Aside from winning 15 league championships, PBA legend Philip Cezar's reputation as a tough defensive player was what set him apart from many of his contemporaries in the pro league.
Standing just under six-foot-three, Cezar was considered "tall" for his time, long before locals standing above 6-5 became a regular occurrence in the PBA. He played the power forward position during his decorated 17-season professional career, but could also bring up the ball and run the floor like a guard.
The former standout from Jose Rizal College (now Jose Rizal University), who was the league's original "Tapal King", sowed terror in the hearts of opposing players with his shot-blocking prowess.
By the time he retired in 1991, Cezar was just one of two players in league history, the other being Ramon Fernandez, to have accumulated at least 12,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 1,000 shot blocks.
Cezar admitted that since his collegiate days at JRC, playing relaxed basketball was never in his system.
"Kami kapag naglaro, talagang laro, wala yung palakad-lakad, pa simple-simple," Cezar said in a conversation on An Eternity of Basketball on Friday.
"Sa akin kasi, yung kalaban ko pinaga-aralan ko yan. Nung unang taon ko pa lang sa PBA pinag-aralan ko na, paano mag-shoot yung player, paano kumilos, paano maglayup," he added.
Cezar said blocking the shots of opposing players was already part of his game because of his desire to make a mark as a defensive player.
"Kapag hinabol ko yan (attempted shot), kapag lokal, alam ko na yan, huli ko na basta mabigyan ako ng tamang dadaanan ko, babalik yung bola," he said with confidence.
Cezar popularized the "umbrella defense", using both of his arms to cover a player who would try to go for a layup.
"Umbrella defense? Kusa lang yan. Kasi kapag isang kamay lang (when he goes for a block), dumudulas eh pero kapag dalawang kamay di dumudulas ang bola," explained Cezar on what eventually became his trademark defensive move.
His defensive style though sometimes came at a price.
"Eh yung kaka-umbrella umbrella ko na yan, yung import na si (James) Cornelius (import of Mariwasa), diyan nabagok ang ulo ko sa kanya kasi under the goal, titira siya," shared Cezar.
Although he managed to block Cornelius, the stocky Mariwasa import's sheer strength overpowered Cezar, who dropped hard on the floor, hitting his head first.
"So pag-blangka ko ng dalawang kamay, hindi ko naalis so binuhat niya ako. Tapos plakda ako at una ang ulo," he recounted. "Hilo ako eh although hindi naman ako dinala sa ospital."
While Cezar was a mean defensive player inside the court, he admitted playing the unenviable role of a chaperone for imports during his 10-season stint with the legendary Crispa Redmanizers.
But among the many imports that came to play for Crispa, Cezar said nobody beat Billy Ray Bates.
The flamboyant import came to the Philippines in 1983, carrying with him impressive credentials after stints with the Portland Trailblazers and the Los Angeles Lakers. He was tapped to lead Crispa's drive to dominance in the 1983 season after a fruitless campaign the year before.
The Redmanizers were on target right in the season-opening conference after winning the All-Filipino conference via a 3-0 Finals sweep of Gilbey's Gin.
Bates was then taken in by Manotoc as Crispa began preparing for the Reinforced All-Filipino Conference. From the first day of practice, Bates demonstrated his immense talent, according to the 68-year-old Cezar.
"Nung nakita ko iyan (Bates), sabi ko sa sarili ko, player ito, magaling ito. Ang lakas tumalon tapos ang lakas ng katawan," Cezar said, in describing Bates, who earned the moniker "Black Superman" when he first played in the PBA.
Cezar said every die-hard PBA fan for sure will remember Bates, who led Crispa to the franchise's second Grand Slam title in 1983.
In 1986, Bates teamed up with high-scoring Michael Hackett to lead Ginebra to the Open Conference championship.
"Iba ang dating, sobrang galing," he said. "Napanuod niyo siya against Great Taste nung import siya ng Crispa. Napanuod niyo rin siya nung sa Ginebra. Eh wala na sigurong makakakuha ng ganyang kagaling na import."
Off the court though, Cezar shared that Bates also had a legendary reputation.
"Mas madalas ko siya kasama kaysa mga kasama ko nuon kasi iyun ang papel ko sa buhay eh, samahan yung mga import," explained the 1980 PBA Most Valuable Player.
Back in the days when discos were popular, Cezar said Bates would bring him along to the hottest nightspots.
"Si Billy eh happy-go-lucky talaga yan eh. Basta kung san niya gusto pumunta, dun ang punta niya," he recalled.
Even his own car wasn't spared one time.
"Iyung kotse ko, binunggo niyan. Ginamit niya tapos siningit niya sa dalawang sasakyan kasi ayaw raw siya paraanin sa Dewey Boulevard (Roxas Boulevard today). Sobrang makulit, kung ano maisip niya, gagawin niya," added Cezar.
