Multi-titled coach Arturo "Turo" Valenzona has coached countless players in his five-decade career, many of whom were or eventually became stars in the PBA. And for a four-year stretch in the 1980s, he coached two of the league's greatest players: Robert "Sonny" Jaworski and Ramon Fernandez.
During a guesting on An Eternity of Basketball with Charlie Cuna, Noel Zarate and Sid Ventura on Tuesday, Valenzona, now 77 years old, recalled what it was like to coach both legends on separate teams.
Up close with the Big J
Despite successful stints in the old MICAA and the UAAP, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Valenzona in the professional ranks. His first foray into PBA coaching was marked by challenges during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, as he had to deal with a low budget and unheralded players.
Pint-sized guard Willie Generalao served as Valenzona's top playmaker then on a team that also included Joseph Herrera, undersized big man Ed Ducut, and forwards Gary Vargas, Joey Marquez, and Marlowe Jacutin.
But Valenzona's magic from the UAAP managed to rub off on Gilbey's Gin, which prior to his arrival had never made it to a conference finals. The Gin Tonics overcame the odds by finishing second in the 1982 Open Conference behind the two-import combo of Lew Massey and Larry McNeill, bowing to Toyota in the Finals, 3-0.
The following conference, the 1983 All-Filipino, Gilbey's Gin again made the finals, but were swept once more in three games, this time by the powerhouse Crispa Redmanizers.
When Toyota disbanded in early 1984, majority of its players led by Fernandez went to Beer Hausen. But Jaworski and long-time backcourt mate Francis Arnaiz had other plans.
According to Valenzona, Jaworski and Arnaiz initially went to Crispa to try out. But with a loaded roster, the Redmanizers might not have had room for the star duo. Valenzona can only surmise what happened.
"Nagpunta sila (Jaworski and Arnaiz) sa Crispa pero nandudun na din yung mga (players) na taga-APCOR (a MICAA team) eh, halos puno na yata dun. Pangalawa, siguro sa sweldo walang problema dun, kaya lang siguro dalawa sila, di ko na alam ano storya," he said.
What was buzzing back then was the brewing feud between Jaworski and Fernandez, which led to their parting of ways when Toyota's franchise was sold to Asia Brewery.
"Si Jawo kasi nakasama ko rin maglaro sa Yco. Before magpunta ng Meralco yan, Yco muna siya then nalipat ng Toyota. So nung ma-disband ang Toyota, pagkalaam ko nung araw di sila magkasundo ni Mon Fernandez. Hindi siya sinama ni Mon Fernandez, silang dalawa (with Arnaiz) sa Manila Beer (Beer Hausen's other PBA name). Lahat ng Toyota (players) dun napunta eh," recounted Valenzona.
Valenzona revealed that Jaworski and Arnaiz came to Gilbey's Gin's practice one day, asking if they can be taken in, even without a salary.
"Wala namang masamang tinapay sa akin. Kaibigan ko silang dalawa. Ang problema ko lang is baka hindi ko kaya ang sweldo niyo," Valenzona said, in remembering his conversation with the two former Toyota star guards.
Valenzona said Jaworski was persistent, telling him to just take them in because all he wanted was to at least retire from another PBA team.
"So sabi ko, 'Sige sasabihin ko kay boss (Honeyboy Palanca). Walang problema sa akin.' In-accommodate ko yung dalawa. Hindi ko na lang alam ano usapan nila, kung anong sweldo meron," he said.
With Jaworski and Arnaiz onboard, Gilbey's Gin's backcourt got the much-needed boost. And this excited Valenzona even more.
"Puwede ko kasi ipagsabay si Generalao and Jaworski. Kasi si Jawo naman puwede mag-uno o dos (point guard or shooting guard). Eh style ko nung araw, if ang point guard na-pressure sa backcourt, pwede mo ipadala yung isa ng bola kasi uso na rin nung araw ang trap saka full-court press kaya hindi ako nahihirapan dun, lalo na si Arnaiz, kasi naniniwala ako silang tatlo kaya magdala ng bola," explained Valenzona.
