PBA legend Bong Alvarez was known for his high-flying offensive moves during his heyday in the early 1990s, but there was a time he also made his mark on defense, and against a two-time NBA champion no less.
Alvarez broke into the pro league in 1989 as a scoring dynamo with the Alaska franchise. He averaged close to 23 points during his first two years as a pro, before rupturing his Achilles tendon in Game 3 of the 1990 PBA Third Conference finals opposite Purefoods.
The Airmen felt the absence of the man dubbed "Mr. Excitement" as they blew a commanding 2-0 lead in their best-of-five title series, allowing the Hotdogs to win the next three games to claim the championship.
Alvarez worked his way back after missing the first two conferences of the 1991 season. He then made his successful comeback from the injury during the Third Conference, shifting his role from a scoring whiz to a defensive player, especially during the Finals.
Alaska faced off with Ginebra in the best-of-five finals of the season-ending conference.
His job was unenviable as Alaska coach Tim Cone tasked Alvarez and veteran Biboy Ravanes to shadow Ginebra's high-scoring import Wes Matthews, Sr., who before his PBA stint had won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1987 and 1988 seasons.
But Alvarez recalled that Cone had the confidence to put him on defense against the former two-time NBA champion during the title series.
"Coach Tim told me that I can match Wes Matthews' speed and I'm not giving up a lot in terms of height. So I just did what I was told to do against Wes. I was able to defend and steal the ball from Wes (in the finals), though I must say he was really good during that time," Alvarez told An Eternity of Basketball by ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna, Sid Ventura and Noel Zarate.
Alvarez shared he was fortunate to have earned the trust of Cone, who started his coaching career by replacing William "Bogs" Adornado in 1989.
"Honestly, I'm thankful to coach Tim because he kind of liked me as a player, and my style of play he also liked. Maybe it just happened that way and that's why I had a very good career with Alaska. I was kind of lucky to be under a coach who liked my playing style, but of course, I still worked hard," explained Alvarez.
Alvarez admitted that Matthews, whose son and namesake currently plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, was a handful on defense. The elder Matthews was an NBA veteran who had played alongside a young Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls in the 1984-85 season. The American import then moved over to the Lakers in 1986, eventually slapping high fives with stars like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Byron Scott when they won back-to-back NBA championships.
"I knew Wes because I'd been watching him play for the Chicago Bulls when Jordan was still a rookie. And we all know he won NBA titles also with the Lakers. They had a great record then and I must admit, he was really fast," added the 51-year-old PBA great.
During Matthews' only PBA stint with the league's most popular ballclub, the 14th overall pick of the Washington Bullets in the 1980 NBA Draft displayed his scoring prowess by scoring 61 or more points four times. That included a pair of 69-point games during Ginebra's eventual march to the championship round.
Alvarez couldn't help but smile every time he remembered his defensive match up with Matthews, especially in Game 4 which saw the NBA veteran held down to just a single field goal in the entire second half. Matthews was running rings around Alaska's defense in the first half after pumping in 22 markers.
The 6-foot-1 Matthews wound up with 31 points, but Alvarez had the last laugh, scoring a pair of foul shots in the final 18 seconds to seal Alaska's 99-90 win en route to helping Cone and the Fred Uytengsu-owned franchise win their first PBA crown.
Although both players played on opposing teams, Alvarez said he eventually became friends with Matthews.
"We became friends after the championship series. You know African-American players, they respect players who are athletic like them," he said.
Alvarez played just 14 games during the 1991 season where he averaged 14.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, but he surely made an impact in the team's last four games.