Atoy Co on Crispa's first Grand Slam: No one could stop me that year

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In the 45-year history of the PBA, a Grand Slam - one team winning all three conferences in a single season - has only been accomplished five times, with Crispa winning in 1976 and 1983, San Miguel in 1989, Alaska in 1996 and San Mig Coffee in 2014. For our latest series, we interviewed one player from each of those Grand Slam teams. Let's start with the 1976 Redmanizers.

The first PBA Grand Slam almost didn't happen in 1976.

The Crispa Redmanizers had finally gotten over the proverbial hump in their match-up with arch nemesis Toyota, the team that had beaten them for the first two titles at stake in the fledgling professional basketball league. Their third meeting in the 1975 All-Philippine championship finally saw a "complete" Redmanizers quintet prevail and they took that momentum into the 1976 season by taking the first two conferences and were once again slated to clash in the All-Philippine best-of-five finale, this time with a Grand Slam in the offing.

"When (Crispa) started in 1975, (many of us) weren't in the original line-up," said Atoy Co, one of the integral pieces in the Redmanizers' campaign. "Bogs (Adornado), Philip (Cezar), Bernard (Fabiosa), Abet (Guidaben) and I were still on the national team playing in Australia and New Zealand (when the season started). I think it was in the middle of the second conference that we were able to join the team but we still lost to them (Toyota)." (Editor's note: After fact-checking, Co and company actually joined the squad on their 6th game of the first conference.)

Crispa vs. Toyota all the time

The Redmanizers broke the Comets' Grand Slam aspirations by snatching the 1975 third conference and with a complete line-up and a dominating import in the person of 6'11" Cyrus Mann, Crispa asserted its mastery over their foes by winning the first two 1976 championship series via a 3-1 score.

"In 1976, we (were fortunate to) have a very tall and good import (in) Cyrus Mann," Co said. "I think we were able to dominate the rebounding area at least limit (the opposition) to one shot because of him in the middle. People were now anxious to venture inside."

Crispa's vaunted passing game, the familiarity of the players to the free-flowing offense of their master tactician Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan and their rugged defense made them such a joy to watch. During the second conference, however, the Redmanizers suffered a massive blow to their mission.

Adornado, the reigning two-time league MVP after being feted at the end of the first conference for his second trophy, was lost for the rest of the season due to a knee injury.

"The team's mindset when Bogs went down was just to step up," Co recalled. "Bogs was good for (at least) twenty points that's why everybody needed to step up. When Bogs was on the floor, our first choice was to get the ball to him and when he got tired, then we'd come in (to fill the slack).

"But without (Adornado), the scoring averages of Philip, Abet, (back-up forward) Freddie (Hubalde) and myself went up by about 30%. (I jumped) from 18 points a game to 30 points or more a game."

Co had become the de facto new first option on the Crispa offense and even he knew how good he was.

"No one could stop Atoy Co that year," he interjected.

But then in the All-Philippine Finals, Toyota emerged victorious in the first two games of the series (despite Co churning out a career-high 41 points in Game 2). With the Grand Slam bid now in peril, Co decided to make a statement in Game 3 by pouring in a game-high 34 points as the Redmanizers clobbered Toyota, 115-105.

"When we won Game 3, it's as if we suddenly realized that Toyota is not invincible and we could beat them," Co looked back. "We all got inspired and (decided to) take it one game at a time."

In Game 4, Co once again led the Crispa barrage with 25 points and the Redmanizers escaped with a 104-103 nail-biter in a match that saw its first melee of the series with players and fans alike mixing it up.

With the series now even at 2-2, the Redmanizers knew they were coming into to the decider as the favorites to ride their newfound impetus.

"The rest is history," Co remembered as Crispa blasted the Comets, 110-92 behind his game-high 39 markers. "We even went on to win the first two conferences in 1977 (for six straight titles)."

What was remarkable about Co's 1976 All-Philippine Finals outburst of 31.8 points per game is that the three-point line was not yet institutionalized in the PBA. But he was hoisting up (and making) shots from very deep just to get an edge over the oncoming Comets defenders-which once even had 6'4" center Ramon Fernandez on him.

"(The Toyota players who would usually guard me were Robert) Jaworski (Co's rival), and occasionally (Francis) Arnaiz, but that wasn't too often," Co said. "But there was a game (in the series) that even Fernandez was guarding me. There'd also be times when it would be (Fort) Acuña, (Oscar) Rocha and others trying to defend against me."

With Crispa now firmly planting its place in Philippine history with the first ever PBA Grand Slam, what were challenges they had to face map out a path to that goal?

Surprisingly, according to Co, it was not even in the masterplan.

"Our mindset was just to win a championship (at first), because there wasn't really anything called a 'Grand Slam' yet at the time," Co revealed. "When we got to the third conference finals, it was only then when that concept came out.

"All we wanted really was to win as many championships as we could because in winning a title we also get a trip abroad with pocket money."

But it was always a special mission when it was for a championship against Toyota.

"We (usually) only got won-game bonuses if it was against Toyota because (management figured) against other teams, it would be a sure win for us. But, of course, against Toyota there would be (special) strategies. We would be quartered (holed up in a hotel) to focus only on beating them.

"It was actually more important, at least for my part, to enjoy playing and happy to see people cheering for you and you don't disappoint them."

The Maestro

Dalupan's importance to the campaign was immediately acknowledged by Co.

"Dalupan's coaching was very valuable. First, he got so much respect from us by winning all those UAAP championships (as a 12-time winning mentor of the University of the East) that's why we'd do what he says. Secondly, he was a disciplinarian. He didn't view anyone as a superstar. You come in late for practice, you'd surely be benched the next game. It would show in our practices.

"If we had a bad practice, he'd call us out and say 'you're not in shape. I'm benching you'. That's why we'd often have practices that would even be tougher than an actual game. That's why the saying is true that the practices should be harder than the actual games. He was also a master at match-ups."

With the Crispa-Toyota rivalry encompassing the first six title series in league history, they would have a total of 10 clashes for the crown, combine for 22 of the first 29 championships up for grabs until 1984 before following each other out of the league.

Even Co had to give Toyota a tribute.

"We were very fortunate Toyota was (our) arch-nemesis because I think without that arch-nemesis, we wouldn't have the PBA now," he proclaimed. "During those Crispa-Toyota match-ups it's like there was a (Manny) Pacquiao fight on. There'd be less traffic and crime rate went down significantly. Everybody would be asking for tickets to Araneta (Coliseum), and if you couldn't get a ticket, you'd have to watch it on TV at home or at the nearest appliance store where people would crowd just to watch.

"The impact of the Crispa-Toyota rivalry still reverberates in the PBA today."

Crispa would go on to capture another Grand Slam in 1983, this time under new coach Tommy Manotoc.

But the Crispa-Toyota wars, that included bench-clearing brawls and a genuine disdain for one another, were made even more resounding because of their basketball dominance that is seldom seen nowadays.