Willie Generalao's place alongside some of the best floor generals in PBA history is a topic that isn't often discussed, but the soft-spoken guard would probably be the first person to tell you that the success he gained throughout his 11-year career was brought by sheer luck.
On a recent episode of An Eternity of Basketball, the four-time champion and 1980 Rookie of the Year talked about his PBA career, the unlikely circumstances that led him to the path of being one of the league's point guards in the '80s and his journey to basketball glory with five basketball teams.
"The Little General" came from a family of basketball players in Cebu and quickly ran into future PBA stars when he played high school basketball at the University of San Jose-Recoletos (USJ-R) in 1972.
"At the time, there were already established point guards in that roster. Bernie Fabiosa was ahead of me by two years. Abet Guidaben and Rey Pages were my teammates," Generalao said in Filipino.
Generalao transferred to the Cebu Institute of Technology in his second year and later graduated there before returning in 1975 to play for USJ-R's collegiate team that competed in the Cebu Amateur Athletic Association (CAAA), the precursor to the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc. (CESAFI).
"We even won an inter-collegiate tournament against the likes of La Salle, Ateneo and University of Visayas (UV) despite a roster filled with unknowns and a center that stood at just 5'11," he recounted.
As a guard in the collegiate ranks, Generalao was skilled enough to attract attention and merit a tryout for the 1975 RP Youth team under coach Tembong Melencio, but he failed to make the final cut.
"There were five of us brought to Manila to try out for the national team. Only Dodie Ramas and Biboy Ravanes made the lineup," he said. "After that, I went back to Cebu and continued playing in college."
Generalao's collegiate career took a turn and came to a halt for a couple of years after getting married early and having a son, prompting the young guard to work to support his new family. An opportunity arose with commercial team Mama's Love, allowing Generalao to work for the company in the morning and practice with the roster in the afternoon under Jun Noel.
Part of the work was also touring around the country for promotional tours. In prior years, the guard, along with some of his peers, often roved other cities and provinces as a "mercenary" hired by teams that were based outside of Cebu.
"My basketball experience was unique," he described. "Name a town and we'd be there -- Negros, Dumaguete, Bacolod, in Cagayan de Oro, where we were paid well, Butuan, Surigao. When we'd get to Davao, though, the teams were really strong and we couldn't get big prizes."
Aside from the tough competition, Generalao and his companions also had to deal with the prevalence of insurgency that even risked their lives in some situations.
"One time, we were hired in Pagadian City. One of my classmates in San Jose-Recoletos, his dad was the governor of Pagadian in Zamboanga del Norte. There were no planes back then, so we'd take a boat from Cebu to Ozamis City. When we got to the pier, soldiers from the army met us. Apparently, those were our escorts during our eight-hour trip," he laughed.
"After the game, we had to go back to where you were staying. But what we'd hear first were gunshots. If someone actually threw a grenade while we were playing, we'd be finished."
Generalao could play, but he was still a relative unknown and a lightly-recruited collegiate player who already, at one point, had given up all hopes of playing outside Cebu and in bigger leagues.
But in 1977, another opportunity fell on his lap. UV wanted to recruit the guard and bring him to a loaded roster coached by the late basketball great Jake Rojas. With allowances and scholarships offered to him and his wife, Generalao readily accepted.
For three seasons, UV saw Generalao take the floor alongside more future PBA standouts in Arnie Tuadles, Jerry Pingoy, Ponky Alolor, Jay Ramirez, Eddie Boy Mendoza, and Reynaldo Ibanez, among others.
More luck would come his way after a chance encounter with Orly Bauzon who later paved the way for Generalao's entry to the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) with Bax Jeans in the 1979 season, a year before he finally made the PBA as a full-fledged pro.
Entering the PBA and early years with Gilbey's
Generalao recounted instances when different individuals approached him after MICAA games, offering to help him get to the PBA.
"People would approach me after MICAA games and pose as my manager to tell me we'd have to talk to someone important. I just went along and heard them out," he said.
Ultimately, only one voice prevailed as a fellow Cebuano in Luke Dacula, one of the founding members of Gilbey's Gin, approached Generalao and asked if he was interested.
Generalao weighed his options. On one hand, he could return to MICAA with the APCOR Financiers, and on another were offers by Gilbey's and Galleon Shipping to bring him to Asia's first pay-for-play league.
After consulting with his family, Generalao decided to bite on the three-year contract presented by Gilbey's Gin team manager Adolf Ferrer.
