Catching up with Añejo legend Dante Gonzalgo, PBA's original Iron Man

Dante Gonzalgo was a mainstay of the famed Ginebra/Añejo teams of the late 80s to early 90s. Ernie Sarmiento

Dante Gonzalgo was known as a bruising defender while playing for the Ginebra/Añejo franchise from 1986 to 1993 under playing coach Robert "Sonny" Jaworski.

As a defensive player, the 6-foot-2 Gonzalgo used his solid frame to limit, if not stop, some of the PBA's top scorers, imports and locals alike. For the former Lyceum star, the physical nature of the game was just part of basketball.

In fact, during his first two years as a pro while playing for Gold Eagle, part of his "initiation rites" as a youngster was to literally be at the receiving end of "hits" from the PBA veterans like Jaworski.

"Kahit si Jawo, kulang na lang di ka makahinga. Tinitiis ko na lang, pero nasanay na lang katawan ko," Gonzalgo said in describing an instance when he got hit by Jaworski as a rookie with Gold Eagle in 1984.

In his conversation with An Eternity of Basketball on Tuesday, Gonzalgo admitted playing in the pro league that was littered with physical players was an eye-opener.

Although he was already forewarned by some of his teammates in the amateurs just before he moved up to the pros, Gonzalgo said he simply needed to learn how to adapt to the nature of the game.

"Kapag nakasabayan mo ang mga (PBA) superstars, sa una kakabahan ka pa. Pero pag pinawisan ka na, laban na," he stressed, when asked what he felt facing PBA pioneers like Atoy Co, Ramon Fernandez, Abe King during his rookie year.

Gonzalgo quickly established himself as a rugged player, who gamely gave up a hard foul to someone driving in for a layup, regardless if he was a local or an import.

The 62-year-old Gonzalgo explained that playing in the PBA during his time required steely nerves, along with reporting for duty each game in good shape.

"Eh dapat kundisyon ka, hindi lulugo lugo ka sa laro," he shared. So sa depensa pag in-appoint sa akin ang import, ginagawa ko lang ang aking makakaya."

Gonzalgo was the PBA's original Iron Man whose 280 straight games played from 1987 to 1991 was the league record before Alvin Patrimonio eventually surpassed it.

As Jaworski's trusted import-stopper, Gonzalgo had the unenviable task of guarding some of the PBA's finest American reinforcements during his time.

But Gonzalgo said no one was more difficult to defend than Tony Harris, nicknamed "Hurricane".

"Ang pinaka-mahirap pa naman depensahan eh mga imports kasi pagkatapos ng laro, dun sumasakit katawan ko," Gonzalgo said matter-of-factly.

"Pero nahirapan din ako kay Hurricane kasi adjust ka ng adjust kay Harris. Hindi mo puwedeng iwanan kasi titirahan ka," recalled Gonzalgo, whose one unforgettable moment included was being on the other side of history when Harris dropped a PBA all-time record 105 points in Swift's 151-147 win over Ginebra in Iloilo City in October 1992.

Gonzalgo admitted that Harris' many moves and dribbling wizardry made it really difficult for him to be stopped.

"Kapag nilapitan mo naman papasukan ka. Lalo na kapag may kakampi pa siya na marunong mag-screen, ikaw ang mahihirapan, iwan ka na," he added.

True enough, Harris proved unstoppable, leading Swift to the franchise's first-ever PBA title when the Mighty Meaties swept 7-Up, 4-0 in the finals

First championship

When the Gold Eagle/Magnolia franchise decided to take a leave of absence in 1986, Jaworski took the opportunity to sign up Gonzalgo and teammate Joey Loyzaga.

Gonzalgo remembered the strong camaraderie the Ginebra team of 1986 had leading to their PBA Open Conference championship, the franchise's first in the league.

Leading the way were the explosive import combo of Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates.

Gonzalgo spoke highly of Bates' superb conditioning, this despite the fact that he'd often come into the game after late-night partying.

"Super yan eh kahit na palaruin mo yang nakainom. Ibang klase katawan niyan. Mahilig yan sa hard," Gonzales said, in describing Bates, whose first PBA foray saw him lead Crispa to the Grand Slam championship in 1983.

With big and strong hands, Gonzalgo said it was impossible to bat the ball away from the "Black Superman" when he would go hard for a driving layup or when he soared past a defender for a rim-rattling dunk.

