Triano. Once more, Jaworski created a stir, impressing his renowned opponents with a dazzling display of dribbling wizardry, impeccable passing, pinpoint jumpers, his signature barreling layups, defensive toughness, and quality leadership. "Sonny was all over. He could rebound, assist, shoot, go for the drive...kung saan siya kailangan, doon siya," said Arnaiz on AEOB.
Jaworski went toe-to-toe against Slavnic and Triano and came out on top, while leading the Tamaraws to impressive 118-113 and 92-88 victories against the Yugos and Canadians, respectively.
Freddie and Sonny, rivals and co-stars
Freddie Webb and Sonny Jaworski were rivals on court and co-stars on the silver screen.
FROM 1977 TO 1981, Jaworski was the league's top point guard, earning Mythical First Team honors for five straight years. He was also Toyota's undisputed leader, and his closeness to the Silverio family only cemented this claim. Always a willing passer with a flair for the spectacular, his teammates fed off his unselfishness as he made many of them, already highly-talented, look even better. Teammate Emerito Legaspi, a gifted shooter, in his exclusive interview on AEOB, spoke highly of the Big J. "He supported me when we were teammates. He always gave me the ball," Legaspi said in Tagalog.
But for all of Jaworski's all-around skills and leadership alongside the growing dominance of Fernandez and the consistency and marksmanship of Arnaiz, the team just could not figure out the Crispa puzzle, particularly in the All-Filipino Conference. The team lost to the Redmanizers in 1976 and 1977, and just when it seemed it was ready to finally topple the Floro franchise, Toyota still fell by the wayside, losing again in both 1979 and 1980.
The 1980 AFC Finals was marred by controversy when, in Game 3, Toyota coach Fort Acuña refused to field in Jaworski, to the consternation of the fans and team manager, Pablo Carlos. After having asked Acuña thrice why Jaworski had not been fielded in, and all three times being ignored, Carlos fired the former Toyota player turned coach at halftime, with Crispa ahead, 48-39. Some of Jaworski's teammates that appeared on AEOB said they were befuddled with what happened and were caught off guard to see Acuña leave the bench and Carlos taking over. This, however, seemed to ignite Toyota's bid to stop Crispa's objective of sweeping the entire conference with a 20-0 slate. While it was Fernandez who showed the way with 37 points, the Big J's masterful control of the backcourt, coupled with the collective pressure on the Crispa players, gave the Tamaraws the boost to snap Crispa's record run at 19 wins, as they won, 97-94, in a pulsating game.
That same year, another Invitational tournament featured two foreign teams - Nicholas Stoodley, a local company that produced denim jeans, sponsoring a roster of twelve American professionals led by former Houston Rocket Larry Moffet, former Royal Tru Orange import Larry Pounds, future St. George Whiskey import Kenny Tyler, Ron Richardson, Ollie Matson, Larry Spicer, and Rick Hawthorne, and Adidas Rubberworld, with players like playing coach Bill Sweek of UCLA, assistant playing coach Lloyd King of Virginia Tech, Sterling Wright and George Gooden of Lincoln, Ric Clarson of Florida, Jovon Price of Purdue, Andy Graham of Drake, and Olivier Veyrat of France. Toyota and Stoodley both toted a record of 4-3, a game behind leaders Adidas and Crispa, which carried 5-2 slates. Stoodley fashioned out a 103-87 victory over Adidas and Toyota carved a 116-109 win against the Redmanizers in the nightcap. All four teams were tied at the top at 5-3, but Stoodley and Toyota moved to the Finals by virtue of a superior quotient.
In their game against the Redmanizers, the Tamaraws needed to win by at least seven points to enter the Finals. Jaworski sizzled from both ends of the court, top-scoring for Toyota with 26 markers, while providing inspiration to a team that fell behind early in the game. He also limited Crispa hotshot Freddie Hubalde to only four points.
The Finals saw Stoodley winning the first game, but Game 2 saw Toyota fighting to the very end, led by Bruce "Sky" King's 40 points and Jaworski's 21. Despite having to go up against the Nate Archibald-play-alike Tyler, Jaworski once more stood his ground against foreign competition and would not be intimidated. Toyota came close as it cut the lead to one, 114-113, with 1:10 left, courtesy of Jaworski and Sky King's baskets. but Tyler came up with the crucial shot to cut short Toyota's plans of compelling a rubber match. After the game, Stoodley coach Jerry Weber paid tribute to Jaworski's playmaking and leadership, apparently amazed with the 34-year old's durability and steadiness in the clutch.
