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Elmer Reyes, longtime national team member and 7-time PBA champion, looks back on storied career

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Who's the best Pumaren (1:03)

Former PBA star Elmer Reyes, who played with all three Pumaren brothers at time or another, discusses which brother was the best in his eyes. (1:03)

Never in Elmer Reyes' wildest dreams did he imagine that a career in basketball would take him traveling to so many countries. But when you commit yourself to the national team for six years, as Reyes did, good things happen.

As a greenhorn college basketball player, who won back-to-back NCAA men's championships with the San Beda Red Lions, Reyes took the chance to improve on his craft by joining the national training team in 1980.

But before donning the national colors, Reyes played for Presto in the MICAA shortly after San Beda's title conquests in the collegiate ranks. His Red Lion teammate Joey Loyzaga joined him as they played under Presto coach Jimmy Mariano, a former Olympian.

Mariano already saw the potential of Reyes, then a 21-year-old player, and the Presto coach tried to convince him to turn pro already. This was before the PBA Rookie Draft got institutionalized, and amateur players could sign with any team that wanted them.

But in a twist of fate, a staff member of American coach Ron Jacobs approached him one time and invited him to join the national team. Jacobs was brought in from the US by businessman and ambassador Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco to oversee a basketball program that would enable the country to regain its once lofty billing as king of Asian basketball.

"Nabalitaan ko na kinukuha ako ni Ron Jacobs. So may kumausap sa akin na papalaruin ako sa NCC (corporate sponsor of the national team). Yun yung nung panahon na naglalaro ako sa sa San Beda, so sinabi ko kanya (Mariano), 'Coach, di muna ako magpi-PBA, gusto ko muna mag national team,'" Reyes said in a conversation with An Eternity of Basketball. "Kasi gusto niya ako paakyatin na next (PBA) conference since wala namang drafting."

Although the initial batch of the national training team was composed of mostly candidates for naturalization, Reyes said he was just happy to be the last man in the program. That batch included former San Beda stars JB Yango and Frankie Lim, Mapua's Joel Banal, along with Manny Victorino, Bokyo Lauchengco, Itoy Esguerra and Ricky Relosa to name a few.

Jacobs the drillmaster

Reyes recalled that national team practices never went beyond two hours. But Jacobs was a tough, tough drillmaster, who would squeeze every ounce of strength from members of the national pool in his effort to bring the best out of them.

"Grabe ang practice, disiplina talaga. Sa early morning, pag-start ng practice walang stretching, pero pag start na halimbawa ng ensayo ng 8 a.m, kailangan naka stretching ka na. Tuluy-tuloy na yun, three lines na," shared Reyes, who was known for his sidestep move.

"So tuluy-tuloy na yun hanggang matapos. Tapos pag scrimmage kami, 1 to 10 lang (score), pero grabe ang depensa. Talagang di ka papahawakin ng bola, para kang naglaro ng isang quarter. Ganun magpa-ensayo si Ron Jacobs," he added.

With a team led by naturalized players Jeff Moore and Dennis Still, the national squad, carrying the Northern Cement brand, ruled the 1981 William Jones Cup. The championship though wasn't widely accepted due to the heavy presence of foreign players in the team.

Still, Reyes, having seen how everyone worked hard in practice, never really questioned the move, knowing their time as locals would come. True enough, Reyes got his chances to wear the Philippine team jersey.

With Pilo Pumaren appointed by Jacobs as national coach, Reyes earned a spot in the Philippine team, joining Lim, Relosa, Teddy Alfarero, Ed Cordero, Franz Pumaren, Wilton Roxas, Toya Rojales, John Copada, Esguerra and Lauchengco in the 1981 Manila Southeast Games.

The Philippines dropped a narrow one-point decision to defending champion Malaysia in the preliminary round, but managed to blitz the opposition from there.

The Filipinos, playing before a solid local crowd at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, clobbered the Malaysians in the gold medal round to regain the SEA Games men's title.

The following year, the bigger challenge was to wrest the Asian Youth championship crown against powerhouse China. Reyes remembered Jacobs drilled them on their defensive play, knowing that the Chinese would be flaunting their size and shooting.

"Sa umpisa pa lang may preparation na kami, so yung set namin pina-practice talaga namin, lalo na yung defense," he stressed.

Jacobs also worked on their stamina, making the players run for 20 seconds or below at the tailend of practice, which local players called the "suicide" drill.

"Kapag di mo nakuha yun, balik ka uli sa umpisa. Eh biruin mo pagod na pagod ka na, tapos magti-three lines ka ng 20 seconds or below. So gagawin mo yun ma pagod na kayo, tapos yun pa ang pinakahuli niya sa ensayo," he added. "Kaya pag-uwi namin lupaypay talaga kami."

