Al Solis talks about Mon Fernandez, Tony Harris and winning his first PBA title

For decades, Cebu has provided a steady stream of pro basketball players who have undoubtedly left an indelible mark in the sport.

One of the province's prized contributions to pro basketball is none other than Alfonso "Al" Solis.

Selected second overall in the PBA Rookie draft in 1987 by Hills Bros. (now Alaska), Solis went on to play 15 seasons in the pro league, distinguishing himself as one of the deadliest shooters to ever play the game.

But beyond the basketball accolades and achievements, Solis admitted that his most memorable experience was learning at the feet of PBA legend Ramon Fernandez during their brief time together with the Purefoods franchise.

"Personally, my first year with Purefoods (in 1988) was the most memorable and somehow defined my (PBA) career. And Mon Fernandez became my adviser at that time," Solis said in Filipino in an interview with An Eternity of Basketball over the weekend.

As a 21-year-old, Solis recalled that he first encountered Fernandez as he was then trying to find his niche in basketball while playing for Cine Suerte in the fledgling PABL.

At that time, Toyota management, recognizing his potential, offered him and fellow amateur player Anthony Mendoza a three-month contract to play for the Super Corollas.

"(Toyota) team manager Jack Rodriguez approached me and told me that he wanted to give me and Anthony a contract to play for the team for three months. And if our performance was good, they would renew our contracts. But if not, then they won't renew," Solis recalled.

With a monthly escalated pay check of P10,000, P15,000 and culminating to P20,000 in his third and final month, back then a huge sum of money, Solis admitted thinking about the offer, knowing this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Fernandez, one of the key stars in the veteran-laden Toyota side, urged him to take the offer, assuring him that whatever happens after that, he would take Solis with him.

But Solis, after seeking advice from veteran coach Arturo Valenzona, eventually decided not to accept the offer.

The former University of Visayas star said he had no regrets foregoing an early chance to play in the PBA, especially since Toyota disbanded shortly after the close of the league's 1983 season.

Five years later, as fate would have it, Solis found himself playing alongside Fernandez, who was then tasked to lead a rookie Purefoods side as its playing-coach in 1988.

"Mon became my adviser, especially on how to invest my hard-earned money as a rookie in the PBA," he said.

Coming from a poor family, Solis admitted valuing Fernandez's advice.

"I remembered Mon inviting the players and talking to us one by one at his residence in Alabang. And what I can never forget was how he explained to me the process in the PBA, the team owners, teams, the press and the pressure that goes with being a professional player," he said.

"He just basically told me to not mind the press, but to simply focus on improving, playing my game, working hard, because in the long run, when they see me perform well, I'll get my recognition soon," added Solis.

He said Fernandez taught him what to prioritize in terms of investing his money.

"He taught me to invest initially on a vehicle since we play in different venues as a pro. He also taught me not to incur debts and make large purchases that go beyond my guaranteed contracts," he stressed.

"Since then, I never invested or had bank loans that go beyond my earnings. And to me, that's the most important piece of advice I ever got from Don Ramon," Solis added.

Admiring the legend

Solis has high respect for Fernandez, who despite the heavy pressure management placed on him to deliver a championship right in Purefoods' rookie season, played exceptionally well.

The Hotdogs, with the core of champion Tanduay players led by Fernandez, JB Yango, Willie Generalao, Onchie Dela Cruz and Freddie Hubalde and national team players Jojo Lastimosa, Glenn Capacio and Jerry Codiñera, reached the 1988 Open Conference Finals.

Purefoods, led by high-scoring import David Thirdkill, was on the cusp of a Cinderella finish after taking a 3-2 series lead against the Norman Black-reinforced San Miguel Beer side.

But the Beermen showed tremendous composure amid the pressure, winning the next two games to wrap up the series and win the Open Conference crown.

"You could see that in our first conference, we were able to reach the championship round because the team had a combination of veterans from Tanduay and young players," recalled Solis, a member of the Philippine Youth team that placed third in the 1984 ABC 18-and-under (now FIBA) meet in Seoul, Korea.

"We had very strong chemistry and to me, that year, I couldn't find another team that strong in the league."

When the All-Filipino Conference rolled along, Fernandez was at his absolute best, registering a number of triple-doubles as he tried to carry Purefoods on his shoulders.

"The talent of the team was so immense, but then, management wanted a quick return on investment so there really was pressure on Mon and the players," he said.

"I remembered a time when we reached the finals of the All-Filipino, Mon had five straight games where he posted triple-double or at least a double-double as he really carried us back to the championship (series)," shared Solis.

