Gil Cortez, PBA's first Rookie of the Year, recalls fierce Toyota-Crispa rivalry in the 1970s

Former PBA big man Virgilio "Gil" Cortez only spent five seasons in the PBA, but he etches his name in the history books as the first-ever recipient of the pro league's Rookie of the Year.

Standing at six-foot-four, Cortez turned pro at the tender age of 18. He made his presence felt as a serviceable center and power forward who could shoot from the perimeter, play defense and provide solid rebounding for the Toyota Comets.

Though he had to follow the pecking order of Toyota's veteran-laden frontcourt led by Ramon Fernandez, Rodolfo "Ompong" Segura, and Fort Acuña, Cortez made sure he contributed the moment coach Dante Silverio called his number off the bench.

As someone who learned the rudiments of the game in his native province in Pampanga, Cortez admitted the tips and lessons he got from his illustrious Toyota teammates during his rookie season toughened him in his PBA career.

Rugged Toyota teammates

Cortez didn't need introduction anymore to Fernandez, who used to be his teammate in various "ligang labas" in Pampanga during the 1970s.

"In my transition to the PBA, I really had no problem as I took the spot vacated by Big Boy (Reynoso). They welcomed me, especially Mon Fernandez because he used to play for us with (then Pampanga) Gov. (Francisco) Nepomuceno. Mon used to be my teammate as he served as import in our league there in Pampanga," Cortez said in an interview with An Eternity of Basketball.

However, knowing that he was already playing at the highest level of competition in the country, Cortez had to remind himself that he'll have to toughen up or be shipped out of the star-studded Toyota squad.

"When I turned pro, I was very young. I was just 18 years old. So I told myself, 'Gil, it's either you fight back or you allow yourself to be intimidated by the veterans.' So somehow, my transition wasn't that difficult because I didn't back down," recalled Cortez, who now serves as one of the regional directors for Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas.

Toyota veterans toughened up Cortez with a karate chop or bump and hits during practice.

"They were all welcoming, and they were kind. And from time to time, they'd teach you what you need to do, though as a pro, we were expected to know what we were supposed to do," he explained. "But in practice, I got hit sometimes, I got karate chopped on my hands as they tried to get the ball away from me. But that's part of the game, the banging and hitting," added Cortez.

The toughness he learned from the Toyota veterans prepared him for the battles ahead, specifically with chief rival Crispa.

Brawl at the Big Dome

The opening game of the 1977 PBA season pitted bitter rivals Toyota and Crispa.

Both squads met in the Finals for the first six conferences of the pro league. Crispa won its last four title series versus Toyota, including the 1976 Grand Slam.

No wonder, tension was high between these two squads even though it was just the first game of the new season.

The Redmanizers escaped with a close win, 122-121, on April 17, 1977. But what transpired just moments after Atoy Co sealed the victory with a foul shot overshadowed the win by Crispa.

"It was a heated one in the opening game for 1977. Ompong would run back to the other side of the court and he'd get tripped. Moments later, he'd get tripped again. Up until in the end of the game, you'd see how rough the game had become," recalled Cortez.

"I really don't know who instigated the brawl. But at the end of the game, I saw Mon punch someone, but he didn't know Atoy Co came in and hit him on the jaw," Cortez shared.

Moments later, much to his surprise, Crispa coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan tried to join the melee, but Cortez, out of respect, told the legendary mentor he wouldn't hit him.

"I told him, 'Coach, I didn't hit you. We're okay.' So I withdrew from him because I was bigger than him," he added.

As peacemakers eventually ushered the players from both squads back to their respective dressing rooms, what transpired later would shock him.

"We thought everything was already okay, but then, President (Ferdinand) Marcos got angry upon learning of the brawl. He said that's public disturbance. So when I woke up in our Bel-Air quarters in Makati, we noticed that the Metrocom (Metropolitan Command) bus was outside. They took me, Ompong and Mon out and brought us with the rest of our teammates and players from Crispa to Camp Crame," narrated Cortez.

Later, players from both PBA teams were transferred to Fort Bonifacio where they were packed like sardines in a small prison cell.

Cortez remembered seeing Crispa players feast on seafood for late dinner, but Toyota management topped that by sending them porter house and rib-eye steak from Prince Albert restaurant at the Hotel Intercontinental.

"We had steak. Ganun katindi ang management, hindi magpapatalo," he added.

The next day, players from both sides were allowed to go home with the brawl giving each of them a lesson in sportsmanship.

But truth be told, Cortez said every time Toyota and Crispa would meet, players already expected black eyes, bruises and body aches.

