Retired PBA star Rey Lazaro's personal choices for the greatest PBA coaches might probably raise an eyebrow or two.
"Dalawa lang ang pinakamagaling na coach para sa akin sa Pilipinas," he said on a recent episode of An Eternity of Basketball podcast hosted by Charlie Cuna, Sid Ventura and Noel Zarate. "Syempre sa amateur si Turo [Valenzona]. Pagdating ng PBA, si Freddie Webb naman."
Though the two coaches aren't high on the league's pantheon of greats as some of their peers, their impact on Lazaro's career and life after his playing days may be the reasons the former All-Star forward will have always have them on top of his list.
"Sila 'yung dahilan kung bakit 'yung pamilya ko rito napunta sa ganitong sitwasyon," he added. "Sila 'yung number one sa'kin."
Playing for Valenzona
Tagged as the "Inside Artist" by the late Joe Cantada, Lazaro rose among the ranks of the league's best players by being one of the best interior scorers in the '80s. The 6-foot-1 forward popularized the use of the reverse shot underneath the basket, which he says he first practiced during his collegiate years with Far Eastern University.
"Pinagp-praktisan ko 'yan. Nung time namin," he said, "Magkabali-bali na 'yung katawan ko, 'wag mo lang ako ma-block."
Lazaro was by no means a blue-chip recruit entering college and only attracted the attention of the men's team after winning the Finals MVP award during the inter-collegiate intramurals in the second semester of his first year. After landing a roster spot with the defending champions in 1977, Lazaro was able to polish his game as he put some time in after practices with Valenzona.
"Pagkatapos ng practice namin sa FEU, tinuturan niya ko ng footwork sa one-on-one," he explained. "'Yung basketball skills ko, walang pinanggalingan kundi sarili ko lang. Walang nagturo sa'kin. Pagdating ko lang ng varsity ng FEU, doon lang ako nagkaroon ng coach na talagang we play, tinuturuan ako kung paano ang tamang basketball."
His growth under Valenzona continued in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA), where Lazaro and other FEU players suited up for Solid Mills. When Valenzona moved on to APCOR, he and his teammates also followed and formed a powerhouse franchise that won multiple titles.
In Lazaro's words, APCOR under Valenzona was a "Cinderella team, pagpasok champion kaagad." The roster, which had the likes of Yoyoy Villamin, Bay Cristobal, Mon Cruz, Padim Israel, Rad Pasco, Terry Saldaña and Lazaro, among others, was also talented enough that it even beat Crispa in practice games.
"Kung may magaling na import, may laban sana [sa PBA]," he remarked.
Unfortunately, APCOR wasn't able to facilitate a move to the PBA and eventually disbanded. Everyone went their separate ways; Lazaro was signed by Yco-Tanduay in 1981, and Valenzona wound up coaching Gilbey's Gin in 1982.
The two would reunite later in 1987 as the Alaska franchise hired Valenzona to coach Hills Bros. Coffee for a season. Valenzona would be replaced by Bogs Adornado after the 1988 season, while Lazaro would leave the PBA before the 1990 season began.
Playing for Webb
Lazaro found an unexpected ally in Webb, who was on the opposing side coaching APCOR's rival YCO Painters in the MICAA. The two first worked together in the 1979 Asian Basketball Confederation Championships, where the Philippines ended up placing fourth under Webb's coaching in Nagoya, Japan.
"Sa Japan, gamit na gamit niya ko. And then nung pauwi kami, tinawag niya ko sa eroplano. Sabi niya, 'Kapag nag-PBA ka, just let me know.' Nung na-disband yung APCOR and MICAA, hinahanap na ako ni Freddie Webb," he said.
Webb, who was coach of Yco-Tanduay, was keen on signing Lazaro in the PBA in 1981 and managed to pry him away from Toyota, which had Sonny Jaworski and Abe King, by jumping with an offer that also guaranteed him playing time. In an era that also didn't have agents representing players, Webb even represented Lazaro during contract negotiations.
"Sabi ni Freddie Webb sa'kin, 'Rey, laro ka na ha. May three-month (contract) ka tapos bibigyan ka pa namin ng 13 months (pay).' Inisip ko pera na 'yan, wala naman ako sweldo kasi wala namang APCOR. Sabi ko, 'OK coach,'" he shared.