The former Cebuano hotshot though was saddened by the fact that Purefoods' title hunt came to a grinding halt when Fernandez was benched during the Finals, enabling Añejo Rum to eventually win the All-Filipino championship.

Nonetheless, Fernandez's individual efforts didn't go unnoticed after he earned his fourth Most Valuable Player award, becoming the first PBA player to do so in league history.

Star on the rise

Given his newfound role under new Purefoods coach and legendary mentor Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan, Solis metamorphosed from just a deadly outside shooter to a decent import-stopper as well.

Upon the advice of Dalupan, Solis found himself guarding imports who were 6-foot-2 and under during import-spiced conferences.

The task, he admitted, was daunting, considering that most of the foreign reinforcements during that era had either played in the NBA or were veteran players from CBA (Continental Basketball Association).

"Coach Baby considered me a defensive guard and he was the one who instructed me to play defense against smaller imports," shared Solis, who had a brief stint with the NCC squad, an amateur team that American coach Ron Jacobs handled during the mid-1980s.

Solis ranked former LA Lakers backup guard Wes Matthews as among the toughest imports he had to defend later.

A known explosive scorer, Matthews played for Ginebra during the 1991 Third Conference, leading the league's most popular squad to a runner-up finish that season. "Wes was very quick. And honestly, it's hard to defend him. You'd lose a lot of your energy," said Solis. "But the advantage of playing imports is I got to learn to play multiple positions and had longer playing time also."

By 1990, Solis was already ready for big-time plays. The Hotdogs, with imports Darren Queenan and Robert Paul Rose, trailed the series, 2-1, against the Alaska Milkmen, mentored by a young Tim Cone.

Both PBA franchises had yet to win a league title, and Alaska was a win away from capturing the crown. But Purefoods showed resolve when it outlasted Alaska in overtime in Game 4 to force a winner-take-all match.

In Game 5, both teams engaged in a tension-filled match. But Solis, showing nerves of steel, buried a booming three-pointer with 14 seconds to go that practically sealed the series and the Hotdogs' first-ever PBA crown.

When Solis' contract expired in 1990, he was surprised to get a multimillion-peso offer from the RFM franchise, which had a losing season during its first year in the pro league under coach Yeng Guiao.

Solis recalled Purefoods management laughing at the idea that he got such a huge offer. And eventually, management let him go for a song, putting into consideration its burgeoning salary cap.

Little did Purefoods know that it was letting go of someone who would go on to win multiple championships in the next four years.

Solis actually played a key role during Diet Sarsi's All-Filipino Finals appearance in the 1991 season opposite his former team Purefoods.

Known as the Sizzlers, they were up, 2-1 and would have wrapped up the title series with a win in Game 4. But Diet Sarsi failed to capitalize on its advantage, dropping the last two games and allowing Purefoods to annex the All-Filipino crown.

The Hurricane

Once in a while, the PBA would become the playground of a rare basketball talent. During the 1980s, the pro league rolled the red carpet for former Portland Trailblazers guard Billy Ray Bates.

But as the 1990s rolled along, the league welcomed a new and exciting talent by the name of Tony Harris. Nicknamed the "Hurricane", Harris, standing at just 6-2, played way bigger than his size. And he lived up to his basketball moniker especially during his first PBA foray in the 1992 Third Conference.

As his teammate at Swift, Solis recalled how intense practice was everyday with heated exchanges a regular occurrence due to Harris' almost maniacal approach to the game.

"Sometimes he got hot under the collar during practice. He'd elbow almost all of us in practice," recounted Solis. "I remember Tony had a fistfight with Rudy Distrito in practice. And we all know Rudy doesn't back down."

Solis said that's how it was to play with Harris.

"Tony just wants it to be played physically. Because his philosophy was, if you don't want to get hurt, don't play basketball," he added.

Harris was an unstoppable offensive force. And he made that known when he scored an out-of-this-world production of 105 points in Swift's 151-147 win over Ginebra in an out-of-town game in Iloilo.

That game saw Harris get hacked, kicked and elbowed one too many times, but the American was hardly bothered, according to Solis.

"Tony was just amazing. I remember that game (against Ginebra) was a Saturday. Prior to that, we just came from Davao where he scored over 80 points against Purefoods, then we flew to Iloilo. And then in that game, he scored 105 points. In two games alone, he averaged almost 100 points. Just amazing," said Solis, who to this day, remains in awe of an individual basketball feat that happened almost 30 years ago.

Harris, even though he had some run ins with management, went on to lead Swift to the franchise's first-ever PBA crown when the team scored a four-game sweep of 7-Up in the finals.