The generation of sportswriters who covered his early PBA playing days called him The Big J. The more recent one christened him The Living Legend. To everyone else, meaning the rest of the Philippine population, he is known simply as "Jawo".
Whatever nickname he goes by, he's a certified basketball god. And since he's turning 75, starting on March 2 up to his birthday on March 8 ESPN5.com will be publishing seven - it has to be seven - articles on Robert Jaworski, Sr.
In the seventh and last of our seven "Jaworski at 75" features, ESPN5.com's Eros Villanueva interviewed current Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone about what Sonny Jaworski has meant to the franchise all these years.
TO FULLY GRASP the immense totality of Robert Jaworski's timeless impact and influence as a Ginebra icon, one must first begin to understand the allure that drew in basketball fans, players and personalities, and the ensuing show of passion and authority that made them stick around for decades.
First, the on-court flair and dominance. For each admirer, there's a different version of the story about the way Jaworski captured their attention, but the core elements -- the man, his drive and his savvy -- are constant and ever present.
"Sonny had a magnetism about him that just drew people to him. As a young boy watching him, Sonny was bigger than life," said coach Tim Cone, who was admittedly a huge Jaworski fan years before taking the winding path that would lead him to successfully coaching the very same franchise that his idol transformed.
"He was by far the biggest personality on the floor whenever he played, and he played with a flourish that was unmistakable. When he was on the court, the game ran through him -- he was part of it all; the ball handling, the scoring, the rebounding, the defense. He literally played and dominated all facets of the game."
More of what made Jaworski truly great came to the surface after he reeled them in with the dazzle and the hustle. Jaworski was gutsy and undeterred, but he was also authentic and relatable. Winning was absolutely essential, but for Sonny, the process mattered just as much -- the grind, the honest-to-goodness habit-building, and the single-mindedness all melded into a whole greater than the sum of all the parts.
All these attributes eventually became the sturdy foundation of a ball club that banners a very proud history. That only four of the 13 titles on Ginebra's shelf originate from Jaworski's era fails to encapsulate the fact that the culture and values he sewed in the franchise's fabric stretch beyond generations of on-court success.
"He isn't a kind of guy who's going to be measured by championships," Cone said.
FOR 23 SEASONS and 958 games, the spirit of competition burned fiercely within Jaworski and hardly ebbed. You don't get into the PBA without being inherently competitive, so that's not exactly an uncommon trait to have. What separated him from the rest of the pack, however, was the great lengths he went to show that he embodied the fight and the way it rubbed off on others.
Jaworski had all the tools to succeed on the floor, but his former colleagues and players attest that some core values made it possible for him to wield those talents like a massive, flaming sword.
"We looked at him as a leader. He was such a big influence," said coach Rino Salazar, a longtime Jaworski lieutenant, in a recent episode of the An Eternity of Basketball podcast. "He was a competitor. He was a gladiator. He always meant business, and he emphasized one thing: when you entered the court, you had to mean business."
His son Dodot, who played for three seasons with Ginebra after being drafted in 1995, says his father's competitiveness wasn't always infectious. He says Sonny was capable of seeing the best in other people, but anything short of trying to reach your peak potential was simply unacceptable.
"My dad was a guy who did not settle well with mediocrity. He did not like it when he or his kids or even his players were not living up to their full potential. He likes to read people and see what they're capable of doing. And it upsets him a lot, whether it be his player or his children, if they don't achieve their full potential, if they're not living up to their full potential. That's when he gets mad," Dodot explained.
"His persona has always been to be the best that you can be, to strive for the highest position that you can. That's who Jawo is. So he expected the people around him to have the same mentality. And if you fail that, then you'd be on his bad side, which you didn't wanna be."
Jaworski simply reveled in the spirit of competition regardless of the stage and the stakes. There was no wasted moment and no matter too small when it came to challenging himself, those around him and those who were on the opposite side of the fence.
"In 1995, when we started training with Ginebra, we used to work out in Ultra, in the oval. My dad, who was 25 years older than me, would run ahead of us. He would lead the pack in running, in sprints and in jogging. Us kids were behind him," Dodot recalled with a laugh. "He literally led us by example -- in terms of fitness, in terms of wanting to achieve, wanting to be in better shape. And I think that challenged a lot of us to be the best that we can be.
"That's just the spirit of being Jawo," Dodot added. "You step into the court, you forget who you are. You forget your age. You gotta get ready to give it and get ready to take it. That's the Jaworski thought and feeling and thinking."
Jaworski walked the talk, regardless if he was loved or hated. And in leading by example, Jaworski easily gained the fealty of those who stepped into his circle. Few rallied men as effectively as he did as a captain and as a coach. Players were prepared to run through walls for him, and coaches aspired to be the leader that he was.
"He is the man, he is always and will be the man, and no one's ever going to surpass him." Tim Cone on Sonny Jaworski
"He was a tremendous leader of men and through observing him, I knew I was going to have to improve my leadership skills to be the coach I wanted to be, and that has been a life-long obsession for me," Cone commented.
