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 fourth of our seven “Jaworski at 75” features, ESPN5.com’s Paolo Del Rosario interviewed three PBA coaching legends about Sonny Jaworski’s coaching style and what it was like to match wits with the Living Legend on the sidelines.
FOR A GENERATION of PBA fans who never got the chance to see Robert “Sonny” Jaworski play basketball at the peak of his powers, the Big J was a fixture on the sidelines of the Ginebra teams.
For the hoop fans who grew up during the late 80s and 90s, Jaworski’s squads were always a great draw despite the relatively small trophy cabinet of only four championships during his tenure as a playing coach from 1985 to 1998.
Yet, the fans came in droves to catch a glimpse of Jaworski and the Ginebra teams that have embodied their iconic playing coach throughout the years.
To gain a deeper appreciation of the Big J during his time as a playing coach for Ginebra, ESPN5.com had three separate conversations with some of his coaching rivals during that time.
Meralco head coach Norman Black got his start in coaching around the same time Jaworski took up the mantle of playing coach. Like the Big J, Black was also a playing coach early in his career and went through similar challenges.
“He actually pioneered the player coaching position – at least during my time – because I actually followed him,” Black said. “He was the first one.”
“From my experience, I am sure it was pretty difficult to do that because you’re not only responsible for performing on the court,” Black said. “But at the same time you are responsible for everything. You’re responsible for the strategies, you’re responsible for the training of the players, the team chemistry.”
For current NLEX Road Warriors mentor Yeng Guiao, starting out as a rookie head coach and going toe-to-toe with Jaworski was an awesome experience in itself. According to the fiery Guiao, it was a phenomenon he couldn’t help but study.
“I started coaching and coach Sonny was at the peak of his popularity. I was a rookie coach, I was a newbie. So it was like heaven and earth in terms of the gap,” Guiao said. “So my first thought was, who am I to stand on the opposite side of the court coaching against the legend Sonny Jaworski?”
“I think all of us coaches then were really studying him, not just as a coach but as a person and as a leader because he was so in control,” Guiao said. “Ginebra then, whatever he said, whatever he wanted, everybody from the ball boys to the management, followed his lead.”
“He had this awesome leadership control over players, the team, the trust of the management, and even the fans. They clung to his word and anything and everything that he said was gospel.”
For Barangay Ginebra head coach Tim Cone, who enjoyed a dominant spell in the 90s with Alaska, it was Jaworski’s ability to push his players to give it their all that set him apart.
“I think that’s the number one thing – how charismatic he was, he can get guys to run through walls for him,” Cone said of his former rival. “They would do anything that he asked of them and would relish doing it. Having that strength of personality just was such a huge advantage he had from a coaching standpoint.”
ACCORDING TO ALL THREE COACHES, the spirit of the Ginebra franchise did start with Jaworski and the way his teams took on their leader’s magnetic personality and style. It wasn’t just the ‘Never Say Die’ attitude or the bumper crowds that stood out, but Jaworski’s teams also started to play like he did during his heyday.
“They were a get out and go team,” Cone reminisced. “That was always Sonny’s style as a player, it was to get out and go. They were always on the run, they were always getting down on the floor and they were able to do it even with bigger slower players like Chito Loyzaga. Chito would get down on the floor, he was amazing getting down on the floor both offensively and defensively.”
“One thing I can certainly recall is that they were very physical,” Guiao said. “Whenever you play Ginebra, or whenever you prepare against them, a big chunk of the preparation is just really preparing your team to be ready for a very physical game and to stay in the game mentally.”
“So that’s something you prepare before because it is not just the physicality of the game, but it is also the pressure from the crowd,” he added. “It feels like you don’t have allies, it feels like you’re by yourself when you play them.”
Black echoed his colleagues’ sentiments, but with the perspective of having played against the Big J himself.
“So I went the entire spectrum against Sonny Jaworski. But whether I was playing against him as a player or as a player coach, the number one thing you always expected from the Ginebra teams was physicality,” Black said.
“They were going to play hard, it didn’t really matter about their talent level, that didn’t really come into the picture, it was more about the fact that it was just their personality,” Black added. “They are going to come out, and in my case because I was an import, I could probably expect at least 12 fouls against me during the course of the game.”
“So you knew they were going to play with physicality, you know they were going to have a free-wheeling game. You know they were going to have a fast game, a three-point shooting game, and they played with a lot of rhythm. And let’s face it, their teams fed off of the crowd.”
THE GAME TODAY is predicated on spacing, three-point shooting, and attacking the rim for the best quality of shots. Perhaps without knowing it at the time, Jaworski was already an advocate of playing the game the way it is practiced today.
Quick pace, shooting the three ball, and getting easy baskets early in the possession was typical of a Sonny Jaworski coached side, which caused problems for his opponents.
“He had a really unique style as a player, and they had a really unique style as a team,” Cone said. “They were a little bit before their time, basically they were doing what everyone is doing now. They spread out a lot, they actually shot a lot of threes back then. They shot more threes than any other team in the league at that point. They had big men shooters in Chito Loyzaga.
