A conversation involving Robert "Sonny" Jaworski wouldn't be complete without talking about Ramon Fernandez.
You see, both Filipino basketball legends won a total of nine PBA championships during their time together with the great Toyota franchise from 1975 to 1983.
Jaworski and Fernandez were also teammates on the victorious Philippine men's basketball side that reclaimed the ABC (now FIBA Asia Cup) men's basketball crown here in Manila after posting a clean 10-game sweep.
While both cage luminaries celebrated PBA championships during their time with Toyota, 1982 marked the year when the Jaworski-Fernandez partnership showed signs of cracking that led to a bitter feud that would hang over the PBA landscape for the rest of the decade.
Fernandez had previously said the much-publicized feud with Jaworski was due to what he described as a "misconception". But on Tuesday's episode of An Eternity of Basketball, the four-time MVP finally shared the inside story on how his professional relationship with the "Big J" became strained.
"We won two championships that year (1982). And so ito namang kaibigan natin kasing sportswriter, si Jimmy Cantor, I think he is the sports editor ng Malaya now, timing naman na towards the end of December 1982, he dropped by our practice at San Agustin Recoletos (in Makati). He was interviewing me and one of his questions was, he asked me about my opinion about Sonny," Fernandez recounted.
The 66-year-old Fernandez said that year, Jaworski was nursing a recurring groin injury, which forced him to miss a lot of games.
Fernandez remembered that Cantor showed up one time in Toyota's practice in December to ask for his opinion on what an aging Jaworski should do at that point of his PBA career.
"He asked, 'Mon, if you were Sonny Jaworski, with his condition, what would you do?'
"Sabi ko, honestly taking it from a player's point of view, considering his age, just my personal opinion, he has nothing to prove anymore. He has played for the national team, served in his country well and played so many games. He has proven what he can do with the sport," he added.
"I just didn't know how bad his injury was and if he could get back to it so isa sa mga options ko siguro is to retire, and puwede naman siya mag-coach or mag- team manager. There's life after basketball naman eh. Hindi naman iyan the end," Fernandez said in remembering the answer he gave to Cantor during the interview.
The current PSC commissioner believes his opinion wasn't taken well by Jaworski. And he felt it didn't help that local media covering the PBA beat started hailing him as the team's "new leader" with Jaworski sidelined by a nagging injury.
"I guess di masyado nagustuhan ni Sonny yung sinabi ko and that started the whole thing," explained Fernandez. "And especially that time the press already had write-ups, because of the performance of Toyota that year, wala masyado siya (Jaworski) dun, pine-praise nila ako as the new leader, so all sorts of things. Actually those are the only reasons I can think of."
A quick look at Jaworski's stats reveal that he averaged just 10.4 points, 4.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds, all PBA career-lows since serving as a pioneer player for the team in 1975.
Fernandez did admit that what he told Cantor in the interview may not necessarily mean he was completely correct.
"That was just my personal opinion. I can be right, I can be wrong. That was my personal take on his current state at that specific time," shared the PBA all-time great who would go to win a record-breaking 19 league championships won in 20 seasons played.
Birth of a new rivalry
While Fernandez and Jaworski spearheaded Toyota's long-standing rivalry with Crispa during the PBA's first 10 seasons, the departure of the Super Corollas by 1984 left a gaping hole in the pro league's bid to sustain their gains heading to the 11th season.
Asia Brewery owned by Lucio Tan bought the Toyota franchise. The problem was, Jaworski refused to join the new franchise, which in the 1984 PBA season would be known as Beer Hausen.
Francis Arnaiz joined Jaworski as the long-time backcourt duo signed up with Gilbey's Gin under coach Turo Valenzona.
With Fernandez and Jaworski now playing on opposing teams, media feasted on the former Toyota stars' brewing feud. Fans of the former Toyota squad were split as some followed Fernandez at Beer Hausen while the rest went to root for Jaworski, who began a new PBA career with the Honeyboy Palanca-owned Gilbey's Gin.
Fernandez had a breakout year in 1984, winning his second PBA Most Valuable Player award, registering over 20 triple-double performances and more importantly, leading his Beer Hausen to a runner-up finish in the Second All-Filipino Conference after bowing to Great Taste via a three-game sweep.
Jaworski also started a new life with Gilbey's Gin, helping his new team to a runner-up finish during the First All-Filipino Conference where they lost to the Crispa Redmanizers.
