How Danding Cojuangco's NCC program may have saved the PBA

When Ambassador Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Jr. was appointed project director for basketball in 1980 by then President Ferdinand Marcos, he created a revolutionary concept completely unheard of in Asia.

Taking a comprehensive synopsis of the Philippine basketball landscape, Cojuangco created the NCC program (a program sponsored by Northern Consolidated Cement, thus, NCC) designed to fast-track the development of the sport in the country. Critics were in unison to denounce the hiring of American coaches Ron Jacobs and Ben Lindsey to handle the program, and the pouncing reverberated even further when at least 10 American players, namely Steve Schall, Steve Lingerfelter, Bruce Collins, Eddie Joe Chavez, Jeff Moore, Dennis Still, Michael Antoine, Robert Worthy, Michael Santos, and Willie Polk, came aboard and became part of the national training team.

Pepperdine's Ricardo Brown and Chaminade's Willie Pearson were legitimate Filipino-Americans but became collateral damage from the flak. When the team won the 1981 Jones Cup against quality opposition from the United States, Sweden, France, New Zealand and Taiwan, there was a collective lukewarm reception from the fans, forcing Cojuangco to temporarily abandon the project.

The tide, however, changed when an all-homegrown national team that Jacobs coached won the 1982 Asian Youth title, beating both China and South Korea along the way. The tournament was held in Manila, and more than 25,000 fans witnessed the championship game against China at the Araneta Coliseum. Sweet-shooting forward Alfie Almario, who passed away in 2001, led the way with 20 points, backstopped by guard Hector Calma, who finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and center Teddy Alfarero, with ten points and five boards.

After a debacle in Hong Kong during the 1983 Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) tournament, where naturalized players Still and Moore (just two) were initially allowed to play but were later disqualified, leading to a forfeiture by the Philippine squad of its twin victories in the preliminary round against Kuwait and India, a series of accomplishments followed. Championships in the 1984 FIBA-Asia Interclub, the 1985 Jones Cup, the 1985 PBA Reinforced Conference, and the 1986 ABC tournament reaped goodwill and respect from the discriminating Filipino fans, and the national team players became household names.

The recent passing of Cojuangco has allowed basketball fans to relive and reminisce the Philippines' amateur basketball success under his able leadership. Yet, for all these huge victories, there is something more important with which Cojuangco should perhaps be credited.

Many felt that Cojuangco's motive for creating the Philippine Amateur Basketball League (PABL) was to prevent the amateur players from joining the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), thereby pulling the plug on the pro league's evolution. But, a closer examination will show evidence of how the NCC program may have instead provided the jolt leading to the future and prolonged success of the PBA.

Consider this. In the first 14 seasons of the PBA, every Most Valuable Player (MVP) winner was a league pioneer, or a player who joined the PBA in its maiden season in 1975, except for one - Ricardo Brown (1985). It is no coincidence that "The Quick Brown Fox" was a product of the NCC program. In an emotional tribute on his Facebook account, Brown paid homage to Cojuangco for "bringing him home" and "there won't be an RB23" without the business tycoon.

The roster of MVP winners in those years seemed to indicate that the old guard was not letting up. Where was the new blood? It was not like the best amateur players were not joining the PBA - it's just that, for some reason, they never became the superstars they once were when they were still in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA). Even Rookie of the Year awardees, with the exception of Arnie Tuadles (1979), struggled to recapture their once mighty stature in the amateurs. As PBA seasons passed, it was still the pioneer superstars who dominated.