Cezar won his first 13 PBA titles with Crispa from 1975 to 1984. Crispa bagged its 13th and final PBA crown in the First All-Filipino Conference in 1984, before disbanding and selling its franchise to Shell.
Cezar, along with Bernie Fabiosa, Arturo Cristobal and Willie Pearson, originally joined Shell. But the new franchise traded Pearson to Great Taste in exchange for three-time MVP William Adornado.
The seven-time Mythical First Team member said he was proud of the fact that they were able to reach the championship series in the 1985 All-Filipino conference despite playing with six rookies.
The Bugbusters, however, bowed to the Ricardo Brown-led Coffee Makers, 3-1 in the title series.
"Nakakapagtaka eh, kami lang ni Bernard (Fabiosa), saka Bai (coming from Crispa) tapos anim ang rookies namin pero nakapaglaro pa kami sa finals ng All-Filipino. Yun na ang pinakamabigat na achievement namin," beamed Cezar.
Two years later, Cezar and Fabiosa were acquired by Great Taste, reuniting him with his former Crispa coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan and buddy Atoy Co. It also meant he was now teammates with long-time Toyota nemesis Abe King.
Cezar said he and King played physical against each other during their Crispa-Toyota days. But he had nothing but respect for the rugged King.
"Pag kami kasi ni Abe, akala kasi nung ibang tao, nagtitirahan kami niyan. May time nung mga early part pa, pero nung kala-gitnaan na ng Crispa-Toyota (rivalry), hindi na kasi kung mapapansin mo, sinasalo ako niyan ng balikat niya," Cezar said laughing, as he referred to a PBA photo of him and King during a mad rebound scramble.
Still, Cezar described King as a bullstrong player.
"Malakas siya na bata. Parang bull na kapag pinakawalan mo, ang lakas," Cezar said, in remembering King's exploits.
But he found King to be erratic at times on offense.
"Kaya lang siyempre nung time namin na magkalaban pa kami, di rin siya nagi-isip kung paano niya bibitawan ang bola o kung kelan niya iri-release or ititira. Kapag guwardiya ko siya, nahuhuli ko siya," he added.
The two teamed up in a fearsome frontcourt to lead Great Taste Coffee to a 3-0 sweep of Hills Bros. in the 1987 All-Filipino Conference Finals. It was Cezar's 14th PBA title.
Joining the Living Legend
When his two-year contract with Great taste expired at the end of the 1988 season, Añejo Rhum assistant coach Rino Salazar got in touch with him.
"Tinawagan ako ni Rino Salazar, sabi niya, 'Pare, may team ka pa ba?' Sabi ko, 'Wala na, tinanggal na ako sa Great Taste, maghahanap pa,'" Cezar said, in recalling his initial conversation with Salazar. "'Gusto mo maglaro dito sa amin? Kasi gusto ka makausap ni coach Sonny,'" he continued, in summing up how he managed to move over and play for Sonny Jaworski, his hardcourt nemesis-turned-teammate-coach.
In 1989, Cezar inked a three-year deal with Añejo and eventually won what would turn out to be his 15th and last PBA championship as a player when the Rhum Masters bagged the 1991 First Conference crown.
That team became the first in pro league history to come back from a 1-3 Finals deficit, winning its last three games to beat Shell behind Rudy Distrito's dramatic last-second short stab in Game 7.
"Mas eager itong team na ito eh. Mas may puso itong team namin na ito compared mo sa iba," Cezar said, in describing the 1991 Ginebra team that had Chito Loyzaga, Distrito, Leo Isaac, Jayvee Gayoso and Dante Gonzalgo in the roster.
At the end of that season, Cezar officially called it quits but stayed on as one of Jaworski's assistant coaches till 1998.
Cezar believes that when both Crispa and Toyota disbanded, all the bad blood between the players from both legendary teams died with it.
"Wala na (bad blood), sa tingin ko ha. Kasi nung na-disband yung Crispa, wala na eh, sa tingin ko, wala na lahat eh. Sa kuwentuhan na lang siya nagkakaroon," Cesar observed.
"Eh siyempre kapag nagkuwento ako medyo mayabang ako ng konti pero ni di nga kami nagkakuwentuhan ni Sonny kung paano kami sa Crispa at paano sila sa Toyota," he added.
When Cezar left Ginebra, he eventually coached the San Juan Knights in the fledgling Metropolitan Basketball Association, leading the team co-owned by Jinggoy Estrada and businessman Sandy Javier to the national title in 2000.
Outside coaching, Cezar was elected vice mayor of San Juan in 2001 and 12 years later, served as head of the Manila Sports Council under then Manila mayor Joseph Estrada.
A member of the 25 Greatest PBA players, Cezar's PBA career saw him finish sixth all-time in the scoring list with 12,077 points, behind Mon Fernandez, Abet Guidaben, Alvin Patrimonio, Co and Nelson Asaytono.
The defensive-minded Cezar is also the fifth all-time best rebounder in league history with 5,834 total boards, and second in shot blocks with 1,370.