Former PBA player Steve Watson said playing alongside Robert "Sonny" Jaworski was a privilege.
One would think that a 39-year-old Jaworski, who in 1985 was in his first season as playing-coach of Ginebra, was practically riding out the sunset of what had already been a great professional basketball career. By the 1985 season, Jaworski already won nine PBA championships, was named the 1978 PBA MVP and played in the finals 10 times since serving as a pioneer member of the league in 1975. During his first 10 years in the pro league, he starred for the fabled Toyota squad.
But when Toyota disbanded at the end of 1983, Jaworski ended up playing for Gilbey's Gin (now Ginebra) as the thirst for more championships was hard to resist.
On October 22, 1985, Ginebra faced a young and hungry Northern Consolidated Cement, comprised of the national squad that had naturalized players Jeff Moore and Dennis Still as its reinforcements.
NCC took control early in the first quarter, using its speed, shooting and energy to outgun Ginebra. Making matters worse, Jaworski caught a wayward elbow from Moore during a rebound play. The accidental elbow left a big cut on Jaworski's upper lip, forcing him to leave the game prematurely with still under five minutes left in the second period. He was brought to the nearby Medical City, where he he received close to 10 stitches on his busted lip.
With Jaworski out, NCC erected leads of as many as 15 points. But Ginebra fought back, especially when Jaworski returned late in the third quarter.
"That's the psychological advantage Sonny can bring in. His fan base really idolizes him," Watson said in an interview with An Eternity of Basketball on Friday.
"When he entered the venue (at the Ultra), the crowd went nuts. Of course, the players from NCC were young so when he came in to the game, they were shocked."
Down by only six heading into the final canto, Jaworski sparked Ginebra's fourth-quarter rally, including a three-point play that put his team ahead, 89-86. In the end, Jaworski himself sealed the outcome with a driving layup to complete Ginebra's masterful comeback and give birth to the team's never-say-die spirit.
The 6-foot-2 Watson noted that Jaworski's comeback following that bad cut on his lip was a "Willis Reed moment", referring to the legendary New York star center's inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the NBA finals despite playing with a badly-injured leg against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"The crowd went nuts. It was like a championship between the Lakers and New York. Everyone was asking, 'Will Willis Reed play or not?' We know Willis Reed came in and played a few minutes and the crowd went wild. And then when he went back to the bench, the Lakers were already demoralized. That's exactly what happened to Ginebra," Watson shared.
"The guy (Jaworski) really likes the sport. He really gets to his teammates and celebrates."
Watson likened Jaworski to the Lakers' legendary point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who starred in LA's "Showtime era" during the 1980s.
"He was the ultimate point guard. He was the Magic Johnson of the Philippines," Watson said. "He could change the game, change the pace, make it fast. It was hard to really match up with him because he was much bigger than most other guards during his time."
'U/Tex has disbanded!'
Steve Watson was traveling around Europe when he got a telegram from a teammate urging him to come home because he didn't have a PBA team anymore.
Watson was not a known bruising player during his six-season PBA career, but he did remember the time when Rey Lazaro, then playing for Shell, got physical with him one game.
"What happened to me and Rey was really funny. Rey gets me with his elbow and he gets injured. He gets out of the game so I wasn't able to get back at him which really pissed me off because that whole game we were getting at each other," said Watson.
His Ginebra teammate, Joey Marquez, then gave him idea.
"Joey Marquez will deny this but he had an idea. e told me to get back at Rey when we join the 2-on-2 game. So I waited for the right moment," he said. "During one play, Rey thought I was going to drive to the basket so I tried to throw the ball to his face, but I missed. So I said to myself, 'Wow, I wasn't able to get back at him again,'" he said.
Watson, known as the PBA's "Bandana kid", ended up in a scuffle with Lazaro.
"The funny thing about our incident was we were throwing punches but nothing really landed. And again, I wasn't able to get my revenge so I was really frustrated," shared Watson.
When the action shifted to the dressing room, nearly everyone was holding on to Lazaro in an effort to stop the bruising forward from getting back at Watson. And Watson said he saw this as his golden chance to finally hit Lazaro.
"I really thought I had a free hand to punch him since everyone was trying to pin him at the dressing room, but I missed again," said Watson, laughing about his numerous missed attempts. "And I happened to hit Bai Crisotbal."
Asked what he'll do if he sees Lazaro in the future, Watson said: "I will hug him."
How Steve Watson became 'The Bandana Kid'
Steve Watson, who was known for his flamboyant bandanas during his PBA career, tells the AEOB crew how he got into the habit of wearing them.
Grateful for Narvasa and Dalupan
Knowing he learned to play the game as a late bloomer, Watson looked back with a grateful heart after being mentored by Chito Narvasa and Pons Valdez during their time at Ateneo.
Narvasa later on became a coach in the PBA, handling Purefoods and Shell, before serving briefly as the pro league's commissioner.
"These two guys took me in. And they taught me how to play so that as my first year in the NCAA progressed, I improved," recalled Watson.
But he also thanked the late legendary coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan, who handled the Blue Eagles during the late 1970s. Watson described Dalupan as a man of few words, but got things done by instilling discipline.
"He was such a frail person, but when he walks in before practice, and the players are noisy, while everybody was having a good time, suddenly, when he walks in, everybody keeps quiet. You can just feel his presence. He had a presence that everyone respected," explained Watson, who played 260 career games for PBA teams U-Tex, Ginebra, Great Taste and Tanduay from 1982 to 1987.
As one of the rare high school players during his time to be admitted to play in the Ateneo seniors team, Watson worked extra harder under Dalupan.
"It was just chasing a dream because there's nothing like winning a championship in the seniors level when you're in the NCAA at that time," he said. "But I guess I knew my place. It was a struggle at first to adjust."
"They (Ateneo senior players) immediately put me in my place and I accepted my role. But it didn't stop the hunger because I really wanted the championship badly. And I supposed Dalupan liked me so I got to see a lot of playing time," he added.
Before turning pro, Watson won back-to-back NCAA men's basketball titles with Ateneo in 1975 and 1976. He was also named the 1976 NCAA MVP, while earning a spot on the Philippine team that played in the 1978 FIBA World championships in Manila.