Franz Pumaren talks about his respect for Sonny Jaworksi and how San Miguel could've won two Grand Slams

Franz Pumaren won nine titles with the San Miguel Beermen. Photo by Ernie Sarmiento

The Pumaren family name has always been synonymous to the sport of basketball in the Philippines.

When you trace back the Pumaren's roots in basketball, it would lead you back to the patriarch, Filomeno "Pilo" Pumaren.

Pilo Pumaren began his rise to prominence as a basketball player for the University of the East Red Warriors under legendary coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan during the 1960s. He eventually coached the Red Warriors in 1972.

Pilo Pumaren had three sons, who eventually followed his footsteps in basketball: Derrick, who played for UE in the seniors but was known more as a champion UAAP and PBA coach later; and Franz and Dindo, who enjoyed fruitful pro basketball stints and are now carving their own coaching names in collegiate basketball.

On An Eternity of Basketball on Friday, Franz Pumaren talked about his early years in basketball, how the game got ingrained in him and how he eventually made his own mark in the sport.

Boyhood idols

As a budding teenager who played for UE, Franz grew up watching Toyota's backcourt stars Robert "Sonny" Jaworski and Francis Arnaiz pit talent and skills against the Comets' hated rivals, Crispa Redmnanizers, during the early years of the PBA in the 1970s.

His father, Pilo, discovered Jaworski brought Jaworski to UE, but Franz grew up idolizing Arnaiz, the PBA's original "Mr. Clutch".

"My dad used to coach Crispa in the MICAA so automatically, ang affiliation namin was with Crispa. But my favorite (player) that time was Francis Arnaiz and Rey Franco, playing for Crispa then. Vivid lang memories ko about them, I know how they played," Pumaren said.

When Franz was recruited to play for La Salle, there were times that he played against Jaworski and Arnaiz in tuneup matches.

"When I was playing for La Salle sa college ball, we used to play against Toyota. Ganyan kami ka competitive, so we go up against Arnaiz and Jaworski, and kahit paano you have to pattern your game," shared Pumaren.

Franz said he was fortunate Jaworski was never rugged towards him during those tuneup games and when he finally started playing in the pros.

"Jaworski grew up in Pandacan because my dad was from there. He (Pilo) was the one who recommended Jaworski to coach Baby Dalupan," Franz shared.

Jaworski would go on to win two UAAP men's championships as a Red Warrior in 1965 and 1966.

"So if you try to look at history, me playing against Jaworski, I have so much respect kay Big J. Never niya ako hinampas ng malakas," he said. "Babanggain ako tapos pag nakita niya ako, smile lang sa akin. But never in my 13 years or during the time he was playing na hahampasin niya ako."

However, Franz admitted Jaworski's big, fighting heart was evident during their game against Ginebra's game in October 1985 when he was still part of the amateur squad Northern Consolidated Cement. Reinforced by naturalized player Jeff Moore and Dennis Still, NCC used its speed and shooting to take control of the game.

Franz admitted that Jaworski was already playing physical from the get-go against the likes of Moore. But an accidental elbow to the mouth by Moore busted Jaworski's upper lip, which forced the "Big J" to leave the game prematurely and head straight to a nearby hospital during the first half.

And then the unexpected happened, according to Pumaren.

"Grabe talaga yung tama ni Jaworski. He went out, went to Medical City kasi malapit sa Ultra eh. Then he went back to the game and we went up siguro mga 18 or 19 points in maybe last 7 minutes to go," Pumaren recounted. "It (Jaworski's return) was a big impact on their part kasi imagine mo unang drive ni Jeff Moore hinampas ni Jaworski kaagad. And after that kada layup, si Big J parang parting of the Red Sea," he said, referring to NCC defenders evading Jaworski.

With Jaworski's inspiration and courage, Ginebra came back from a huge double-digit deficit to pull off a narrow victory over a stunned NCC side.

"You can feel the energy when he came back. Naka-bandage ang mouth niya. Nagsi-sigawan ang mga tao, 'Ja-wor-ski! Ja-wor-ski!'" he said.

That game according to many pundits, gave birth to Ginebra's "never-say-die" spirit.

National player

When American coach Ron Jacobs was brought in to handle the national basketball program beginning in 1981, one of his tasks was to watch college and commercial games.

"He's been watching mga college games and commercial games, and in one of the games, he was the one who mentioned right away to the late Henry Cojuango and my dad na, 'Who's that guy?'" Pumaren said, referring to the time Jacobs asked about him.

"Siyempre, Ron just arrived in Manila and he doesn't even know the surname of my dad. Pilo lang ang tawag niya, so when I was playing, he saw my potential," he added.

Franz recalled Jacobs saying he needed somebody as an extension and as a leader inside and outside the court: "I guess that's the reason I was able to join that program."

As a member of the NCC-backed national team, Pumaren forged strong relationships with future PBA stars like Hector Calma, Allan Caidic, Samboy Lim, Yves Dignadice and Tonichi Ytturi, among others.

Through the ups and downs of the national team, they were able to reach the pinnacle of national team success when the Philippines beat a strong American team to win the 1985 William Jones Cup in Taipei. The NCC-national squad also beat China in the gold medal round in the ABC men's championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to end the country's 12-year title drought in the Asian basketball circuit.

Although they were away from their families for a long stretch, Pumaren said the sacrifices were all worth it as the national team brought pride and glory back to the Philippines. The Asian championship also gave the Philippines a ticket to the FIBA World Championships in Spain in July 1986. Unfortunately, the People Power Revolution in February 1986 that toppled then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos terminated the national program prematurely.

