For a player as skilled, recognized, and accomplished as Ricardo Relosa, surprisingly, basketball was never his passion. Although you couldn't tell from the quality of his play, a nagging reluctance reared its head every so often till the very end of his playing days. And if Relosa's father hadn't pushed him to get into the sport, we would have been deprived of one half of the famed "Bruise Brothers" tandem. This was just one of the many surprises Relosa revealed on a recent episode of the An Eternity of Basketball podcast.
"Actually, I had no interest in basketball," Relosa shared in Tagalog. "I wanted to become a soldier."
Fortunately, Relosa's dad Tony - who played alongside hoops legends Caloy Loyzaga and Lauro Mumar before entering the Manila police force - convinced him to reconsider and - at the age of 14 - start playing organized basketball with the Mapua Red Robins team instead. Relosa credits his first coach, Danny Liwanag, for teaching him self-confidence, defense, and teamwork - all defining traits of Relosa's successful career.
"Danny taught me that basketball is five people. On defense, we couldn't allow our opponent to hit a shot in our face. Coach would exclaim, 'The more you show fear, the more afraid you will become. Will you allow that?' So I'd stick to my opponent and give him a hard time," Relosa said.
Give Coach Liwanag credit. He must have had top-notch training skills because Relosa caught the attention of one particular amateur team. "In high school, I would be given uniforms by Crispa," Relosa said. Although flattering, Relosa thought nothing of it at the time. However, after he skipped collegiate ball to join Villar Records in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) in 1977, he got his first taste of the freewheeling world of player recruitment that defined that era of Philippine basketball.
"Crispa got angry with me," Relosa said. "'You have no gratitude! We gave you a uniform and an allowance.' I said, 'I only got one uniform, I don't get any allowances. And I didn't ask those things from you'."
Little did Relosa know that his run-in with Crispa was a preview of what was to come in his professional years. But for now, a young 17-year-old Relosa was focused on making a name for himself by using the skills that he learned under Coach Liwanag, holding his own against the likes of Anthony Dasalla and, ironically, his future partner-in-crime Yoyoy Villamin.
"When we play clean, it's okay. But don't strike first because I'll surely strike back. Everything they'd do to me, I'd give back twofold," Relosa said. "Whenever Yoyoy and I would guard each other, it was really a struggle."
Representing the country
Relosa was invited to the PBA in 1977 by Dante Silverio but his father didn't think he was ready. So Relosa represented the country with star players like Padim Israel, Alex Clariño, Jaime Manansala, Romulo Mamaril, Joy Carpio, Cesar Yabut, and Efren Manila. His most memorable national game was against Malaysia at the Pesta Sukan Basketball Invitation Championship in Singapore. After the Malaysians upset the Philippines in a heated contest, 95-94, fans rushed the court and ganged up on Clariño, who struck Malaysian player Foo Chye Hai during the game.
"The spectators in the gym went down and rushed at us! We were in the dugout for two hours and couldn't get out because the Singaporeans were furious. We had to be escorted by the police. The next day, we were going to the department store but when we said we were Philippine team, we weren't allowed inside," Relosa said.
Relosa was also one of the first local players on the famous Northern Consolidated Cement team championed by Danding Cojuangco in 1981, but he was used sparingly because the team's core was made up of American and Fil-Am players. This didn't bother Relosa at all, though, for a familiar reason.
"It was OK with me. First and foremost, I didn't really like basketball. It was just a job. If you need me, I'll play. If not, it's OK," Relosa said.
Be that as it may, Relosa was part of the team that won the gold medal at the 1981 SEA games. He also spoke fondly of his time with NCC and was thankful of Cojuangco's support. However, NCC v1.0 was overhauled shortly after it was formed. Although Coach Pilo Pumaren extended an invitation to Relosa to join the RP Youth Team, it was time for the future Bruise Brother to establish himself in the pros.
Early years in the PBA
Relosa joined a powerhouse Toyota Super Corollas team as one of four rookies in 1982 (Crispa was just not meant to be). He never thought he would make it to the big league, much less on one of the league's most popular teams. Although overwhelmed at first, he was ready to prove himself in his first professional game against - who else? - the Crispa Redmanizers.
"I was in the PBA, I had to shape up. You won't make it to the PBA if you're not ready," Relosa said. "But our veterans, they took care of us. Jokes aside, we were nervous because us rookies were used at the same time right away against Crispa. This is great, we got used right away!"