"I said this would be only a one-hit, maybe I'd be able to get some money. If things didn't go well, I'd go back to Cebu," he said. "But I was advised about how it was a survival in the PBA. There were a lot of guards and a lot of players that couldn't find a team. So I worked to get a lot of playing time."
At 22, Generalao made his league debut alongside the likes of veterans Jack Jacutin, Willy Tanduyan, Norby Rivera, and Armando Torres and promptly delivered, instantly earning the trust of head coach Pilo Pumaren.
On his way to the Rookie of the Year award, Generalao -- only the fifth recipient of the plum at the time -- posted glowing averages of 12.5 points, 7.4 assists, and 2.5 steals per game.
"I was lucky to hit double-digit scoring. But what's important was that I played defense, handled the ball well, distributed the ball properly," he said. "I was the number one in minutes played. I was lucky Coach Pilo gave me a lot of playing time."
Generalao had to make a late push in order to edge out Biboy Ravanes for the award that year. Ravanes had an early lead in statistical points, but "Wily Willie" overtook the future five-time champion in the team's third-place game in the All-Filipino Third Conference against Tanduay, where he shined and posted 20 points and 13 assists.
"I was aware I was that close to him. Some friends told me about it," he admitted. "We played a good game there, so I was able to overtake Biboy."
As a rookie in an era that he said was basically "no harm, no foul", Generalao was also given a rough "welcome" by veterans a handful of times. Generalao recalled an encounter with Great Taste's Johnny Revilla in one game where he earned the opposing team's ire for recording eight steals.
"'Di naman ako nasaktan, pero dura ang inabot ko," cracked Generalao.
He said he also had encounters with U/Tex's Danny Basilan and Royal's Boy Adolfo during his first season in the league.
"You couldn't hit the ball with an open palm. You had to do it with a closed fist. That's why everyone's arms were black and blue," he noted.
Generalao did not have a lot of brushes with fellow Cebuanos, though.
"We Cebuanos had a group that would meet once or twice a month. The guys from Visayas liked to drink a lot," he fondly recalled, naming Manny Paner and Oscar Rocha as two of the group's many members. "You had to drink with them so you wouldn't get hit on the floor."
PBA One-on-One champ
The PBA held a one-on-one tournament back in 1982, and Willie Generalao topped the small guys' division.
In 1982, his reputation as one of the league's best guards received a massive boost after beating Frankie Lim and he was hailed the champion of the inaugural one-on-one tournament in the restricted height division.
"Medyo naka-tsamba lang tayo doon," he said. "But I had that confidence as a player. It made difficult games easier."
Generalao had to take down bonafide stars before reaching the title match. He first beat his "idol" and future 25 Greatest Players member Fabiosa in the opening match before trumping a future Hall of Famer in Danny Florencio later on.
"I was the heavy underdog in that match. Danny was a national team player who could really score. I don't know how I beat him. I remember winning by a free throw," he said.
"But I actually prepared for that. You know the Quezon Memorial Center? The whole circle's two kilometers and I ran five rounds around it just to get in condition. I even stopped staying up late and drinking for a bit."
In the finale, the 5-foot-8 guard had to buck a size disadvantage against the bigger Lim.
"Against Frankie, I had more problems. He was a big guy at 5'11". How could I beat that guy? I couldn't drive past him," he said. "I don't know how I beat him. Tsamba na naman. Frankie was bigger than me."
Aside from his individual exploits, Generalao was also considered to be no small piece in Gilbey's Gin's playoff success, though the team could only muster runner-up finishes thrice from 1982 to 1984.
Success with Tanduay
The arrival of Robert Jaworski and Francis Arnaiz made Generalao the odd man out in the Gilbey's Gin's backcourt in 1984, a year after his contract was renewed for three years.
"That was the best backcourt duo at the time," he said.
"I can admit I can't match up against coach Sonny. Sonny Jaworski's just different," continued Generalao. "And Francis Arnaiz is a really good player. He's clutch. He'd hit a big three or a big shot when it's needed. He's got the license to shoot. You also had to be in condition when you guarded him. He's fast and he was a scorer."
Gilbey's Gin traded Generalao to Tanduay, which loaded up on stars by adding Crispa's Abet Guidaben, Padim Israel and Freddie Hubalde to a lineup that already had Chuck Barreiro and JB Yango.
