Basketball fans who know the PBA's history are well aware of Ramon Fernandez's 19 championships and four MVP trophies collected during his 20-year professional career.
But not everyone may know that Fernandez also went through troubled times during his brief stint with Purefoods when the new team on the block bought the Tanduay franchise heading into the 1988 season.
During Fernandez's lengthy conversation on An Eternity of Basketball, he shared what took place at Purefoods and how he ended up with San Miguel Beer after just two conferences.
After winning three PBA titles in two seasons, Tanduay sold its franchise to Purefoods in 1988. Top management of the Ayala company headed by its chairman and president Rene Buhain asked Fernandez to serve as the new franchise's playing coach in what was seen as a bid to rival the league's only other playing coach at the time, Robert Jaworski.
But Fernandez bared his relationship with Buhain started off on the wrong foot.
"Nag-umpisa kami ni Rene Buhain ng maling umpisa," Fernandez said with all candor. "When we negotiated, he wanted me to be the playing coach. We were neighbors sa Ayala Alabang and so I had a meeting with him in his house. He literally convinced me to be the playing coach."
"Pumayag ako and I said, 'Okay, I'm leaving for Baguio tonight.' That (meeting was a) Friday morning and I'd be back Sunday evening because he wanted to call a press conference early Monday morning so I said, 'I'll be there,'" recalled Fernandez.
Fernandez said he wanted to bring in former Tanduay teammate Ely Capacio as his assistant, to which Buhain agreed.
But when the press conference came that Monday, Fernandez said he was caught by surprise when Buhain suddenly announced that Cris Calilan would also be an assistant coach. "I wasn't informed," he recalled.
Fernandez admitted he let it pass, so long as Buhain followed his earlier request to have Capacio serve as his assistant coach.
Purefoods got the services of David Thirdkill, the high-scoring former Boston Celtic who led Tanduay to the 1987 PBA Open Conference crown. The Hotdogs ended up runners-up behind San Miguel Beer, but Fernandez admitted trouble began brewing between him and Buhain.
"Every time matalo ka ng game, aabutin kami 30 minutes to one hour sa dugout. Kakausapin niya (Buhain) ako, tapos tuturuan at pagsasabihan niya ako," Fernandez shared.
"I said, 'Look, Mr. Buhain, don't judge me now on a per game basis. Let's first finish the tournament or the year. If you're not happy with what I'm doing, then let me know.' But that went on and on and on and so sa second conference in the All-Filipino, it was same thing," he recalled.
Fernandez said he was logging heavy minutes, and had to think of ways to help his team win, while still having to deal with Buhain's meddling.
"I was playing coach at that time and that was kinda hard. I was playing so many minutes and mahirap," he admitted. "Nakiki-alam siya sa substitution so si Cris Calilan, papadalhan niya ng papel, tapos sasabihin niya na palitan si ganito, o palitan si ganyan."
That proved to be the last straw for Fernandez, who decided to resign as coach to concentrate on playing, saying the situation had affected the way he was playing due to the increasing pressure.
Still, despite the hurdles, Purefoods managed to reach the All-Filipino finals where they faced Jaworski-led Añejo Rum 65.
Fernandez fired 13 points in Game 1, but the Hotdogs dropped a 111-105 decision to the Rum Masters.
Then things started going sideways. Fernandez was curiously benched beginning in Game 2, putting the rookie team at a disadvantage against Añejo, which went on to take the title series, 3-1.
Fernandez shared lengthily what transpired when he was benched, which paved the way for him to land at San Miguel.
"After the first game (of the Finals), unfortunately natalo kami. That was the disadvantage of us not being competitive for one week kaya natalo kami nung first game," explained Fernandez, who was referring to Purefoods booking the Finals seat a week ahead of Añejo.
"After that hindi na niya (Buhain) ako pinalaro. Eh tamang tama naman naka-abang na si (San Miguel team executive) Mr. Nono Ibazeta kasi nung naga-away kami (ni Buhain), I filed a case against him and all that," shared Fernandez, the PBA's first four-time MVP.
"Si Nono naman panay naman ang tawag sa akin, 'Mon, huwag ka na maingay, tahimik ka na lang diyan.' Kinausap na niya si Buhain and I guess he was successful. Hindi na lang ako umimik," he added.