Thus, the foundation of Relosa's reputation as a defensive enforcer began to take shape; oftentimes, he was pitted against opposing teams' best players. "I was used more because I guarded the imports. I always got beat up. It was a tough assignment. Abe (King) and I used to point at each other, 'You guard him!'"
After Toyota disbanded in 1983, Relosa completed a season with Beer Hausen where he was expected to contribute both defensively and offensively. "All of the teams I joined, I study what's missing with them. When they don't have enough scorers, I concentrate on offense. At Beer Hausen, Mon (Fernandez) and Ed (Cordero) were the only ones scoring."
After his contract expired, the late Adolf Ferrer, then team manager of Ginebra San Miguel, convinced Relosa to sign a two-year contract with the team in 1985, although a slight misunderstanding at the end of the first season led to his eventual transfer.
"In the knockout game to enter the championship, Ricky Brown kneed me. When I asked permission to sit out practice to rest first because my thigh was swollen, Sonny (Jaworski) got angry with me. He thought maybe I was just lazy. I said I was just asking permission. If not, that's OK," Relosa shared.
Relosa did practice but heard some jarring news later that day: Jaworski had let it be known that if Relosa would like to transfer teams, he may.
"After that, I was still practicing but I already had some resentment in me. So I said I'd be better off with another team. I love Sonny but I thought it's better if I would leave before things got out of hand."
This paved the way for Relosa to join the newly formed Alaska franchise via expansion pool, the team for which he probably played the most defining years of his professional career.
The Ronnie Thompkins incident
Ricky Relosa recalls what happened between him and import Ronnie Thompkins that nearly led to a free-for-all in 1993.
New kid on the block: Alaska
Relosa admitted that Alaska experienced the growing pains of any expansion team; players needed time to jell and adjust to each other. But for Relosa, the team did the right thing by hiring Coach Tony Vasquez, someone he truly admired and respected.
"Even though we were together for just a short period of time, I had a lot of respect for Coach. We exchanged ideas on what to do. He'd listen to your suggestions. He was one of the coaches whom I loved dearly because we had mutual respect," Relosa said. Vazquez died of a heart attack during Alaska's maiden season.
In 1987, after a so-so pioneering season, not only did the team change its name to Hills Bros., its entire team chemistry changed, too, with Yoyoy Villamin joining Relosa to form an intimidating frontcourt. Both big men agreed that the best way to move past their rivalry was to team up and help the Coffee Kings become the best team it can be. This signaled the birth of the iconic duo known as The Bruise Brothers, one of the most feared tandems in PBA history. Surprisingly, Relosa seemed genuinely dumbfounded by their reputation.
"How did we play? Were we really rude? I've always wondered because I thought we were like angels," Relosa said with a hearty laugh. "The game involves physicality, but being physical is different from being dirty."
Nevertheless, their reputation and teamwork served them in good stead as Hills Bros. finished runner-up in both the All-Filipino and Reinforced Conferences.
Ricky Relosa's five favorite teammates
Ricky Relosa played with several PBA greats in his career. These are his top five.
The beginning of the end
Relosa played four fruitful years with the Alaska franchise. He even witnessed the beginnings of the Tim Cone era. However, those persistent doubts about his place in basketball grew stronger. Relosa began entertaining thoughts of leaving the sport that had defined the past 15 years of his life.
"I got burned out. Basketball became work for me, and I wanted to rest. Even in practices, I was just sitting down," Relosa said. "It would be nice if I liked basketball, but I really didn't."
Relosa gave the game another chance, signing with newcomer Pepsi in 1990 as an unprotected player in the expansion draft. However, his drive never returned so he requested team manager Steve Watson to release him from his contract midway through the season so he could join his family in the United States.
A year later, as fate would have it, he would find himself back in the Philippines and on the roster of Shell Rimula X for close to two seasons. Eventually, though, the daily regimen began grinding on him again and he accepted that it was time to unlace his sneakers for good. His playing days finally came to an end in (pun intended) bruising fashion by both winning a championship and figuring in an all-out melee against Swift import Ronnie Thompkins; an unfortunate - yet, in an odd way, fitting - end to a colorful and storied career. Ricky Relosa may have reluctantly entered a career in basketball but it's fortunate that he did, for we are all privileged witnesses to his numerous contributions to the annals of Philippine basketball history.
Top five favorite teammates
When asked who his top teammates of all time are, Relosa chose the following:
Mon Fernandez, Abe King, Arnie Tuadles, Yoyoy Villamin, and Marte Saldaña.
Michael Yu is an HR practitioner based in the United States. He previously wrote for Rebound Magazine in the Philippines.