Tanduay clicked in no time and made a run for the finals in the 1985 All-Filipino Conference with Generalao, who made the 1985 Second Mythical Team. Unfortunately, they hit a snag after Guidaben sustained an injury entering the semifinals.
"It was a very competitive lineup. We just got unlucky," he said about that campaign, where they placed third.
Bernie Fabiosa's finals "prediction"
Willie Generalao said that Bernie Fabiosa once told him that Crispa needed to sweep Gilbey's Gin in the finals because they already had travel plans.
A blockbuster trade in the Third Conference shook things up and changed the fortunes of the franchise. Tanduay, which only won one of six games, sent Guidaben to Manila Beer in exchange for Ramon Fernandez, who was already a nine-time PBA champion at that point.
"Ramon, for me, was the complete package. He had an inside-outside game, and he could adjust easily to certain game situations. He was a great passer too. Abet, he's one of the best Cebuano big men. Abet could defend, can score. But Ramon's just different. Sorry Abet," noted Generalao.
The team's potential was realized immediately after, but they also had to enlist the help of imports Rob Williams, the Denver Nuggets' 19th pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, and Andre McKoy for the 1986 Reinforced Conference.
Generalao remembered having doubts about Williams' capabilities as a reinforcement.
"Rob Williams didn't have a single muscle in his body. I wondered, 'Is this guy any good? Is this guy a basketball player?' But when we saw his credentials... wow," he quipped. "This was our chance. We just had to give him the ball."
"The other thing about Rob was that he's a really good defender. His hands were fast. You'd think he wasn't any good at defense, but he really had quick hands. He could also extend to places you'd think he couldn't reach. At first, I thought he was just a scorer. But he was a complete player. We made him focus on scoring instead, though, since we could take care of defense. We had Rambo (Vic Sanchez) and we had (Ely) Capacio on that end."
Behind Williams, who had a 50-point game in the series-clinching win, and McKoy, who paced the team in scoring in Games 1, 3 and 4, Tanduay won their first ever PBA title.
In the following conference during the All-Filipino wars, the Rhum Makers moved closer to a Grand Slam after dispatching Jaworski and Ginebra San Miguel in four games. That was perhaps one game too many for Fernandez, who guaranteed a sweep of their foes before the series.
"That was Mon motivating us, but that was too much pressure for us," Generalao laughed.
Ginebra took Game 1 but the Rhum Makers won the next three games, including a hotly-contested Game Four where Hubalde drew a shooting foul on Jaworski and sealed the title for Tanduay with two game-winning free throws. The series was also a momentous one for Yango, who scored 40 points in Game Two and was later named the Finals MVP.
"Freddie was our go-to guy aside from Mon Fernandez," he noted. "JB was a revelation. He was the garbage man. JB hauled in all the offensive and defensive rebounds."
Luck would not be on Tanduay's side in the Open Conference, though, as the Rhum Makers struggled to find a good running mate for returning import Williams. After trying to play Benny Anders and McKoy again, the team settled for Andy Thompson, but faltered against stronger import tandems, such as Michael Young and Harold Keeling (Manila Beer) and Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates (Ginebra).
Generalao also missed a chunk of time for Tanduay, which finished at fourth, due to a freak injury.
Tanduay bounced back in no time to open the 1987 season. Behind David Thirdkill, an NBA champion with the Boston Celtics in the 1985-86 season, the Rhum Makers trooped to the finals and beat a loaded Great Taste team that had Ricardo Brown, Abe King, Philip Cezar, Bernie Fabiosa, Allan Caidic and Jimmy Manansala in five games for the title.
"I didn't have to think about guarding Ricardo Brown because Padim was there to take care of him," said Generalao. "Ricardo was great. Whether you played him dirty or not, he was still so good. He wasn't flashy, a shake-and-bake guard. But his pull-up jumper was deadly."
"They were really a problem. It was just the breaks of the game," he added.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Tanduay was at the top of league. A swift decline and the franchise's exit from the PBA subsequently followed.
Last title, final years
After Tanduay folded, Generalao found himself on a Purefoods team that just formalized its entry into the PBA. The team stocked up on top-shelf rookies in Glenn Capacio, Jojo Lastimosa, Jerry Codinera and Alvin Patrimonio, and signed up his champion teammates Fernandez, Hubalde, Yango and Onchie dela Cruz.
"That was really a super team. In my mind, we could win two championships or a Grand Slam. But apparently, it was a Grand Slam for second place," he joked.