So glaring was the evident dearth of big men in the MICAA from the mid-'70s up to the early '80s. Romy Mamaril, the 6'6 beanpole from Mapua, who was one of the best players in the amateurs, became a bench player when he joined Crispa in the PBA in 1980. Boni De Jesus, the tallest player in the country at the time at 6'8 and a member of the 1978 RP Youth team that won the gold medal in Manila, did not even crack the pro ranks. Other tall amateur standouts who did not approximate their success in their pre-PBA years include Gerry Samlani, Jimmy Taguines, Nat Castillo, Tony Dasalla, Roberto Poblete, and later, Sonny Cabatu. There was a big man that dominated the UAAP in 1980 and 1981, but he was not a Filipino - Anthony Williams, the 6'4 Med Tech student at FEU is considered by some as the most dominant UAAP player ever. Of course, there were exceptions, such as Abe King and Yoyoy Villamin, two gentlemen whose PBA bodies of work should have probably landed them in the PBA's 40 Greatest list. Consider also Manny Victorino, JB Yango, and Ricky Relosa, but then, all three were graduates of the NCC program.

The PBA was fortunate though that the Crispa-Toyota rivalry was at its peak. Then, when the two teams ultimately disbanded, Sonny Jaworski and Mon Fernandez became even bigger superstars. Their feud after the Toyota disbandment titillated the fans' interest, building another popular rivalry that saw both superstars even becoming playing coaches. Many still believe that the two former Toyota teammates helped catapult the league to greater heights, and they are not wrong.

But, the state of the PBA at the time was also a source of concern. There were hardly any quality players coming up from the amateurs who could take the place of the league's original stars. The PBA was supposed to build its own league of superstars, but more than 10 years later, the aging pioneers were still the headline makers.

With the amateur ranks churning in talents that were more often than not just role players in the PBA, the league would remain relevant only if the likes of Jaworski, Fernandez, Abet Guidaben, and Philip Cezar played up to the new millennium. If not, it would not be far off to believe that the PBA eventually could die a natural death as fans would most probably lose interest.

A deeper analysis will show that Cojuangco's program actually changed all that. He sensed early on that he would not achieve his desire to improve the quality of basketball solely from the crop of projected up-and-coming players at the time. He was adamant that, to become significantly better, a player has to go up against quality opponents to help him improve. Unfortunately, while the best talents were indisputably in the PBA, they could not do well in this regard, since they were prohibited then from playing elsewhere. Further, the sluggish development of newcomers, for whatever reason, became more and more apparent.

The rationale behind the hiring of the two American coaches and 10 American players became clear. They would not be here for a long time, but instead, their somewhat brief presence would be the fastest way to transfer technology to our homegrown talents. Note that Cojuangco did not drop all the players from the original NCC training team lineup - Brown and Pearson cracked the pros in 1983 and 1984, respectively, while the rest left the country, except for Still and Moore. Chip Engelland arrived soon after.

While Jacobs was able to develop Calma as his primary point guard and was able to polish the rough edges of Samboy Lim, Allan Caidic, and Elmer Reyes, he still could not latch a prized big man locally. In a March 27, 1984 feature in the People's Journal, Jacobs intimated that his dream team would include Fernandez, King, Cezar, and Guidaben as his big men, with Brown, Adornado, Arnaiz, and Jaworski rounding up his first eight players. It was not a surprise to see Jacobs identifying four big men from the pro ranks, three of them being league pioneers at that. As such, Moore and Still had to be retained.

By then, there were several blue chip young big men in high school. Names like Jerry Codiñera, Benjie Paras, Alvin Patrimonio, Nelson Asaytono, and a very young UM Hawklet named Zandro Limpot were already on Jacobs' radar. Paras and Patrimonio were already being eyed by Jacobs to eventually replace Still and Moore, respectively in the national team, while another college talent, Jojo Lastimosa of Ateneo, was penciled to take over Engelland's slot. Ideally, they would need to train with great players like Still, Moore, and Engelland to live up to their full potential. Alas, save for Codinera, these players were never officially part of the NCC pool. However, mainly because of the NCC program model Cojuangco instilled years before, they all became more fundamentally sound players because of the advancement in coaching technology and basketball development that Jacobs introduced.