"The only frustration we had was nagkaroon ng EDSA Revolution. We were supposed to represent Asia e, sayang yun," he said.

By regaining Asian glory, Pumaren said the Philippines somehow trailblazed the tapping of naturalized players. Still and Moore, in fact, were brought in at the beginning of the national cage program by Jacobs in 1981.

PBA career

After serving the national team for several years, Franz Pumaren moved up to the PBA as one of the eight NCC players to join the returning Magnolia side during the 1986 Third Conference.

The PBA was no strange ground anymore for Pumaren, having won a pro league title with NCC when the team completed a four-game sweep of Manila Beer in the 1985 Reinforced Conference. For Pumaren, he admitted he was fortunate to play at a time when the league was enjoying huge popularity.

"During that time when we joined the PBA, yung official batch namin, mga 1986-87 to probably early 1990s, that was the height of the popularity of the PBA," shared Pumaren, whose pro career ended in 1998 with the Mobiline Cellulars.

When Magnolia changed its name to San Miguel Beer at the start of the 1987, the fortunes of the squad started to change as well. The Beermen then had veteran star center Abet Guidaben leading the way.

With Guidaben in MVP form, the Beermen reached the semis during the Open and All-Filipino Conferences, before finally nailing a championship when they won the Reinforced Conference title behind Bobby Parks.

"With Abet Guidaben, in fairness, sinasabi nila may konting tantrums daw siya, but (the coaching staff) were able to manage him," Pumaren said of Guidaben who closed the 1987 season by winning his second MVP award.

The Beermen management, though, went on to trade Guidaben during the offseason, bringing in Ramon Fernandez at the midway point of the 1988 season.

"It's just unfortunate, but that (trade) was the decision of coaches na better to trade him because they feel na better suited sa amin si Mon Fernandez," shared Pumaren.

As the 1988 season went on, the Beermen got stronger when they acquired one-time league MVP Ricardo Brown.

"For me, iba ang mindset namin," he stressed. "We're professionals. We need to win because every time you win, there's a corresponding bonus."

Brown, a deadly inside and outside scoring threat, added depth to an already solid San Miguel side that was ready to dominate the pro league for years.

"You have to understand na si Ricky, hindi laging point guard ang laro niyan. Minsan nagsasabay sila ni Hector, so it's a welcome experience for me," he said. "I play against him every day in practice."

A chance at a double Grand Slam

San Miguel Beer reached the pinnacle of success in the 1989 season when coach Norman Black piloted the franchise to a Grand Slam finish.

But Pumaren said the Beermen could have won a second Grand Slam if not for an import change in 1992. San Miguel replaced Derrick Chievous during the semifinals of the 1992 First Conference.

"When he was our import, I think we won 12 straight games or 13 straight, but it came to a point na medyo nag-tantrums na siya and he doesn't want to practice," recalled Pumaren. "I got along with him. Kasundo ko yan. And he brought us basically to the finals. But if na-manage siya ng maayos, we could have won the Grand Slam."

Pumaren said San Miguel could have won the First Conference title with Chievous around. But the American was replaced by Ricky Calloway, who could only help the Beermen to a runner-up finish after bowing to Shell, led by Parks, in the finals.

"Kaya ko sinabi na we could have won that (First Conference) with Chievous was because he was really above the competition with regard to imports," he said.

The Beermen came back strong to win the All-Filipino Conference, but by the Third Conference, Black, who originally had Tony Harris as his first import option, elected to bring in Jay Taylor, who after just four games, was sent home and replaced by Kenny Travis. San Miguel only lasted until the semifinals.

Harris ended up playing for the Swift Mighty Meaties, whom he led to the 1992 Third Conference championship.

"First game namin against Swift during the warm-ups, Tony Harris stood in front of Norman and told him, 'You didn't get me. Watch me score 50 points,'" shared Pumaren.

Harris backed up his words with action, dropping a record-setting 105 points on October 10, 1992 against Ginebra in Iloilo City. His single-game scoring effort remains a record in the pro league to this day as it shattered the previous high of 103 points set by Michael Hackett in 1985.

For Pumaren, if Chievous only played true and consistent, and if Black tapped Harris in the season-ending conference, he felt the Beermen would have been the second PBA team to win two Grand Slams.

Retirement and coaching

The gruelling 13 seasons of banging and grinding in the pro league eventually caught up with Pumaren. He won nine league titles as a Beerman, before moving over to play for Mobiline from 1997 to 1998 after Black was tapped to handle the Cellulars.

During the twilight of his PBA career, Pumaren said he felt he could have played a few more years since he still received an offer to play for Sta. Lucia Realty when his contract with Mobiline expired.

"If I wanted to, I could have extended my career kasi after Mobiline in-offeran pa ako ng Sta. Lucia. But every time I wake up, there was the same routine again. Then may nagging injuries na rin so I thought it was time for me to retire," he explained. "When I get irritated na din, napipikon ako sa younger guys, so I felt it was time to look for another career."

Shortly after quitting basketball as a player, he went on to venture into coaching with older brother Derrick serving as La Salle's consultant in the UAAP. Their partnership bore fruit as the Green Archers won four straight UAAP men's basketball titles from 1998 to 2001.

In the 2002 season, Pumaren's fifth straight UAAP title aspirations came to an end when La Salle lost to Ateneo in the finals. Pumaren, though, was able to win a fifth UAAP crown with La Salle in 2007 season.

Currently, Pumaren handles the Adamson Falcons, whom he led to three straight UAAP Final Four appearances from 2016 to 2018.