WHILE MANY THOUGHT Jaworski's style of coaching, especially during the latter years, was too old school, relying more on skill and talent than science, his brand of play was completely different. The three-point shot was introduced in the PBA at the start of the 1980 season and only a few players tried shooting from beyond the arc as it was considered a low percentage attempt. Not so with Jaworski.
Even if he was not really known much as a lights-out outside scorer, the Big J was perhaps the first ever PBA player to use the three-point shot as part of his and his team's offensive arsenal. He was the first to score a trey in a pre-season exhibition game (the first in an official game was made by import Charlie Floyd of the Tefilin Polyesters in the first game of the 1980 season) and was the first to set the record of scoring eight trifectas on July 26, 1980 - curiously, that was Game 2 of the Open Conference Finals against the U/Tex Wranglers. With imports Aaron James and Glenn McDonald patrolling the defensive interior, Jaworski broke the defense wide open by making 24 of his game-high 29 points from three-point range. He was incredibly accurate, making eight in just 11 attempts, for a 73% rate, leading the Tamaraws to a 107-102 victory to tie the series at one all. Quite interestingly, the Big J used this weapon to his advantage when he became a playing coach - a similar artillery now utilized by perhaps all basketball teams all over the world.
The 1981 season saw the last Crispa-Toyota Finals in the Open Conference. Jaworski missed Game 3 of the series because of an injured ankle, and the Redmanizers were a win away from winning the championship. The injury could not hold the Big J back from playing in Game 4, buoying the collective spirits of the Super Diesels, as he scored 16 points, including a pair of three-point shots, leading Toyota to a 116-98 rout. In Game 5, one that old-timers describe among the greatest Finals games of all time, Fernandez and import Andy Fields delivered the crucial blows in the endgame to secure the win against the Redmanizers, 103-97, with Toyota snaring the crown in front of more than 30,000 fans at the Big Dome. Displaying coolness under pressure, Jawo orchestrated the plays as Toyota finished with only 11 turnovers in the game, way below their conference average. Jaworski's ability to find Fields and Fernandez, who top-scored with 20 points, for open shots inside, turned the game around in favor of the Super Diesels. Jaworski chipped in 13 points as Toyota celebrated its championship and unfurled banners as fans spilled onto the court with time still left on the clock.
1982 was another successful, albeit controversial, year for the team, now named the Super Corollas. With super imports Fields and Donnie Ray Koonce reinforcing it, Toyota won the first and third conferences that year, missing out only in the Asian Invitationals. Jaworski played only 29 out of Toyota's 71 games due to a groin injury, but the team meshed well together, with Fernandez seizing the leadership role and Arnaiz and Abe King having outstanding campaigns, giving Toyota three Mythical First Team berths at season's end.
With Fernandez succeeding in his first year as team leader, cracks came out in what once was a solid and impregnable group. This led to a disastrous final season for the franchise in 1983, as Toyota failed to enter the playoffs for the first time in its nine-year PBA tenure, in the third conference, losing to Tanduay, 111-110, in the knockout game for the fourth and final quarterfinals slot. The team won only 18 of 45 games that year, a monumental downfall from the previous dominant season. Jaworski teammates Abe King, Legaspi, Ricky Relosa, and Tim Coloso, in separate interviews on AEOB, attributed this to the internal strife and low morale, which had beset the team.
It did not help that Toyota's mother company, Delta Motors Philippines, was hit badly by the economic recession spurred by the assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. in August 1983. Reports leaked out during the third conference that the company was nearing bankruptcy. There were concerted efforts from management, led by team manager Jack Rodriguez, to deny any allegation that the team was for sale, but Toyota's franchise was eventually bought "lock, stock and barrel" by Basic Shareholdings, Inc., a Lucio Tan company that would eventually use Beer Hausen as its brand name in the league, effectively, and sadly, ending the mostly glorious Toyota era in the PBA. The sale exposed and confirmed the rumored personal animosities among the team superstars, with Fernandez and Jaworski leading the two factions. Jaworski, along with close buddy Arnaiz, did not participate in the sale and opted not to play for the Brewmasters.
While many thought Toyota's disbandment was already a tragedy, matters only became worse when they saw the two top players of the team feuding and publicly lashing out at one another, particularly on a popular TV talk show at the time. The glorious Toyota days, where Jaworski undoubtedly had his most success as a ballplayer, were over indeed.
In order to save the league from losing two of its most marketable players, then PBA President and Gilbey's Gin team owner, Carlos "Honeyboy" Palanca III plucked Jaworski and Arnaiz, and the two joined the Gin Tonics at the start of the 1984 season. From a flamboyant certified superstar, Jaworski would transition to nothing short of a living legend for the La Tondeña franchise and Philippine basketball. But that is another tale to tell altogether.