Remember Marte Saldaña? The point guard known as "The Mighty Mite" was PBA Rookie of the Year in 1982 and won a championship with San Miguel Beer in just his second conference. He played nine seasons in the league before moving to the United States, where he is still based. His basketball career was littered with highs, lows, and strokes of good fortune. This was all revealed by the unassuming point guard on a recent episode of the An Eternity of Basketball podcast.
FEU and MICAA days
Having former PBA player Bert dela Rosa as an inter-barangay league coach was the first lucky break that Saldaña needed to tip off his career. It was dela Rosa who convinced Saldaña to attend Far Eastern University High School in the mid-70s. This allowed Saldaña to fulfill residency and join FEU's senior team. Although used sparingly his freshman year, playing all the way to the finals versus eventual champion UE paved the way for Saldaña to shine in his second year, when the Tamaraws won the championship outright.
"Nagkaroon kami ng core ng seven players na sa tingin ko ay ang pinakamalakas, so in 1976, na-sweep namin 'yung 10 (elimination round) games, kaya walang championship na nangyari," Saldaña said.
After two years in the UAAP, Saldaña suited up for amateur teams like Solid Mills and APCOR in an era when the PBA was in its infancy and the local amateur basketball scene still hosted top caliber players. He was also a prominent member of the country's Youth team in 1978 and teamed with players such as Hector Calma, Bai Cristobal, Yoyoy Villamin, and Chito Loyzaga.
But as the PBA began to grow in popularity, amateur teams disbanded and their players flocked to the professional league. Saldaña was no exception and he entered the PBA in 1982.
PBA Rookie of the Year
Saldaña's game continued to grow under the tutelage of Tommy Manotoc, who recruited him to a San Miguel team that boasted the likes of Renato Lobo, Manny Paner, Anthony Dasalla, Yoyong Martirez, Biboy Ravanes, and Norman Black. Not bad for someone who never dreamed of making it to the big league if not for the good fortune of being recruited by Manotoc.
"Wala talaga sa isip ko na mag-PBA. (Kaya) tuwang tuwa ako na nakasama ko ang mga beterano. Sa first half ng first conference, hindi ako gaanong ginagamit. 'Nung (second) half, biglang ginagamit na ako rather than si Yoyong sa rotation. Parang nakonsensiya ako kasi naging second choice si Yoyong, pero from there, tuluy tuloy na," Saldaña said.
His rookie season was highly successful both individually and as a team. San Miguel narrowly missed the first conference championship, losing to a powerhouse Toyota team in seven games. It was a great experience for the wide-eyed rookie to compete in his very first conference against none other than the Living Legend Sonny Jaworski.
"Idol ko si Sonny, kaya '7' ang una kong (jersey) number. Pero ang lupit (ng Toyota), hindi mo tatalunin 'yon. Jaworski, (Ramon) Fernandez, Abe King, Francis Arnaiz, Donnie Ray Koonce, (Arnie) Tuadles. Hindi ko in-expect na aabot kami sa ganyan, pero it's an honor for me as a rookie na umabot hanggang Game 7," Saldaña said.
The team's heartbreaking finals loss didn't deter the Beermen as they went on to win the second conference championship against the Glenn Hagan-led Crispa Redmanizers in a tightly contested best-of-three series.
"To tell you the truth, nung nag-champion kami, masaya ako pero hindi ako makapaniwala. Crispa 'yun eh," Saldaña said.
It was also after the second conference that Saldaña realized he had a shot at becoming the season's Rookie of the Year (which he eventually won), especially after his namesake and Toyota rookie Terry Saldaña was disqualified from the ROY race after being thrown out of a game for brawling with the invitational conference's South Korean team.
"Hindi ko naiisip (ang ROY). Parang lang akong bata kasi na naglalaro, basta ginamit ako, gagawin ko lang ang dapat kong gawin. Tsaka every conference, nandon kami sa Final Four kaya nag pile up din ang statistical points ko. Marami kaming rookies - Frankie Lim, Jayvee Yango, Ricky Relosa. Ang naging advantage ko siguro, binigyan ako ng trust ni Coach Tommy," Saldaña said.
