Emerito "Emer" Legaspi is never mentioned in the same breath as his more illustrious teammates like Robert "Sonny" Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Francis Arnaiz, Danny Florencio and Abe King. But Legaspi undoubtedly made his presence felt as a reliable backup gunner for Toyota during his six-and-a-half-year stint with the fabled franchise.
Legaspi was actually a known winner dating back to his college days, having led the University of the East Red Warriors back to the top of the UAAP in the 1974 and 1975 seasons. His scoring exploits were duly noticed as Crown Motors coach Nat Canson availed of the 5-foot-11 Legaspi's services in 1976. It was a move that reaped handsome dividends for Toyota's farm team in the MICAA.
Playing the role of a young, sharpshooting wingman, Legaspi averaged close to 28 points per contest, turning a doormat Crown Motors side into a contender. In 1976, Crown Motors finished third after finishing in last place the year before. His season-long brilliance enabled him to become the first player to win the MICAA's MVP and Discovery Player of the Year (now known as Rookie of the Year) award in 1976.
By 1977, Toyota coach Dante Silverio wanted to shake things and inject young blood into the team to try to break Crispa's six-conference dominance in the PBA.
Silverio elevated Legaspi, King and Pablo Javier from Crown Motors to Toyota midway through the 1977 season. Crispa already ruled the first two conferences and were on track for a second straight Grand Slam title.
But Toyota returned with a vengeance in the PBA Invitational, reaching the Finals and sweeping the visiting Emtex Sacronels, 3-0. The Sacronels were comprised of members of the Brazilian national squad, including legendary player Oscar Schmidt.
"Kinuha kami ni coach Dante Silverio kasi feeling ko nun, gusto na niya magpalit ng players, kasi there was a time, nung Crispa, (1976 All-Filipino) best-of-five (Finals) pa nun, naka-dalawang panalo na sila (Toyota) tapos natatluhan pa sila ng Crispa. So yun na ang naging turning point," recalled Legaspi during a conversation with An Eternity of Basketball on Friday.
Although the 1978 PBA season saw Toyota acquire a pair of superstars in Florencio and Estoy Estrada from the disbanded 7-Up side, Legaspi managed to shine in the Tamaraws' star-studded roster.
But the 66-year-old Legaspi admitted that at first, he thought he'd lose playing time when Florencio and Estrada arrived. Just a year before, Florencio showed how good of a scorer he was when he averaged 32.3 points per contest, including a 64-point explosion during the 1977 Open Conference.
"Nung dumating sa amin sila Danny Florencio, nabasa ko sa isang writeup, 'What will happen to Emer with Florencio and Estoy around?' Kasi nga no. 1 forwards ng bansa yang dalawa eh. Magagaling na players yung dalawa kaya na-ano din ako, made-dehado na ako sa pasukan," shared Legaspi.
However, his fears subsided when Silverio continued to give him generous playing time, enabling Legaspi to produce double-figure numbers for a Toyota quintet that already had Jaworski, Fernandez, Arnaiz and Florencio on the roster.
"Tuloy-tuloy pa rin ang pasok niya sa akin hanggang makapasok kami sa Finals sa All-Filipino," recounted Legaspi. "Nakasama pa ako sa double figures (scoring) lagi laban sa Filmanbank. At sabi ni Osbok (their nickname for Silverio), 'Emer, ang laro mo is above par.' Tapos ginawa niya di pa tapos ang kontrata ko nun, tinaasan niya sweldo ko kaya nagpapasalamat naman ako kasi kahit nandun sina Danny at Estoy, nakakalaro pa rin ako maganda," he added.
Interestingly, Legaspi developed a special bond with Florencio, the player he idolized in college. In fact, he credited Florencio for helping him acquire a new Toyota vehicle.
"Nung pumasok ako sa Toyota, wala pa akong kotse. Nung time din na yun, yung humingi ng kotse para sa akin si Danny kasi mahiyain ako. So sabi niya, 'Agrabyado ka Emer, ibang rookie diyan nabigyan ng kotse,'" he recalled.
Florencio accompanied him to the house of Toyota executive vice president Pablo Carlos in Greenhills, San Juan.
"Sabi niya (Florencio to Carlos), 'Sir, may problema ho itong si Emer.' May kotse din naman ako na bigay ng Toyota na second hand pero nasisira lagi, tumitirik. And sabi niya (Carlos), 'Walang problema, bigyan natin ng bago,'" Legaspi recalled with fondness. "Di ako nun makapaniwala, eh kotse napakamahal na bagay at ang bigay sa akin Toyota SR na pula."
That special moment, coupled by the time they spent on and off the court, eventually forged a friendship that would last till Florencio's death in February 2018.
After Florencio called it quits at the close of his PBA career in 1983, he eventually decided to start a new life in the United States.
Their friendship though remained as they regularly corresponded.
"Nung matapos ang playing career niya, nasa US siya. Nagsusulatan kami kasi mahilig siya magsulat," Legaspi said of the late Florencio, who would go on to become the first "Skywalker" of the PBA because of his hang-time moves.
"Kaya lang matampuhin. Kapag na-delay ka magsulat nagtatampo," he said, laughing.
Florencio even expressed his displeasure when Legaspi failed to mention him among the great players that he played with at Toyota.
"Nung maging guest ako sa TV nung Holy Week, yung 'Seven Last Words', di ba may testimony part dun? Nagse-share ako ng buhay ko, at nabanggit ko nun kasama kong mga greatest players sa Toyota, sina Jaworski, Arnaiz at Fernandez. So nung magkita kami dito, sabi niya sa akin, 'Pambihira ka, tayo ang dikit tapos di mo man lang ako nabanggit?'" Legaspi recounted.
Aside from Florencio, Legaspi shared that Abe King was another close buddy of his.
"Si Abe King, siya ang pinakamatagal kong kasama. From Crown Motors hanggang mag-disband ang Toyota," he said. "Si Abe, matulungin na tao iyan maski sabihin mo na brusko sa court," he said. "Nung nawalan ako ng trabaho after kong magretiro, siya nagsusuporta sa akin. Kaya malaki utang na loob ko sa kanya."
Legaspi won a total of seven PBA titles while being part of the Toyota franchise till it disbanded in 1983.
Basic Holdings Inc. bought the Toyota franchise by 1983 and joined the pro league under the banner of Beer Hausen. He stayed with the team before eventually retiring in 1985 after seeing his playing time go significantly down.
Although he admitted getting depressed somewhat after seeing his PBA career cut short, Legaspi eventually built a duplex house out of his savings and rented it out.
That proved to be a blessing for Legaspi, who found a new lease on life outside pro basketball. He eventually joined the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) where he worked for 32 years.
Legaspi's eight-and-a-half-season PBA career saw him average 7.3 points in 323 total games.