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How Cho Sison, 1981 PBA Rookie of the Year, prepared for life after basketball

Basketball fans and players alike can learn tons of life lessons from Rafael "Cho" Sison, the 1981 PBA Rookie of the Year.

While his name may no longer ring a bell, players who care to listen to his off-the-court stories will surely realize that there's more to life than just playing basketball.

In a recent interview on An Eternity of Basketball, Sison, who turned 65 on October 9, admitted he was blessed to have a father who pushed him to pursue a career outside basketball.

His dad also played basketball during his younger years. But when World War II erupted, the elder Sison had to join the Philippine military to defend the country from foreign invaders.

Basketball ran in the blood though as several of Sison's brothers also engaged in the sport.

Cho Sison was an avid fan of the legendary Yco Painters, idolizing some of the ballclub's famous stars like Freddie Webb, Rene Canent and Sonny Reyes. He also spoke highly of the late Filipino Olympian Rogelio "Tembong" Melencio, who earned a reputation as a tough defensive player during his heyday.

'Get your degree'

Taking up secondary education at Ateneo de Davao, Cho Sison was glad to be part of the school's history after helping the high school varsity squad win the 1973 Davao Collegiate Athletic Association title for the first time ever.

From there, he moved up and played for the Ateneo de Davao collegiate squad where he excelled as a wingman, capturing the eyes of scouts whenever Manila-based squads would fly to Davao to play several exhibition games.

Sison admitted that as a 19-year-old collegiate player, he felt good when several MICAA teams saw his potential and asked him to play in Manila.

As a young player who dreamed of paying big-time basketball in the big city, Sison talked about the offers that came his way in an effort to convince his father to let him move to Manila.

"When Manila teams came to Davao to do exhibition (games), I played for the Davao all-stars. I was very, very young then, 18 or 19, and I got offers from Manila teams," Sison said.

"I wanted to play already. I went and talked to my dad. May offer sa akin sa Villar Records. ITM was also offering me this. But my dad refused (to let me play),'" he recalled.

His father refused to give him his blessing, knowing fully well that earning a college degree has long-term benefits compared to just playing basketball for several years.

After much discussion, his father ended the conversation by telling him this: "'Finish your schooling in Ateneo because I want to see you march. After you march at Ateneo, then you can do whatever you want with your life,'" Sison said, remembering what his dad told him.

While playing in national inter-collegiate tournaments, Sison eventually crossed paths with future PBA stars like Lim Eng Beng of La Salle, Ateneo stalwarts Padim Israel, Steve Watson and Fritz Gaston, whom Sison described as a wily guard during his time.

"When I moved to Manila, I was a bit shocked because Manila players were bigger, taller and they were really intelligent in basketball compared to how we do it in Davao," Sison shared candidly.

Dealing with quicker, stronger and taller players, Sison said he had to adjust his game for nearly a year, realizing that what he did in Davao was not necessarily effective against players from Manila.

"It was almost a year of adjustment for me. The players were very quick with their movements, dribbled well and ran fast," said Sison, who spent his short three-year PBA stint with Presto/Great Taste. "I thought I was already a superstar in basketball, but when I came to Manila, I was biting the dust."

Upon earning a management degree, Sison pursued his basketball dream in Manila, beginning with Crown Motors, Toyota's farm team in the MICAA.

While playing under the watchful eyes of Nat Canson, Sison slowly shifted from playing small forward to learning to play the guard positions.

After much time spent playing against seasoned former college players, Sison started to grow in confidence, thanks to Canson.

"The confidence he gives you, Nat (influenced me) in my formative years in playing in Manila, the discipline. He likes molding the players, raw players who play under him," explained Sison.

Still, Sison initially came off the bench, as he served as backup to Mon Cruz or Bokyo Lauchengco with Crown Motors.

"I was the third forward in the team so I get the chance to play if they get into foul trouble or if the coach Nat Canson chooses to rest them on the bench," he said.

Playing for Crown Motors though brought him closer to his boyhood basketball idols like Robert Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez and Francis Arnaiz, all stars of the legendary Toyota squad. Since Crown Motors and Toyota practiced in the same gym, Sison was happy to share the court with the superstars.

"Initially (I was in awe) especially when somebody from the province who wants to play big-time basketball experiences this for the first time," shared Sison.

"These are the people I idolized. I even have a poster with the Coke advertisement where the basketball stars like Atoy Co, Mon Fernandez were there. That poster was hung in my room in Davao."

"So when I reached the PBA, it just dawned on me that I was already guarding them, though deep inside, you also want to prove something."

Jump to the pros

When the family of Dante Silverio decided to disband Crown Motors in 1980, Sison, along with Joey Marquez, Joel Banal and Manny Victorino moved over to play for rival MICAA team Presto.

As a bunch of eager beaver players out to prove they could play in the big league, Sison said they got their chance to play against the PBA Presto quintet several times at the old Dumlao gym on Shaw Boulevard.

"At that time, Mr. Ignacio Gotao (team manager) would say, 'Why don't we let them (MICAA and PBA Presto teams) play in a tune-up game?'" he said. "'Siyempre kabado kami nun kasi MICAA pa lang kami. But we knew we can handle them even though they had (Israel) Catacutan, Johnny Revilla and Rey Franco in the team."

In the first few tune-up games, Sison said they got beaten by 10 points or more. But in time, the gap narrowed until such time they were able to finally beat the veteran-laden Presto squad in the PBA.

Gotao eventually decided to shake up the roster and infuse young blood into Presto, a doormat squad in the PBA during those times. Sison, Banal, Victorino and Marquez moved up to the pros from there.

Prior to this, Presto/Great Taste won just 14 games during the 1980 season.