It helped that Jaworski knew what buttons to push and how to stoke the fire. He knew exactly what you were capable of, but he also knew how to pull it out of you, how to squeeze out more, and in which direction to direct your focus. The little details were always significant.
"He was all-encompassing," said Vince Hizon, one of the better 90s shooters who won a title with Ginebra when he played for the franchise from 1995 to 1998. "Coach would actually really make the effort to get to know each and everyone of us. Like he would set us aside and make it a point to understand us, where we came from, because we had all different kinds of backgrounds coming together in one team. Because once you find out what makes someone tick, it's much easier to motivate them."
Add up all these intangibles, and you get basketball royalty -- a man who greatly affected winning and effortlessly attracted adoration, a legend whose presence towered over everybody even though he stood just a shade over six feet.
"When I started coaching against him, I remember being incredibly honored to share the court and, needless to say, intimidated. But once the game started and the years went by, the competitive spirit kicked in and you went at it, regardless of who was on the other side. Still, in the back of your mind, you knew who you were going against and it was always a thrill," Cone remarked.
"He was always an intimidating presence because, as I said, he was bigger than life. But he had a way of disarming people, fans I should say, and making them feel special," the two-time Grand Slam coach continued. "He was never dismissive and always stayed behind after games and after practices to greet and interact with the fans. He was incredibly patient in that way. I learned a lot by observing him through the years."
IT'S NEVER EASY to follow in the footsteps of a colossal figure like Jaworski, and anyone who does will always have to deal with the lofty expectations and comparisons that come with entering the Ginebra domain -- for better or for worse. Upholding his legacy and tradition of winning while aspiring for even more success is both a huge honor and a great burden.
But his successors have never skulked from the challenge. In fact, every man who donned the red and white, as well as every mentor who walked the sidelines, is earnestly mindful of the Jaworski legacy, as if Big J, his contemporaries and his fans, both new and old, are always intently watching from afar, living vicariously through their victories and losses.
As representatives of the Ginebra franchise, players recognize that they always have to embody Jaworski's unceasing devotion to the game of basketball, regardless of talent or opportunity.
"I guess for me, the easiest way to put it is not really one, but a whole collection of things," Hizon said. "Because what coach Jaworski was for me as a player, he could do so many things really, really well. But if you ask what one thing he did great, I don't know if you could really pick one, except that he gave his heart and he tried in so many different aspects, and that's what made him a really great player.
"It's not that he ran the fastest, it's not that he jumped the highest. But he was everything -- he was tough, he was smart, he was unselfish, he was fundamentally-sound. He was all of those things put together, and I think that's the greatest thing that he gave to me."
The idea is essentially the same for Ginebra coaches, although of course the means to the end are a little different. The responsibility is rooted more in cultivating that culture of passion and winning, and passing on that brand of leadership to influence a new generation of leaders as time passes by.
"I hope that comes along naturally," Cone said. "We do talk about values and approaches and things like that, and our language, I think is part of our culture, and that's passed on from Johnny Abarrientos and Jojo Lastimosa, to Mike Cortez and that group, and up to PJ Simon and James Yap and all the way through Joe Devance. I think we're very conscious of the legacy that we want to leave.
"We try to mentor through our assistant coaches -- coach Richard (del Rosario) and Olsen (Racela) and all these guys, and coaches that I've coached with all through the years. So I think that's our job as coaches -- we have to make sure that we leave a proper legacy for those who follow us. And no one has had a more spectacular, more unique legacy than Sonny Jaworski."
If anyone is qualified to talk about living up to Jaworski's Ginebra legacy, it's Cone, who surpassed Sonny for most titles as a head coach in franchise history by bagging his fifth championship with the Gin Kings in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup last December. Despite reaching a milestone that's not small by any means, the winningest coach in league history insists he's barely touched a part of what makes Jaworski the quintessential model of Ginebra success.
"It's an amazing feeling. He's been your idol for so many years and then you're able to surpass him in doing something, it's an incredible feeling. But I surpassed him in championships. I'll never surpass him in legacy," Cone said. "He is the man, he is always and will be the man, and no one's ever going to surpass him. He's just so unique in the history of our league, and I think in the history of basketball all over.
"As much as, from a personal standpoint, I'm kilig about the idea that I surpassed Sonny, that's just a really, really small part of what Sonny's all about."
Sonny is to the Ginebra franchise what Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are to the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. But even then and up to now, that comparison still falls short in capturing Jaworski's singular basketball existence.
"[It's] hard to compare Sonny with anyone, even MJ or Kobe, because he was so incredibly unique. He was such an incredible charismatic leader who set a tone and standard for the Ginebra organization and the whole PBA that we're all trying to reach and emulate, yet always remains beyond our grasp. Simply, he is the epitome of the Living Legend," Cone expressed. "There's no one like him. There won't be anyone like him again."