"If you don't have a black eye, blood on your mouth or bruises on your body, then that's not a Crispa-Toyota game," he stressed. "I'm not a dirty player and I'm not the typical player who hits someone. But if you hit me in the game, I'll remember the player and I'll just get back at him in the second, third or fourth quarter."

Bitter-sweet career

With a rookie batch that included Tito Varela, Freddie Webb, Elias Tolentino, Mike Bilbao, and Rudy Hines, to name a few, Cortez said it was really a huge surprise that he bagged the 1976 Rookie of the Year award.

Toyota reached the finals during the first two conferences, posting an aggregate 40-12 win-loss record. But in both instances, Crispa would come out as champion with similar 3-1 series wins.

Come the 1976 PBA All-Philippine Championship finals, Toyota had Crispa on the ropes after holding a commanding 2-0 lead in their best-of-five title series.

The Redmanizers though refused to simply roll over and die, riding on the hot-shooting of Co to win the next three games en route to winning the third and final conference and the 1976 Grand Slam.

"That finals loss still pains me because we were already up 2-0 and we only needed one win, but we still lost the series," Cortez said, his voice turning serious.

Being a young player who was eager to help Toyota redeem itself after being denied a chance for its own Grand Slam in 1975, Cortez said all he wanted was to win one for the Comets and get a shot at redemption.

"It was my rookie year. I was young and I badly wanted to win a championship for the team," said Cortez. "It would have been nicer and better to win a championship together with my Rookie of the Year (award)."

Cortez bared that during that time, he felt traumatized by the Comet's finals series loss.

"Hindi naman ako nagwala, but it's like I didn't want to practice for a month or two," he said.

In the middle of the 1977 season, Cortez eventually moved to Mariwasa Honda, followed by a brief stint with Gilbey's Gin the following year before moving on to the U/Tex Wranglers under Tommy Manotoc.

Joining a U/Tex side that had two-time PBA MVP Bogs Adornado, Lim Eng Beng, Jimmy Noblezada and Fritz Gaston and reinforced by imports Glenn McDonald and Aaron James, the Wranglers managed to reach the 1980 Open Conference finals series.

Cortez remembered wanting to help the team, but with a right knee injury sidelining him, he could only watch and cheer his teammates from the sideline.

Many thought Toyota had the series and the championship in the bag after holding a four-point lead late in Game 5. But the Tamaraws suffered a meltdown in the last 16 seconds, allowing U/Tex to make a massive comeback and force overtime. During the extension period, Adornado hit what would turn out to be the winning three-point basket in the waning seconds of the match to help the Wranglers seal the Game 5 win and give the franchise the 1980 Open Conference title.

That championship would be Cortez's only title as a PBA player.

By the close of the 1980 season though, Cortez, only 23, had to make an all-important decision given his recurring right knee injury.

"Yung tuhod ko talagang nagtutubig. I wanted to have it operated on, kaya lang, pa-expire na ang contract ko, and U/Tex didn't want to gamble anymore," he said. "Usually kasi di naman pinapa-operahan ang mga hindi superstars, hindi gaya ni Bogs."

Cortez reasoned that undergoing surgery wouldn't guarantee anything during those times.

"Kung lalaro man ako, hindi na kasing lakas nung tuhod ko, at hindi na maganda ang lalaruin ko," he said. "So at age 23, I retired."

Post-PBA life

Cortez called it quits after just five PBA seasons due to a knee injury. He eventually got involved with Nic Jorge's Milo BEST Center.

He started rubbing elbows with some of the top local coaches at Milo BEST, which eventually opened more doors for him in basketball. Soon, he would serve as coach for the International School-Manila and De La Salle-Zobel.

"It was tiring as I had to travel a lot from IS and La Salle-Zobel, but somehow, that's my way of paying back, to teach children the game of basketball and impart to the young," he reasoned.

Coaching opportunities opened from there when he eventually handled the Pampanga squad in the PABL. He also served as the administrator of the Pampanga Sports Complex and Convention Center under then Gov. Bren Z. Guiao, father of current NLEX head coach Yeng Guiao.

In 1998, Cortez agreed to become the team manager of the Pampanga Dragons in the fledgling Metropolitan Basketball Association.

Tasked by team owner Jose Antonio Gonzales to form a strong Pampanga squad, Cortez went on to sign up Pampanga native Aric Del Rosario as its coach. He also brought in 1992 PBA MVP Ato Agustin and surrounded him with enough solid talent in ex-PBA players Bryant Punzalan, Angelo David, and Andy De Guzman, along with young talents Gherome Ejercito and Ato Morano. The effort reaped dividends as the Dragons ruled the inaugural season, winning the national championship by beating the Negros Slashers, 4-1.

These days, Cortez is happy with what he's doing for the SBP, serving as one of 26 members of the national basketball federation and regional director for Region 3.