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Henry Liao

Basketball in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

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Basketball caught my fancy at an early age because of the Philippines’ dominance in the Asian scene that earned the Filipino cagers tickets to the Summer Olympics and World Basketball Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

Traditionally, the national team candidates at the time would come from the post-graduate or commercial ranks.

My eldest brother often would bring me to the games in the Philippine National Seniors basketball tournament (also known as the National Open), an-anything-goes tournament where players from the colleges and universities, government institutions, commercial clubs and even movie and recording companies competed for the national championship, and the popular Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) league (the harbinger of the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) circuit league that unwrapped in April 1975) with its All-Filipino and import-spiced dishes.

The Yco Redshirts/Painters, which was owned by sportsman Don Manolo Elizalde, and the Ysmael Steel Admirals, which was owned by prominent industrialist Felipe (Baby) Ysmael, lorded it over in the National Seniors during the fifties and sixties.

For the record, I bled red and always rooted for Yco come hell or high water.

Spearheaded by burly slotman Carlos (Caloy) Loyzaga, the Redshirts/Painters put together a record seven straight national championships from 1954 to 1960. Then it was the turn of Ysmael Steel, bannered by Adriano Papa Jr., Jaime Mariano, Narciso Bernardo, Engracio Arazas, Alfonso Marquez and Manuel Jocson, to annex six consecutive titles from 1961 to 1966.

In 1967, Ysmael Steel looked to duplicate Yco’s feat but losses to the Yutivo Opels and the Painters in the four-team, single-round championship phase eliminated the Admirals from finals contention.

As a self-imposed punishment for their twin debacles, the Admirals and their head coach Valentin (Tito) Eduque showed up for their third-place game against Puyat Steel at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum with their heads cleanly shaved.

The then-unprecedented “bald” act, of course, was duplicated during the mid-1990s when the entire Sunkist squad, from the players down to head coach Yeng Guiao to team manager Elmer Yanga, also showed up for a Philippine Basketball Association contest with bald heads following a disastrous defeat.

The Yco Painters regained the National Seniors crown in 1967 by shellacking the Yutivo Opels in the championship game. Mentored by Loyzaga, the Painters were led by then-fresh college grads Robert (Sonny) Jaworski and Danilo Florencio and veterans Renato (Sonny) Reyes, Freddie Webb, Elias Tolentino Jr., Edgardo Roque, Edgardo Ocampo and Edgardo Gomez.

The MICAA was the country’s top post-graduate commercial league from the late 1930s to the mid-1970s when the top ballclubs bolted to form the PBA in 1975. (The MICAA actually continued to exist, although as a farm league, until its demise in 1981.)

At the time, the word “professional” officially did not exist in the local basketball vocabulary even if the players then were already receiving monetary compensation (termed as allowances) for their playing skills in the guise of work-related services to their mother companies.

For example, a Meralco player drew his salary as a branch executive or an assistant manager of the utility company when, in actuality, the numbers on his paychecks were directly as a result of his playing basketball.

Alfonso (Pons) Marquez comes to mind only because I remember seeing him way back in the 1970s working in one Meralco branch where I had been paying my electric bills. I was told Marquez was the branch manager there.

Why the charade in the player’s (or employee’s) status at the time?

It was done to keep a player’s amateur status intact, thus assuring his eligibility to see action in international events sanctioned by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) such as the Asian Basketball Confederation (now called the FIBA Asia Championship), Asian Games, World Basketball Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) and Summer Olympics.

By 1990, the masquerade came to a halt as the FIBA introduced the “open basketball” policy that provided no distinction between amateurs and professionals.

How I often watched the MICAA games as a teenager. To be able to witness the championship duels at the Araneta Coliseum from a “ringside” seat – it was called “ringside” at the time because most of the sporting events at the Big Dome were boxing-related; that section is now called “patron” – brought immense happiness to this hoops junkie.

Those were the days, my friend. Yet, five decades later, the passion for basketball chronicling (and playing) has not waned a bit.


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