Rene Canent's name may not ring a bell with today's PBA fans, but his contributions to the league as the first-ever Players Association president are immeasurable and are still being enjoyed by players to this day.
Chances are only PBA old-timers and true-blue Yco Painters or Tanduay Rhum Masters fans remember Canent, a five-foot-eight guard who played in the PBA's first six seasons and once starred for the Jose Rizal Heavy Bombers team that won back-to-back NCAA men's basketball crowns in 1963 and 1964.
Early playing days
Before becoming the voice of his peers in the pro league, Canent first made a name for himself at JRU. Like any aspiring young basketball player of his time, his dream was to play for the Yco Painters, a team that had a winning tradition thanks to the hardcourt exploits of Caloy "Great Difference" Loyzaga.
Considering his NCAA championship exploits, Canent was hopeful for at least a call-up from Yco. But as days turned into months, Canent admitted losing hope of being signed up.
"After that (back-to-back NCAA championships), all of us were waiting for the call (from Yco). I was already one of the players (who waited)," Canent shared in an interview with An Eternity of Basketball on Wednesday.
The waiting game dragged on for two months, leaving Canent thinking of joining another MICAA team. "I was hopeless already, (so I thought) I can (just) play for another MICAA team," said the 74-year-old.
But his patience was rewarded as two months later, Canent was approached by Egay Gomez, his fellow Heavy Bomber, who asked him if he was interested in trying out with the great MICAA squad.
Canent recounted that Loyzaga inquired of his availability from Gomez.
"'Egay, weren't you and Rene in the JRC team? Why don't you talk to him and invite him to practice with us and try out, let's see,'" Canent said in recalling Loyzaga's talk with Gomez.
Gomez was able to recruit his former teammate, who was quickly star-struck at his first Yco practice. "I was in awe because if you will see that team in 1966, you had the Olympians or Asian Gamers," naming the stars of his era like Ed Roque, Elias Tolentino, Sonny Reyes, Ed Ocampo, Eddie Pacheco, Robert "Sonny" Jaworski and Arturo Valenzona.
Jaworski's aura of invincibility
Canent only teamed up with Jaworski for one season. But during his brief stint with the man who would eventually be known by the moniker "The Big J", Canent already saw signs of greatness from the 21-year-old.
"If you play with Sonny Jaworski, you'll be confident. It's like 100 percent that you're going to win because he was young then, very strong, and he was the brain of the team even though he was young," Canent said.
Jaworski came to Yco with impeccable credentials, having starred for the University of the East Red Warriors that won the 1965 and 1966 UAAP seniors championships.
With Jaworski's key contributions, Yco ruled the National Seniors and National Invitational in 1967, even as the Big J collected a gold medal with the Philippine team that won the FIBA Asia men's tournament in Seoul, South Korea.
"When Sonny came, you feel you can win every game. That was probably the feeling of (Francis) Arnaiz, Mon Fernandez, (Arnie) Tuadles and Abe King when they played with him at Toyota)," he added.
'Playing with Jaworski gave you confidence'
Rene Canent was briefly teammates with Sonny Jaworski in the old MICAA, and he says it was an eye-opening experience.
Learning from the veterans
Canent admitted he never really developed into a star player with Yco. But he was proud of the fact that he was able to play for Loyzaga, considered the greatest Filipino basketball player in history.
"I'm always a team player. And in 1969, coach Caloy told me a (bit of) not-so-good news because Jaworski, (Danny) Florencio and (Jun) Papa left the team already. That was the year Jaworski left for Meralco, and Jun Papa went to Crispa and also, by 1969 wala na ang Ysmael Steel, so the players went to Mariwasa," recounted Canent.
"Coach Caloy asked me, 'Are you in shape?' So I told him, 'I'm always in shape, I'm always in practice'. So in the first game (of Yco) since the three left, he placed me in the first five. I said (to Loyzaga), 'Are you sure?' And he said, 'That's why I asked you if you're in shape,'" he added.
Canent, who was then playing under 10 minutes per contest, admitted getting butterflies in his stomach because of his new role under Loyzaga. But with the help of Valenzona, budding star Freddie Webb and the veteran Ocampo, Canent said he was able to develop the confidence he needed to thrive as a starter.
A major transition though occurred in 1969 when Loyzaga called it quits as Yco's head coach, paving the way for former many-time Filipino Olympian Felicisimo "Fely" Fajardo to come in.