“He was a little bit before his time in terms of how people play now.”
Black dove deeper into the way the Big J urged his teams to play, opting to push the tempo with regularity.
“One thing I liked about Sonny was that his teams were a little bit daring in that they were really fast-breaking teams that liked to get the ball up the court quickly,” Black said. “They probably threw more long outlet passes than any other team in the league or all the other teams combined actually.
“They were not afraid to take the ball from out of bounds and throw it the length of the court for layups, two-hand forward passes the length of the floor for layups. He always stressed trying to get the ball down the court as quickly as possible and try to get easy baskets if you could,” Black explained. “Other than that, the thing I remember about the most is they relied a lot on the three-point shot, they did take a lot of three-point shots, Sonny took a lot of three point shots.”
“It was almost like they got to the basket or they shot threes a lot of times, that’s what it came down to.”
Technically speaking, Jawo was not known to run any specific plays and didn’t have what was considered an execution-based team. Even so, Cone says that Jaworski got his guys to execute down the stretch with plays drawn up with the little red pegs on the coach’s board at the end of the game.
But even if the teams didn’t have to worry much about any particular set play, the coaches had to steel themselves for a mental battle whenever they played Jawo and his troops.
“I don’t recall his pet plays niya or favorite plays, but what sticks in your head then and sticks now, you can remember it just like you remember it 30years ago, is my players had battered bodies,” Guiao said. “If you get intimidated, they’ll blow you out. More than preparing for the plays, more than preparing for their patterns, or their offense, or their defense, it’s just being able to steady yourselves.”
Freddie and Sonny, rivals and co-stars
Freddie Webb and Sonny Jaworski were rivals on court and co-stars on the silver screen.
CONE, BLACK, AND GUIAO all have larger trophy cabinets than Sonny Jaworski, with some of their championships coming at the expense of the Ginebra franchise along the way.
Despite the fact Jawo trails them in terms of trophies won, there is no doubt in their minds that the Living Legend is a true coaching great in the PBA for reasons beyond winning championships.
“I don’t think Sonny was underrated as a player or a coach, I think as a player he was probably one of the best two-way players to ever play in the PBA,” Black said. “People forget Sonny was a really good defensive player, that was really part of his strength, the fact he was strong enough to defend guys and that he can defend all the way up to the three spot. Sometimes even the four spot because of his strength.”
“I know he beat me quite a few times, so I have a lot of respect for him and his coaching,” Black added. “He won his share of championships for the Ginebra team and I don’t believe – at least during my time – that he was underrated.”
Guiao ignored the number of trophies won entirely and decided to focus on the unique things Jawo brought into the PBA as a coach. In Guiao’s mind, you can always find a way to teach the technical points in basketball, but you can’t emulate the phenomenon that is Jaworski himself.
“Actually those things on the technical side, those things you can find in books, those things you can hire special coaches, those things you can study,” Guiao explained. “But the real quality that he brought to the game, the real quality that distinguished him was his personality and leadership.”
“You can outsource a good skills trainer, a good conditioning coach you can outsource those, but you can’t outsource the qualities that coach Sonny had.”
Cone on the other hand believes Jaworski is indeed underrated as a coach, and admits to still trying to live up to the Big J’s legacy.
“I don’t care what your popularity is, you don’t last that long if you’re not being successful. And his team always, always competed,” Cone said.
“I always said about him, he might not have been the year after year MVP of the league but he was by far the MIP. He was the most important player or person in our league throughout his whole tenure,” he added.
“Even now, looking back at his legacy that we’re trying to live up to all the time. We’re always trying to live up to the Jaworski legacy.”
AFTER THE INTERVIEW, coach Norman Black requested if he could make a statement about Jaworski and his impact on Philippine basketball. According to the 11-time champion coach, the Big J was the most important representative of the league in the country.
“I think the thing that should be recognized most about Sonny is that he has probably been the number one ambassador for the PBA,” Black said. “I witnessed a lot of things, I learned a lot of things from him. I was able to be with him in the 1990 national team in Beijing, China and I had the chance to live with him and got the chance to know him a little bit off the basketball court.”
“He was probably number one as far as being an ambassador and he was number one with his relationship with the fans.”
When Tim Cone heard Black’s statement, he respectfully disagreed and said Jaworski was more than just the league’s greatest ambassador.
“I understand what Norman is saying and it’s totally true, but even then I think it’s selling him short,” Cone explained. “I think he is beyond being an ambassador. Ambassadors represent the league, to me he was the league. He is the guy and without him we wouldn’t have the PBA.”
“I saw those lean years, I saw those times and we wouldn’t have the PBA if he hadn’t had done what he did,” Cone added. “So yes, he is our greatest ambassador, but you could say that I feel that is still selling him short.”
“I am not sure what those words are? The King? The President? I don’t know, he was beyond being an ambassador.”