Still, all their hard work paid off handsomely when the Philippine youth team completed a 10-game sweep of the Asian Youth championships at the Araneta Coliseum.

The Filipinos swept the group stage, then defeated Japan and Malaysia in the final round, before manhandling China, 74-63, to capture the gold before a jampacked crowd at the Big Dome.

Budding national team career

In the 1983 SEA Games edition, Reyes was tapped once more to represent the Philippines as the team flew to Singapore to defend its basketball crown. Three other remnants of the Philippine youth team from 1982 joined Reyes, namely Alfarero, Alfie Almario and playmaker Hector Calma.

The Philippines, mentored by Larry Albano, scored a five-game sweep of the tournament. But that year, Reyes said the national team also participated in various overseas tournaments that enabled them to play in Guam, Kuwait and Bahrain.

During the 1984 season, the Northern Consolidated team joined the PBA for the first time as a guest squad. For Reyes, the experience was surreal as he finally had a chance to pit skills with his PBA idols as well.

"Kaya kami sinali diyan para masanay kami sa physical game," he said. "Pero mga idol mo, respeto din, especially Bogs Adornado, ibang klase shooting niya kasi mga pinapanood mo lang dati sa college, then pagdating ng PBA, nakalaban mo na."

Playing in the PBA wouldn't be a complete experience without getting a "welcome hit" by the PBA veterans. However, Reyes said he wasn't really afraid getting roughed up physically by the veterans.

"Nabantayan ko si (Sonny) Jaworski, physical pero at least lumalaban naman tayo," shared Reyes. "Sa PBA kasi pag ikaw kilala ka, at pag ikaw tinitira at di ka lumaban, paglalaruan ka. Pero kapag lumaban ka, ilag din sila."

NCC reached the semifinals in the First and Second All-Filipino Conferences during the 1984 season.

The NCC-backed national team ruled the 1984 Asian Basketball Club championship in Ipoh, Malaysia, thus earning the right to represent the Asian region in the 1985 World Cup for Champion Clubs at Girona, Spain.

Bannered once more by its naturalized players, the Philippine squad registered a 10-game tournament sweep in Malaysia, including a victory over a Chinese club to win the championship.

Actually, Reyes said 1985 was a busy year as the team played and successfully defended the SEA Games basketball crown in Bangkok, Thailand.

Months earlier, the team, then supported by San Miguel, captured the William Jones Cup where they defeated an American squad that had future NBA players Harold Pressley of Villanova, Kenny Gattison of Old Dominion, Joe Wolf of North Carolina and Kevin Henderson of California State at Fullerton.

Arthur "Chip" Engelland fired 43 points for the Philippines, while Samboy Lim and Allan Caidic also contributed their fair share in shocking the US squad, 108-100, in overtime.

NCC then went back to the local scene, joining the 1985 PBA Reinforced Conference. After figuring in the middle of the standings in the elimination round, NCC played true to form in the quarterfinals and semifinals, before nosing out Great Taste in a playoff for the last Finals slot to arrange a title duel with Manila Beer.

NCC then used it shooting, speed and cohesion to score a four-game Finals sweep of the Francoise Wise-led Manila Beer.

The Philippine team capped 1985 with a six-game sweep of the FIBA Asia men's title (formerly ABC men's championship) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That championship marked the end of a 12-year Asian basketball title drought, since the Philippines last won it in the 1973 edition in Manila.

The national program though came to a halt early in 1986 when the People Power Revolution erupted, an event that saddened Reyes and the rest of the national players.

For one, the chance to represent the Philippines to the FIBA World championships (now World Cup) in Spain was scrapped completely.

With the national cage program abruptly coming to a halt, players that played under Jacobs eventually moved up to the pro ranks.

"Sayang nga eh, nawala yung plano kasi supposed to be kung tuloy-tuloy plano siguro sa 1986 eh di pa kami magpi-PBA, at qualify pa kami (in the World Cup)," Reyes said with a tone of regret.

Reyes played one last time for the national team, this time handled by coach Joe Lipa, which settled for a bronze medal in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Allan Caidic was called for a controversial offensive foul in the dying seconds that allowed the host Koreans to escape with the win in the semifinals. China went on to win the Asian Games gold while South Korea settled for the silver. The Philippines slipped past Jordan, 83-81, to win what the media would dub "the Golden Bronze".