Under Fajardo, who skippered the Philippine team that placed 12th in the 1948 London Olympics, Canent got the much-needed strategy as a ball carrier.
"Coach Fely Fajardo was one of the smartest coaches I knew. He was also the national coach back then. He had a lot of set plays and he asked me to be his point guard though at that time, wala pang term na point guard, court general pa," explained Canent.
Move to PBA
By the time the PBA began in 1975, Canent, once the youngest player in the Yco lineup, was now one of the senior members of the Painters, which would carry the Tanduay Distillers name in the pro league.
"Back then in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was the youngest player because we had the elders, or I would say, experienced players in the team," he shared. "But in 1975, I was shocked and surprised that Yco did not retain the services of the veteran players," said Canent, referring to the likes of Tolentino, Reyes, Ocampo, Valenzona and Gomez.
The Don Manolo Elizalde-owned Tanduay squad fielded a new and younger team that had Zito Bacon, David Cezar, Benjamin Cleofas, Ricardo Cleofas, Valerio Delos Santos, Joselito Eguia, Abet Gutierrez, Cesar Ijares, Horacio Moreno, Quirino Salazar, Marte Samson, David Supnet, Rey Vallejo and Canent.
Canent said his six-year PBA journey was never easy as the fledgling professional league saw Crispa and Toyota dominate early on. Tanduay's best showing was a runner-up finish during the 1978 PBA Invitational tourney when the team had imports Gene Moore and David Payne.
Canent eventually reunited with Loyzaga, who handled Tanduay from 1977 to 1979, though their PBA partnership never bore a championship.
"I remembered that in my six years, we were only competing for third place though in the 1978 Invitational, we had the chance to win the title. Unfortunately, Gene Moore, our import sprained his ankle," recalled the 5-foot-8 playmaker.
"But we had the attitude of winning. Coach Caloy injected to our brain that we have to win. He would tell us, 'You guys are good. You guys are experienced enough to win the championship,'" shared Canent.
"It's just tough luck that we needed maybe one or two more players because Crispa and Toyota were really strong teams."
Part of basketball history
Before retiring at the close of the 1980 season, Canent was elected the first president of the newly-formed PBA Players Association.
Players from both Crispa and Toyota gave him their vote of confidence, believing that with his stature, experience and the wisdom he had gained over the years, he would be able to push for the welfare of the PBA players.
While his first meetings with PBA commissioner Leo Prieto and founding president Domingo Itchon talked about players' fines, their discussion eventually progressed to topics that would be beneficial for the players' future.
"One of the bills that we cast in the 1970s is one where a son or daughter of a player who has played more than five years can go to school, with the school fees for free," Canent shared, basically saying that the Players Association would shoulder the tuition of one child of a former or current PBA player.
"We were the ones who initiated that, Leo Prieto and Doming Itchon. And I'm very proud to be part of that," he said with a smile. "Just imagine one of the player's kids getting free (tuition)."
Among the PBA players who were able to send one of their children to college free of charge because of this bill were Philip Cezar, Bert Dela Rosa, and Leo Paguntalan.
"And then I also suggested a clause that if that player is very, very smart, if the player played only six or seven years and he's smart enough to continue his studies, he can take his master's (degree). We had that signed," he added. Former PBA Players Association president Fritz Gaston availed of this and took up his MBA at the Asian Institute of Management.
Still balling in L.A.
By 1981, Canent, a year removed from a fruitful, six-year PBA career, began his life with his family in Los Angeles.
But since he was still a young 35-year-old, the itch to play remained. He joined a team in a Fil-American league in L.A. that won an astounding 92 straight games over a 10-year period.
"I'm proud that we had this team that won championship after championship after championship and at one point, we won 92 straight games. I think we broke UCLA's 88-game winning streak," beamed Canent.
The Fil-Am league covered cities in L.A., Carson and West Covina with Canent's team getting valuable contributions from former PBA players Totoy Gagan and Robinson "Ben" Obrique.
In the same Fil-Am league, Canent shared a humorous story about retired Ginebra star Rudy Distrito, whom they had invited as guest speaker during an event.
"He (Distrito) said very honestly, 'Don't be like me because I'm the dirtiest player in the PBA," Canent said in quoting Distrito, eliciting laughter from the AEOB hosts.
Canent, who now enjoys playing golf with his Los Angeles-based Filipino friends, retired with an average of 13.8 points in 224 games. But his legacy will always be the work he did for his fellow players as president of the Players Association.