"It was a blessing in disguise, may rason din talaga ang Diyos and it was a complete turnaround sa career ko because San Miguel was the one that got me in Cebu, and I went back to San Miguel, a complete comeback and homecoming in effect," recalled Fernandez with a smile.
Mon on Abet: 'We knew each other like the palm of our hand'
Mon Fernandez talks about his great rival Abet Guidaben, with whom he shared many battles in the paint during the 1970s and 1980s.
Shortly after the All-Filipino finals, Fernandez was traded for rival Abet Guidaben, putting him in a sweet spot considering that the Beermen were loaded and brimming with confidence. He and Guidaben first swapped teams in 1985 when Fernandez was still with Beer Hausen/Manila Beer and the latter was still with Tanduay.
While he was coming in with glowing credentials, Fernandez felt he was merely helping San Miguel in any way he could. He said the Beermen were already a complete package under playing coach Norman Black.
"It wasn't hard for me to adjust kasi ako lang ang nag-adjust sa kanila (Beermen)," shared Fernandez, who won the MVP in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988. "I'm sure they also had little adjustments with me, but it's (just) more of how the game is played with me around. They were a complete team already."
Fernandez said that SMB was so loaded, the joke at that time was even one of their ball boys could coach the team to a championship.
The good times started pouring in as well in the 1989 season as San Miguel management implemented a generous bonus scheme, awarding players and coaches with a month's worth of salary for every milestone they achieved.
"So the whole year of 1989, can you imagine? Umabot ng 36 months effectively ang sweldo namin. That's on the major bonuses on our monthly at di pa kasali dun yung per game sa elimination round, per game sa quarterfinals, per game sa semifinals, per-game sa finals. Iba pa yun sa advances," recalled Fernandez.
"Biruan nga namin four months (bonus) na naman ito o three months na naman ito," he said with a big smile. "Pero intact ang team, ang ganda ng samahan and we had respect for each other."
Denied a fifth MVP
As San Miguel went on to become the second PBA team after Crispa to win the Grand Slam in the 1989 season, the only thing that eluded Fernandez was a then-record fifth MVP trophy.
Fernandez remembered he was no. 1 in the MVP derby after leading the statistical race in the 1989 season owing to SMB's championship run.
But a familiar personality, he said, may have contributed to his eventual failure to win the MVP.
"Sa 1989 naman, I think I was ahead sa stats, and sa player's votes. I think no. 2 dun might have been Alvin (Patrimonio) at naalala ko pang third si (Benjie) Paras," Fernandez recounted.
"Kasi ginawa ni Rene Buhain, yung mga Purefoods players pinaboto niya kay Benjie at hindi kay Alvin, kaya ang sama ng loob ni Alvin," he alleged.
"Of course nakuha din nila (referring to Paras' camp) ang votes ng media because it was our friend (the late) Ronnie Nathanielsz who was handling (the career of) Benjie and was campaigning for Benjie," Fernandez shared matter-of-factly. "Ang line niya nuon, 'Di na mauulit ito, na history-making.' So he (Nathanielsz) was able to convince the press to vote for Benjie."
Fernandez was resigned to that fact, saying, "That's how the cookie crumbles at times. We just had to move on."
Thus, Paras went on to make history by winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP in the 1989 season.
While being denied a personal individual record was painful, Fernandez said he simply had to remind himself of his goal back when he was just starting his basketball career: "Okay lang yun. Ang ambition ko lang naman nuon is makalaro sa national team so championships and awards sa PBA, icing on the cake na lang yun."
Fernandez's PBA career had its ups and downs. But history will show that the pride of Maasin, Leyte contributed a lot to the development of pro basketball, a reason why he was named to the 25 Greatest Players in 2000, along with the 40 greatest players in 2015.
Aside from doing his share to bring honor and pride for the country in international basketball, Fernandez finished his PBA career with 18,996 points to become the league's all-time scoring leader.
The current PSC commissioner also retired as the PBA's all-time leader in rebounds, blocked shots, free throws made, and playing minutes, while ranking second all-time in assists, games played and steals in a career that saw him play for Toyota, Manila Beer, Tanduay, Purefoods and San Miguel.