Playing for Toyota might have given Lazaro a title that eluded him throughout his eight-year PBA stint, but he also thinks he might not have been able to carve out a lucrative career if he lounged in the bench for a stacked championship team.
"Isipin mo kung ako napunta sa Toyota, anong kalalagyan ko nun? Baka after two or three years, wala na ako," he said. "Champion ako agad doon pero hindi naman ginagamit. Sino andun? (Arnie) Tuadles, (Ramon) Fernandez, Abe King. Tapos may import pa. Paano ka gagamitin 'di ba?"
Lazaro drew big minutes immediately and even contended for the 1981 Rookie of the Award, but he couldn't usurp Cho Sison for the award since he entered the season late.
In Tanduay, Lazaro emerged as one of the team's top options and was even the team's highest scorer in 1984 with 22 points a game. Stalled contractual talks, however, led to his departure.
"Hindi naman ako class A player. Noong time namin, merong A, B, C. Nasa B ako. 'Yung mga A, sina Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez," he explained. "'Yung sweldo nila at sweldo namin, alam ko na 'yung hihingin ko. Hindi naman ako hihingi ng sa A.
"Pero kung ikaw A, B ako, kung ang sweldo mo is for example 1,000 (pesos), unfair naman sa'kin para bigyan mo ko ng 500 right? Ganun ang nangyari sa'kin. Sabi ko dun sa manager namin, 'Kung bibigyan mo ko ng kalahati ni [Abet] Guidaben, kung 20 points siya, 10 points lang ako'. Parang naasar ata siya sa'kin."
Jaworski, who missed out on playing with Lazaro in 1981, came swooping in with an offer to sign the forward with Ginebra, and the two even agreed to terms on the contract, which paid half of his salary upfront. There was only one hurdle: Webb, who landed a coaching gig with PBA newcomers Shell after leaving Tanduay in 1983, enlisted Lazaro's name with the Bugbusters and wanted him on his side again.
"Sabi niya (Jaworski), 'Kausapin mo si Freddie Webb kasi 'yung pangalan mo andun sa Shell,'" he said.
Lazaro met with Webb during one of the latter's TV tapings and asked to be removed from Shell's roster, but Webb refused.
"Sabi ko sa kanya, 'Boss, bigay mo na ako sa Ginebra.' Sabi niya, 'Hindi, sa'kin ka.' Sabi ko, 'Ayoko diyan kasi 'di mo ko magagamit, andiyan si (Bogs) Adornado eh.' Sabi niya, 'Ako bahala sa'yo.' Pagsabi niya sa'kin, ibig sabihin ayaw na niya ako bigay 'di ba," he explained.
Webb's refusal to let him sign with Ginebra turned out to be beneficial for Lazaro's career.
"Napaganda 'yung career ko dahil sa kanya. Kung pumunta ako sa Ginebra, dalawa lang 'yon: mas sumikat ako, or matapos ang career ko ng mabilis. At least dito kay Freddie Webb, kabisado na niya ako," he said.
Under Webb, Lazaro started as a power forward alongside his childhood hero and center Philip Cezar in the frontcourt. Shell, which also had Cristobal, Bernie Fabiosa and Adornado in the starting lineup, came close to a title in the 1985 All-Filipino Conference but was stopped in its tracks by season MVP Ricardo Brown, who buoyed Great Taste to its fourth consecutive PBA title.
"Super lakas ng kalaban namin," Lazaro said of Great Taste, which also had the likes of Abe King and Manny Victorino on its roster.
Webb wasn't able to win a single PBA title during his coaching years, but Lazaro is adamant that his former coach belongs up there with history's greatest mentors.
"Nung time nung Crispa-Toyota, ilagay mo doon si Freddie Webb. Mapapag-champion din niya 'yun. Kahit si Baby Dalupan o si Tim Cone ilagay mo sa Tanduay noon, magcha-champion kaya kami?" he said, noting the disparity of talent between the two teams and the rest of the league.
Rey Lazaro's surprise One-on-One Tournament run
Rey Lazaro was a late entry to the 1982 PBA One-on-One Tournament but he defied the odds and beat big names to nearly win the 6 feet and above title.
Though he cut a fruitful PBA career short after the 1989 season, Lazaro's PBA stint has had its remarkable highs.