"Pag nag-drive yan, kahit paluin mo ang bola sa kamay niya, hindi mo ma-ano ang bola," he said.

Gonzalgo also has high respect for the 6-foot-5 Hackett, the first PBA player to score over 100 points in a game.

"Iyan naman si Hackett, talagang bilib ka rin sa kanya. Yung tira niya, rebound niya. Eh di naman mataas tumalon, so kung saan tatama ang bola, alam niya san din kukunin," he added.

Shining moment

Although Gonzalgo will always be remembered for making life difficult for scorers, he was also known for his barreling layups and three-point shooting.

One such encounter die-hard Ginebra fans won't ever forget happened on April 5, 1990 when the franchise, then known as Añejo Rum played a crucial semifinal match against powerhouse San Miguel Beer.

Leading by two points with six seconds left in the game, SMB had a chance to ice the game when Yves Digandice was sent to the line off Gonzalgo's foul. But Dignadice missed his first attempt, before deliberately missing the second.

Añejo import Sylvester Gray collared the rebound, then quickly threw the ball to Rey Cuenco, who then passed it to the waiting hands of Gonzalgo.

With time ticking away, Gonzalgo had a chance to either go for a layup to try to send the game into overtime, or win it all from beyond the arc.

But seeing SMB playing coach Norman Black guarding the paint, Gonzalgo launched a three-point shot, which hit the bottom of the net just as time expired, sealing Anejo's 123-122 win and sending its legions of fans into a frenzy.

"Iyan ang di ko makalimutan dahil minsan lang ako makapanalo ng ganun," Gonzalgo said. "Nung pinasa kasi sa akin ni Cuenco, konti na lang oras nun so baka ma-ano sa akin. Akala ko nga maabutan ng supalpal sa likod ko. Buti una ko na-release."

Añejo managed to reach the PBA Finals in the First Conference behind the high-scoring Gray. But the 65ers eventually lost to Formula Shell, 4-2, in the title series that ended with Añejo's controversial walkout in Game 6.

That season also saw Gonzalgo average 17 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 55 games while playing an average of 36.1 minutes.

Call of duty

Given his ability to defend and his no-fear approach to the game, Gonzalgo was one of three Añejo players to make the final cut for the first all-pro national team that Jaworski handled in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, China.

That experience marked Gonzalgo's return to the national team for the first time since donning the Philippine team jersey in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, India and the national squad in the 1983 Southeast Asian Games in Singapore.

With less than three weeks of preparation, the PBA-backed national squad managed to bring home a silver medal, losing to China in the gold medal match, 90-76.

Gonzalgo said with a star-studded squad that also included scorers like Allan Caidic and Samboy Lim, he was happy to come off the bench and provide quality minutes.

"Kung kukunin ka para sa depensa, depensa lang. Okay lang sa akin kung anong oras ang bibigay sa akin, iniisip ko lang ang makatulong sa team," Gonzalgo said.

Following the Asian Games, Gonzalgo bagged his last PBA championship in the 1991 First Conference when the team, now known again as Ginebra, overcame a 1-3 deficit in the finals to shock Formula Shell behind Rudy Distrito's Game 7 heroics. He had one last stab at glory in the PBA when his team reached the finals in the Third Conference behind former LA Lakers guard Wes Matthews. But Ginebra eventually lost to Alaska, 3-1, in the best-of-five title series.

From there, the Ginebra franchise began its decline as age started to catch up on Jaworski's core from the 1980s.

Gonzalgo admitted that at the close of the 1993 season, he underwent surgery on both feet for bone spurs. The injury forced him to retire for good after playing for 10 PBA seasons.

"Nag-retire na ako kasi di ba naoperahan ako sa paa? Iyung dalawang paa naoperahan dahil sa bone spurs kung tawagin kaya pagka-opera sa akin eksakto natapos din kontrata ko," he recalled. "Kaya di na rin ako na-renew, decision ng management."

A few years later though, he tried mounting a comeback in the Philippine Basketball League, but the pain on his foot lingered, leaving him with no choice to but to leave the game for good.

Gonzalgo is now based in home province of Sorsogon. He has long retired from the PBA, but his heart, hustle and his ability to live up to Ginebra's never-say-die attitude will forever be remembered by its fans.