"Presto gave us a very good offer, good by standards that time. I was paid P15,000 a month which was already high during that time. PBA stars back then were getting P18,000 to P19,000 a month," he recalled.

Before signing his rookie contract of three years, Sison said he split his time working at BPI and playing for his MICAA team.

"When the offer came, without thinking, well, you earn just P1,000 at BPI and then you get P15,000 in the PBA. It was a no-brainer. So I told my dad, I'll just play basketball first," he said with a smile.

Playing in the PBA though came with a price as he had to deal with rugged veterans.

"We all know Johnny (Revilla), every time he moves, you get hit in the face," he said. "One time, I told him, 'Johnny, dahan dahan naman, kinakalyo na mukha ko kababalya mo.'"

The changing of the guard though was inevitable and in time, Revilla and the other veterans learned to play and co-exist with Sison, Banal and Victorino.

Sison was a known mid-range shooter, had a knack for finding an open teammate and hustled well on defense, too.

His PBA experience though wouldn't be complete without getting a "welcome to the pros" greeting from Tanduay tough guy Victor Sanchez.

"It was a fastbreak play. I was going full speed and I took off a little past the free throw line and suddenly, he hit me. I don't know how that happened but when I opened my eyes, I saw myself sprawling at the end of the cushion seat of the bench," Sison said with a laugh.

Sanchez's Tanduay teammate Mike Bilbao though came to Sison to check on him during that tense, physical moment.

"Mike Bilbao's father Jesus stood up and went to me, 'Cho, how are you?' He's a very nice guy. But I said, 'That's how life is.'"

Memorable moments

Sison said his rookie season in 1981 was a memorable one, not just because his PBA dream came to fruition, but also because Presto coach Jimmy Mariano brought the best out of him.

"Coach Jimmy Mariano trusted me so much and when the coach trusts you, parang fluid eh. You just play your game and you'll be fine already," he said.

"During one time in a timeout, he was putting confidence in the players. And with seconds to go and our opponent was leading by one point, he looked at me and said, 'Cho, what do you like to do?'" he shared.

"As a rookie, that's wow, really nice! He wouldn't really dictate though we know he has the final say. But the mere fact that he asks for your insight is huge and that gives me the confidence."

In the 1981 Reinforced Filipino Conference, Presto hired the services of high-scoring Lew Massey from North Carolina State as its import.

A second-round NBA draft pick of the LA Lakers in the 1978 rookie draft, Massey helped Presto reached the semis in a rare playoffs appearance.

The Massey-led Presto side engaged in a playoff with Crispa for the second and last slot for the Finals. The Fun Drinks lost that one, 114-119, bungling their chance of reaching the PBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

"He was a scoring machine," Sison said of Massey, who went by the nickname "Sweet Lew."

"On offense, when he's got the hot hand, I tend to skew towards him. And I remember during a time, he told me, 'Cho, would you like to give me some time to rest?'" Sison said, bursting into laughter.

By playing with consistency and intensity, Sison got a handsome reward when he was named the 1981 PBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 31.3 minutes. He also 50 percent from the floor and 83 percent from the charity stripe.

Reality bites

Coming off an excellent rookie season, Sison was poised to have a breakout sophomore year for Presto, which changed its name to N-Rich.

The team quickly sped off to a 13-5 win-loss record in the elims, booked a quarterfinal seat and was just a win away from clinching a final berth.

Engaging Toyota in a do-or-die match for the last finals berth, N-Rich had all the chances to finally make history for the franchise.

But N-Rich failed to make the most of its chance after bowing to Toyota, 114-97. The loss also saw Sison go down with a gruesome knee injury that would signal what would be the beginning of the end of his career.

"It was the game against Toyota as to who will go to championship when I twisted my knee at 360-degree without my foot moving. When I was brought to Delos Santos hospital, I told myself, it was a very painful injury. I was moved out on a stretcher," Sison recounted.

"As they were icing my knee, I thought to myself that this is the end of my career in basketball. And then, I remembered my dad because he used to tell me, if you get injured, your career is over," he added.

The career-ending injury somehow gave him a platform to share to aspiring basketball players in Davao to make education their priority.

"I was glad my dad pushed me hard to pursue studies. And that's something I always share," he stressed. "When I was manager at CityTrust banking, I always do that because when I got injured, I had a basketball clinic and one of the things I did aside from teaching kids dribbling, passing is, 'don't forget your studies.'"

Sison continued: "There are things you don't understand when you're small but as you grow older, you begin to realize your parents were correct."

Playing in an era where knee injuries took a longer period of time to recover, Sison missed the entire third season of his PBA career.

By then, Sison explored a career outside basketball, traveling to the US with his brother and staying there for several months. But then, when he felt like things wouldn't work out, he decided to continue pursuing his career in banking in the Philippines.

Sison did try to make a comeback in 1986 with Great Taste under Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan.

"After I came back from US, people were saying, 'Why don't you come back?'" he recalled.

Upon his return to Great Taste four years after hurting his knee, he did sign a season-long contract. But having to deal with a painful knee after every practice, Sison took a careful analysis of his career some four months into his comeback.

"It was serious everyday practice, but my knee just couldn't stand it because practice wasn't always about basketball. We had to jog for 30 to 45 minutes early in the morning. We had to lift weights so I felt I couldn't perform at an optimum level anymore," he explained.

In the end, Sison elected not to finish his one-season stint with Great Taste, opting to retire for good.

Sison's PBA career may not have ended the way he imagined it. Yet, the life lessons prepared him for a successful post-basketball career in the banking industry.

The 6-foot-1 Sison played a total of 71 games in his PBA career, averaging 10.9 points in three seasons.