In 1982, Lazaro was a late replacement for Cezar in the league's one-on-one tournament and made the finals, only losing to Ramon Fernandez after dispatching a handful of stars in Guidaben, Tuadles, Victorino and Steve Watson along the way.
"Sa invitation letter, kitang-kita ko doon binura lang 'yung pangalan na andoon and pinalitan lang ng pangalan ko," he laughed. "Hindi man lang gumawa ng bagong letter!"
Lazaro also earned his stripes as a rugged defender that often earned the ire of opposing players and fans for his play.
"Hindi naman ako naninira. Kapag tinira mo ko, gagantihan lang kita. Sabagay 'yun ang lagi niyo nadidinig sa mga players," Lazaro added with a laugh.
Throughout his career, Lazaro recounted having brushes with Joey Loyzaga ("Issue lang 'yon dahil Loyzaga siya siguro"), Steve Watson ("'Di ko alam bakit mainit kaming dalawa") and Guidaben ("Pinatawag pa nga kami sa PBA noon").
But no encounter might have topped the one he had with Ginebra import Terry Duerod in the 1986 Reinforced Tournament -- an instance which earned him jeers from an entire fanbase.
"Dalawa 'yung pangalan ko niyan. Isa is, 'Lazaro, gago!' tapos 'yung iba, 'Lazaro, Lazaro, mukhang kabayo!'" he laughed.
Lazaro believes he could have played into the '90s, but a move to the United States of America prompted the forward to hang it up earlier than expected.
"Nauna na 'yung wife ko rito sa America nung 1989. Ni-ready ko na rin at kinuha ko na ng US visa 'yung mga anak ko. Dalawa naiwan sa'kin, 'yung panganay nauna," he said. "Nung pumasa na siya sa State Board, pinasusunod na kami. Sabi ko tapusin ko muna 'yung 1990. Sabi niya sa'kin, 'Kapag 'di ka sumunod, babalik kami diyan.' Dun na ko nag-decide. Nung 1990, sumunod na kami."
He didn't burn bridges on his way out, though, as he negotiated a buyout with Alaska management before leaving.
"Sabi ko, 'Boss, pwede ko ba i-advance 'yung October, November, December and then 'yung 13 months? Tapos void na natin 'yung 1990 ko.' Mas natuwa sila kasi hindi naman ako ginagamit masyado. At least nabawasan na 'yung babayaran nila," he laughed.
After moving the U.S, Lazaro turned his attention to golf and set up a basketball tournament for Filipinos in Miami in 2008.
He's avoided watching the PBA and only managed to catch games in his last visit to the Philippines in 2018, but he believes he would be good enough to play with today's players if he was playing in the current PBA.
"'Di naman ako naiinggit, pero [naiisip ko na] nung time ko o ganyan edad ko, pwede pa ako diyan," he said. "Kung 'yung edad ko is katulad nila, pwede pa ko. Pero iba 'yung laro nila ngayon at laro namin. Iba 'yung moves. Parang palakasan ng katawan. Hindi kamukha ng may Mon Fernandez diyan na naka-side view kapag tumitira."
Best players, favorite teammates
As a defender, Lazaro recalled having difficulties containing Brown, especially during their matchup in the 1985 All-Filipino finals.
"Nagpapasuntok na ako. Gusto ko suntukin na ako para ma-out siya eh. Ang purpose ko lang is ginagalit ko siya, pero 'di magalit. Kasi 'yun lang ang may pag-asa kami. Pare, deadly masyado. Talagang deadly," he laughed.
Lazaro also named Fernandez, Mike Bilbao, Abe King and Cezar among the best players he's ever seen during his career.
Cezar also made his list of most favorite teammates ever and Lazaro expressed his fondness for the 15-time PBA champion.
"Philip Cezar is magaling makisama. Siya lang 'yung PBA player na pag-uwi ko ng Pilipinas, tinatawagan ko, magkikita kami. Siya lang, wala nang iba," he said. "Kapag inimbitahan si Philip Cezar noon sa probinsya namin, sama lang 'yan. Walang pai-star i-star 'yan."
Eric Altamirano and other Tanduay teammates in JB Yango, Mike Bilbao, and Frankie Lim rounded out his top five favorite teammates.