The 1988 season was indeed a disappointment for the debuting Hotdogs, which finished second twice in three conferences. The team first lost by two in Game 7 of the Open Conference finals before getting stopped in their tracks by Jaworski and Añejo Rum in four games during the All-Filipino Cup.
"That loss to Ginebra was painful. That team played really well," Generalao said of Añejo, which also had Dondon Ampalayo, Leo Isaac, brothers Joey and Chito Loyzaga, Dante Gonzalgo and Rudy Distrito, among others. "Coach Sonny could really motivate his team. His players were willing to die."
In the series-clincher, Purefoods was up 19 at one point and could have extended the series had they held on, but the 65ers forced overtime behind Jaworski, who scored 28 points to clinch his first All-Filipino title as a playing coach.
Generalao didn't stay long at Purefoods and moved on with Israel and Dela Cruz to the Presto Tivolis, which was now bannered by Caidic, Tuadles, King, Manny Victorino, Gerry Esplana, Peter Jao and Zaldy Realubit.
Under Jimmy Mariano, Presto won its fifth and final PBA title in a tightly-contested seven-game All-Filipino finals series -- and against Generelao's former team in the Purefoods Hotdogs, no less.
Championship experience was key in the final three games for Generalao, who would have been ruled out of the finals if he did not recover in time from an abscess in his liver.
"I was hospitalized for almost a month because of a liver condition. I needed to get operated. My liver had hematoma. But I was pleading to my doctor and asked him to let me try antibiotics first. Thankfully, it worked. I got out of the hospital with no surgery," he said. "One week before the finals, I wanted to play immediately, so I practiced and jogged thoroughly. But I didn't know if coach Jimmy Mariano would use me."
Mariano fielded Generalao in Game 5, and the guard delivered by pacing the Tivolis' offense in a 123-119 win that moved them a win away from the title. In Caidic's absence during Game 7, Generalao and the rest of the veterans imposed their will on their younger rivals, with "The Little General" scoring eight of his 12 points in a decisive third quarter run that eventually led to a 115-96 clincher for Presto.
Presto, unfortunately, couldn't duplicate its splendid run in the Third Conference, bowing twice to Shell Rimula X in a knockout game for a finals berth playoff and in the battle for third place.
Generalao, along with Guidaben and Victorino, wound up with the Pepsi Hotshots and he was rejuvenated under coach Derrick Pumaren and his famed full-court press defense.
"I was 37 at the time and my knees were hurting. I told my kuyas in Manny Victorino and Abet Guidaben that we may have to hold off drinking and staying up late for a while," he said with a laugh. "Kaya nila nasabi, 'Bumata yata si Willie?'" he joked.
"Practices were also held in the morning and afternoon even on game days," he added.
Generalao was actually fifth in the depth chart behind Jun Reyes, Eric Altamirano, Mark Tallo, Rey Yncierto, and Carlito Mejos, but Pumaren thrust the guard in a pivotal role.
"Under coach Derrick, you were really going to stay in top condition," he said. "My role was supposed to teach the rookies, but coach Derrick made me a starting guard so I had to get into shape again for his full-court press."
But his tenure with Pepsi ended up being his final year in the PBA.
"(Former teammate and Pepsi team manager) Steve (Watson) and I talked about a contract extension for the next season. They told me to wait a little longer, but that was the time I understood that they were waiting for a trade for (Eugene) Quilban. I decided to stop playing," he said.
Coaching became Generalao's next venture after his exit from the PBA, taking an offer to coach the Casino Rubbing Alcohol franchise in the Philippine Basketball League (PBL). He was a playing coach for one year before eventually settling permanently into a role on the sidelines for the next four years.
"I think I became the first playing coach there," he said. "To get a bigger contract, I had to coach and play at the same time. That was the purpose for that."
Generalao also founded the Mindanao-Visayas Basketball Association (MVBA) in 2006 with famed Cebuano coach Yayoy Alcoseba. But aside from these two exploits, the retired star has laid low for the most part.
As of late, Generalao is employed at the House of Representatives as a congressional staff for a cousin who is a congressman in Cebu.
Generalao's top five
When asked who his top five favorite teammates were, Generalao named five Tanduay teammates in Fernandez, Guidaben, Israel, Hubalde and Yango. Patrimonio was added as a "sixth man."
"My Tanduay years were the most memorable parts of my career. I've had a lot of teammates that became my close friends and we became the godfathers of our children, too," he commented.