MORE: Before lighting it up in the PBA, Allan Caidic had a storied amateur career

After serving the national team for over five years, Reyes decided to finally move up to the pro ranks as he became one of eight players from the fabled Northern Consolidated (NCC) quintet to join the comebacking Magnolia side. Other members of the NCC team included Samboy Lim, Hector Calma, Yves Dignadice, Franz Pumaren, Pido Jarencio, Alfie Almario and Tonichi Yturri, all part of the national team that won the ABC championship in Kuala Lumpur earlier that year.

PBA career

A proven winner since his amateur days with San Beda and national team, Reyes carried his winning mentality to the pros, where he played a vital role in San Miguel's six PBA titles from 1987 to 1989.

That three-season span included winning the 1989 Grand Slam crown, the year that saw Reyes serve as part of coach Norman Black's starting five where he averaged 12.5 points per contest.

But shortly after SMB's magical 1989 season run, Reyes puzzled everyone when he moved over to join expansion team Pop Cola during the offseason.

Reyes had his reasons.

"After ng Grand Slam, dapat di ako iri-release nun kasi sa three years contract ko (with San Miguel) may two years pa ako. Eh in-offeran ako ng RFM/Pop Cola so nagpaalam ako, pinayagan naman ako kaya ako napunta ng Pop Cola," explained Reyes

Reyes admitted that during the grand slam season, he was accused of point-shaving.

"May isang game kasi Grand Slam (season) na sinisisi ako na naghulog ng laro," he claimed. "Nung nag-practice kami nun, nagsu-shooting kami foul shots so nung patapos na kami, binato ko ang bola sa board tapos nagalit si Norman. Kinabukasan, si Norman nagkasakit, di siya nag-coach eh may laro kami nun, tapos di ako ginamit."

Reyes remembered vividly that Black's assistant Pilo Pumaren told him he wouldn't be playing, although he added he did apologize to Black after the game for his actions in practice.

"Sumunod na game kalaban namin ang Presto. May import dun na no. 1 sa NCAA, high-scoring, parang Little Julius ang tawag. Eh sabi sa akin gagamitin daw ako. So first quarter di ako ginamit. Second quarter di ako ginamit, tapos sa third quarter hindi din," he recalled.

"Nung last quarter, siguro mga last eight minutes, lamang ang Presto, pinasok ako sa loob. Nagdadalawang isip ako kung lalaro ba ako ng maigi o ano pero binuhos ko na lang sa laro, tapos binantayan ko yung import. Nanalo kami nun at ako ang gumawa ng last minute."

The import was Terrance Bailey, who led the US NCAA in scoring in 1985 with 29.4 points per game while playing for Wagner College. Reyes recalled that he was in tears while being interviewed after the game for being adjudged best player.

Still, the accusation of point-shaving somehow strained his relationship with the team, which became a turning point for him to just move on to another team.

Pop Cola sported a paltry 3-17 record during its first two conferences, before managing to reach the semis in the third and final conference of the 1990 season.

After just one season with Pop Cola, Reyes moved over to Purefoods where he played under legendary coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan.

With Reyes providing veteran help, Purefoods finally won the All-Filipino title after three straight runner-up finishes.

"Nung pumunta ako dun sa Purefoods, first time na nag-champion sila sa All-Filipino kasi ilang beses na rin na lagi sila sa Finals. So nung napunta ako, dun nag-champion na," he said.

Reyes' seven-year PBA career ended at the close of the 1992 season when he finally called it quits. But he insists internal politics made him retire.

"Dapat naman di pa ako magre-retire, na-pulitika lang ako," he added, without going into details.

If there's one thing he can be proud of, it's that his son Raphie Reyes followed his path to the PBA. The younger Reyes played for the UE Red Warriors in the UAAP, and went on to become Alaska's second-round pick during the 2012 PBA Rookie Draft.

He went on to play a total of four seasons in the PBA, including a two-year stint with Blackwater in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

"Ako naman dinala ko siya sa ibang school, pero okay lang sa akin na hindi sumunod basta makatapos ng paga-aral," the elder Reyes said of his son. "Pero hilig niya ang basketball, tapos nag-PBA na di ko expected. At least nakatapos siya ng pag-aaral."

Reyes played a total of 353 games in the PBA and went on to own a career average of 9.2 points. For his national team career, he won three SEA Games gold medals, an Asian Youth title, an ABC crown, an Asian club title, and an Asian Games bronze.

To this day, Reyes doesn't regret passing up that initial opportunity to join the PBA as a 21-year-old. "Iba pag nag-national team ka eh," he reasoned out. And besides, he added, those years playing under Jacobs made him a better player. "Yung training na nakuha ko kay Ron, ang laking bagay nun."