The individual rivalry though between Fernandez and Jaworski reached fever pitch in the 1986 season when their respective teams both reached the All-Filipino Conference finals.
Fernandez was now playing for Tanduay, while Jaworski had been installed as playing coach for Ginebra the season before. It was a dream best-of-five match-up, and media and fans alike feasted on the first Fernandez-Jaworski finals meeting since both parted ways after their Toyota days.
"There is always added motivation in situations like that (when Tanduay faced Jaworski and Ginebra that time). We want to prove that our team is much better," recounted Fernandez. "And because a rivalry was already brewing up, nag-develop na ang rivalry nuon ng Ginebra at saka Tanduay."
The Maasin, Leyte standout remembered how the legions of fans from Ginebra and Tanduay would fight at the ULTRA in Pasig.
"Makita mo even sa fans, yung gulo dun sa ULTRA at that time, hindi players ang naga-away kundi fans sa itaas (bleacher's section) nagsasaksakan," he said.
"And there was that extra push in both of the teams to win over the other kasi siyempre you want to prove you are better," added Fernandez.
While some say Fernandez predicted a three-game finals sweep, the "grudge" match somehow added fuel to an already brewing war in 1986. The championship series actually served as a fitting backdrop to the political drama that saw then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos ousted and forced to flee the country through the EDSA Revolution.
Ginebra though drew first blood in the title series, pulling off a 90-86 win behind Arnaiz's late-game heroics.
"I don't remember saying that (Tanduay sweep Ginebra in the series). But I guess it was made to perk up myself," Fernandez shared. "Not too many knew I was playing very injured during the championship series."
Fernandez recalled hurting his thigh muscle on his left leg after joining a 200-meter run in a mini-tournament at the ULTRA days before the start of the All-Filipino finals.
He sported a heavily-bandaged left leg in the opening game and practically played injured throughout the finals.
Fernandez though willed Tanduay to the championship, helping the Rhum Makers to a 3-1 series victory for the franchise's second straight title, moving within one crown from registering a grand slam in 1986.
"Nagkaroon ako ng muscle tear so that has to be heavily bandaged. I was hobbling when playing in the All-Filipino finals," he stressed.
"Good thing we still won the championship, otherwise, I would have blamed myself for what happened to myself."
The Rhum Makers though failed to complete their grand slam bid as Jaworski tapped the super import tandem of Billy Ray Bates and Michael Hackett, who went on to dominate the third conference. Ginebra defeated Manila Beer, 4-2 in the title series, for the franchise's first-ever championship and Jaworski's first outside of Toyota.
Breaking the ice
In 1989, the PBA rolled out the first-ever All-Star Game featuring the Rookies and Sophomores versus the Veterans.
Fernandez and Jaworski played on the Veterans team under legendary coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan, marking the first time the two PBA superstars played together since their Toyota days.
The inaugural All-Star Game turned out to be one memorable match as Jaworski and Fernandez joined forces on the last play to give the Veterans a 132-130 squeaker over their young rivals.
The "Living Legend" threw an inbound pass to the waiting hands of Fernandez, who coolly sank a difficult reverse layup at the buzzer after driving past Benjie Paras to complete the magical finish by the Veterans.
"I don't remember that as the last play na binigay ni Baby Dalupan. It just so happened na naiwasan ko si Benjie sa sideline kaya sa akin pinasa ni Sonny," Fernandez said.
Asked if he and Jaworski talked during their time on the Veterans team, Fernandez had a simple response: "Of course nagpapansinan. Civil, just like any regular teammate. But of course, without the chit-chat anymore."
In the midst of the Veterans' frenzied celebration on the court, Dalupan quickly took Fernandez and Jaworski and let them shake hands. The two PBA stars did shake their hands, an image that drew a tremendous roar from the crowd.
Fernandez said that handshake somehow "broke the animosity".
A year later, Fernandez was called upon to play in the 1990 Beijing Asian Games with Jaworski serving as the team's head coach. That year would mark the first time ever that a national team bannered by professional players would play in international competition.
The Philippine men's squad, which only practiced for two weeks, managed to take home the silver medal. It was somehow fitting that Fernandez, the team's most senior player, and Jaworski, the head coach, would end their feud by teaming up one last time to bring honor to the country.