'Pag pinasikatan mo si Sonny, babalikan ka niya for sure'
Marte Saldaña recalls how it was facing his boyhood idol Sonny Jaworski in his rookie year.
Idolizing the Big J
Saldaña treasures the times he played against Jaworski. At first, he was awestruck playing against the player he has idolized since high school. But in the end, it was all about respect and fierce competition between professionals.
"It was an honor na makalaban ko ang idol ko. Pero ang nasa isip ko rin no'n ay ang reputation niya as The Barreling Big J. Sabi nila, 'Ingat ka dyan, baka masaktan ka.' Pero in nine years, kahit nagkatapatan kami, never niya ako nabira. 'Yun ang napansin ko kasi kay Sonny, ipakita mo ang galing mo at huwag mo siyang pasikatan. Sa akin kasi, pag magaling kang player, rerespetuhin kita at hindi (ako) mag-t-trash talk," Saldaña said.
The San Miguel team disbanded in 1986 after the EDSA Revolution and its players released. The new Alaska franchise plucked Saldaña from free agency to join the likes of Ricky Relosa, Frankie Lim, Pongkee Alolor, Naning Valenciano, Teddy Alfarero, and Norman Black (with Yoyoy Villamin joining the team a year after). Although the Coffee Kings were initially a ragtag squad patched together from different sources, the players jelled into a competitive team that placed second twice in 1987. Saldaña blossomed so much at this time that the late anchorman Pinggoy Pengson christened him with the nickname "The Mighty Mite" for his fierce competitiveness packed into a tiny frame.
Saldaña thought that he had found a home and was therefore caught off guard by Alaska's decision not to renew his contract after the 1988 season. He ended up playing for the Great Taste franchise for a year but unfortunately was used sparingly.
"Nagpaalam ako sa Alaska na pupuntahan ko ang wife ko sa States. Hindi ko napansin, tapos na ang kontrata ko. In January 1989, tinawagan ako ni Bai Cristobal at sinabi niya na inalis na ako sa lineup. Nagulat ako. So pagbalik ko (sa Pilipinas), naglaro ako sa Presto. Doon nagsimula na mag-deteriorate lahat," Saldaña said.
He joined the RFM expansion team in 1990 for just two more conferences before deciding to call it quits. After a short-lived business in Bulacan, he then decided to migrate to the US permanently even if a few teams were still interested in signing him up. "Medyo sumama ang loob ko at nawalan na ako ng gana. Tapos na ba ang career ko? So nag-usap kami ng mag-asawa at lumipat na kami (sa US)," Saldaña said.
When asked who his top teammates of all time are, he chose the following:
Abe King (who has openly called Saldaña his favorite PG)
The Bruise Brothers, Yoyoy Villamin and Ricky Relosa
Life in the US
Saldaña detached himself from the Philippine basketball scene for several years, contenting himself to play recreationally in various Fil-Am leagues. Gradually, he found himself drawn to league news from back home and caught up with former players who have either likewise migrated or who travelled to the US to play in exhibition games. The needs and lifestyle of the US drew him in completely, though, and he eventually felt at peace with where life has taken him and his family the past 30 years - one final piece of good luck to bookend his eventful career.
"The first several years, hindi ko matanggap na nandito ako (sa US). (Although) hindi ko na naisip na bumalik, may resentment ako na bakit hindi na ako naglalaro. But after that, unti-unti nang nawala sa isip ko ang basketball at gusto ko nalang manood. Kung tapos na ako, tapos na ako at dito nalang ang focus ko. I'm more blessed here in America. Lahat (ng bagay) may simula at may katapusan," Saldaña said.
Michael Yu is an HR professional who used to write for Rebound Magazine in the Philippines. He lives in the USA with his wife and kids.