Still, despite a souped-up backcourt, Valenzona's quest for a PBA title failed to materialize as Gilbey's Gin succumbed to Crispa, 4-1, in the 1984 First All-Filipino conference.
Valenzona left Gilbey's Gin at the end of his three-year contract. With a standing offer from Tanduay, he parted ways with the team. Jaworski eventually succeeded Valenzona and was named the team's playing coach, a role he would have for the next 13 seasons.
Valenzona, meanwhile, was about to coach another former Toyota star and finally taste championship success in the PBA.
Tanduay and El Presidente
Despite his coaching successes as a UAAP coach with FEU during the 1970s through the early 1990s, Valenzona valued the coaching tips he got from Fernandez during their brief but championship-littered partnership with Tanduay in the mid-1980s.
When Valenzona came on board as Tanduay's new head coach, replacing Orly Castelo midway through the 1985 PBA Third Conference, the Rhum Makers, in an effort to shake things up, engineered a blockbuster trade that brought in Fernandez.
In exchange, Tanduay sent Fernandez's rival, big man Abet Guidaben, to Manila Beer.
"Sa akin, maski sino, dikit ako sa kanila, wala akong masamang tinapay. Although si Mon, kamag-anak ko iyan, taga-Maasin yan eh sa Leyte, ako sa Baybay, Leyte, close na kami niyan maski sa labas kasi close relative kami," Valenzona said
Fernandez was already an established star in the pro league, but Valenzona said he never encountered problems handling the Tanduay star.
"Nung naging player ko iyan, wala akong problema. Tinutulungan pa niya ako (dahil) sa experience (niya) sa laro. Siyempre bago, bago pa lang ako (coaching in the PBA), though madami na akong experience sa amateur, siyempre iba na yung gaya ni Mon Fernandez na nag international (tournaments) na," recalled the now 77-year-old former FEU star-turned-coach.
Valenzona marveled at the professionalism of Fernandez, who was often the first man to arrive for practice. Championships soon came for the franchise, which won three PBA titles during the 1986 and 1987 seasons, with the talented Fernandez standing at the forefront of Tanduay's glory days and a near Grand Slam title in 1986.
Fernandez displayed import-like numbers during the entire season after averaging 18.32 points, 9.92 rebounds, 5.77 assists and 1.27 steals in 62 games. He went on to win the third of what would turn out to be four league MVPs.
With the explosive import duo of Rob Williams and Andre McKoy, Tanduay bagged the franchise's first-ever PBA title after defeating Great Taste, 4-2, in the 1986 Reinforced Conference Finals.
The Rhum Makers then captured their second straight PBA crown via a 3-1 Finals series win over the Robert Jaworski-coached Ginebra side in the All-Filipino conference and move within one championship of registering a Grand Slam.
Ginebra though came back strong by ruling the 1986 Open Conference behind the strong import tandem of Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates, thus denying Tanduay a Triple Crown.
Tanduay's final PBA title happened the following season when Valenzona essayed the squad's 1987 Open Conference conquest via its 4-1 series win over Great Taste.
Valenzona said he was fortunate to get the all-out support of management that enabled him to get dominating imports.
The 1987 Open Conference saw Tanduay tap former Boston Celtics guard/forward David Thirdkill, whose defensive brilliance and impeccable mid-range shooting allowed the Rhum Makers to dominate. He was the conference's hands-down Best Import.
After the 1987 All-Filipino Conference, Tanduay replaced Valenzona, who would move to Hills Bros. and coach the team until the end of the 1988 season. Although he never won another PBA title, Valenzona went on to achieve tremendous success at the collegiate level in the 1990s, winning titles with FEU in the UAAP and San Sebastian in the NCAA. Under his guidance, the Stags scored an unprecedented five-peat from 1993 to 1997, although he was officially a consultant for the last championship.