How Caidic was shaped by the Northern Consolidated program

Allan Caidic's exposure with the Northern Consolidated program in the mid-80s was the foundation for his storied PBA career.

Coaches had adopted the NCC program model of training and strategy. A case in point would be Coach Joe Lipa. Jacobs always publicly admired him as perhaps one of the greatest coaches of that era. While doing commentary for a PABL finals game between ESQ Marketing (under Lipa) and Lagerlite (under Derek Pumaren, a Jacobs protégé), he constantly praised and complimented Lipa. This was unusual, but it was a clear acknowledgment that Lipa, for one, had begun to employ some of the tools and learnings from the NCC program.

Lipa was becoming known by then as the coach with a rigid system, starting from a strict physical regimen for his players, a healthy diet, weight training, etc., which were all fairly new at the time, but already being implemented by local coaches as picked up from what the NCC program had introduced. The training approach of Jacobs fast became the gold standard among coaches in that age. He (Jacobs) introduced methods to prepare and develop players that were completely unheard of in the Philippines, but which had been used in the US already for some time. Gone were the days of jogging several rounds around the court followed by simple shooting, passing, and screening drills. Many of the other mainstream coaches already adopted the NCC principles as part of their own programs. That development, coupled with the coaching clinics that Jacobs spearheaded and held all over the country during his spare time, which were in line with and considered part of the NCC program, resulted in faster basketball skills growth for players, particularly when compared to their predecessors of the '70s and early '80s.

Evidently, the quality of basketball rose by several notches. PABL players exhibited the skills they were learning under their coaches' enhanced systems and method, and games rivaled even those in the PBA. Thus, even if the up-and-coming and top younger players from the late 1980s were not part of the NCC program per se, their advanced development can still be traced to it.

It is no surprise therefore that starting 1989, a new breed of MVP winners came about. Paras, who played for Lipa, won the plum immediately in his rookie year. Caidic, honing his skills at NCC, was the winner in 1990. Patrimonio took the award in 1991. No other league pioneer was named MVP after Fernandez's last hurrah in 1988. The young bloods had taken over and a new breed of superstars enveloped the league and carried it for the next decade.

Simply put, the foundation that was the NCC program probably saved the PBA. It was the distant but unquestionable catalyst for basketball transformation that upped the ante and eventually took the league to greater heights. It resulted in a crop of talent that was good enough to go head to head with the old PBA guard and, subsequently, replace it. That, in itself, may have saved the PBA.

Remember also that the basketball development tree that the NCC program planted bore fruit in the likes of coaches Pilo and Derrick Pumaren, Jong Uichico, Cris Calilan, and later on, Siot Tanquincen and Eric Altamirano, among countless others who, whether willingly or unwittingly, employed the NCC seeds to grow their own programs.

All the foregoing brings us to what is, to date, the understated (or previously unmentioned) significance of the first official PBA All-Star Game in 1989. Not only was that game a huge success, but it was also a significant moment in basketball history. While the Veterans, led by Fernandez and Jaworski, won the game, 132-130, against the Rookies and Sophomores, it may also be regarded as the formal and symbolic handover of the league by the pioneers to the up and coming youngsters. While many saw the game as a display of resilience and unwillingness of the Veterans to give up the crown to the young ones, ending in a buzzer-beating victory, it may also have heralded the last stand of the pioneers and the league's transition to the new breed. It was a fitting, climactic, and symbolic event that now lends a totally different meaning to the importance of that particular All-Star game.

In the end, politics aside, we may remember Cojuangco for his business acumen, for his Midas touch, for his values of loyalty and respect, for the countless victories of our national teams under his watch, or for the pride he instilled among every basketball-loving Filipino. But, in hindsight, we must give credit to the man who practically saved the PBA from extinction because of his revolutionary approach towards the improvement of basketball in the Philippines. Ultimately, the PBA turned out to be the luckiest and biggest beneficiary of Danding's vision and generosity.