As the lone pioneering member of the PBA, San Miguel Beer has developed into a powerhouse squad during the 1980s, culminating in the franchise’s Grand Slam championship in 1989.
The Beermen eventually changed coaches through the years, but the flagship franchise of San Miguel Corp. remained a team to contend with as evidenced by its league-best 22 championships to date.
And San Miguel’s numerous championships could be attributed to one factor: a dominant big man.
By the turn of the 21st century, the Beermen saw the transition from Danny Ildefonso to current young slotman June Mar Fajardo.
The 6-foot-5 Ildelfonso helped San Miguel to eight league championships, won back-to-back MVP awards during his early years in the PBA, five Best Player plums and was eventually included among the pro league’s 40 Greatest Players.
On the other hand, June Mar Fajardo, Ildefonso’s former understudy, is a gentle giant from Cebu who at 26, has led San Miguel to three PBA championships, has won back-to-back MVP plums and, barring any injuries, will continue to rewrite history in the league.
Interestingly, San Miguel shares a common witness on its PBA dominance for the last 20 years in Isagani Malindog.
In FOX Sports’ Offcourt feature, we took the time to talk to Malindog as he shares his basketball journey from college to the PBA.
The 44-year old Isagani Malindog, Gani to his close friends, is a practice player-turned-statistician for the most successful squad in the pro league.
His name may not ring a bell for most hoop fans today, but he was once a dependable outside shooter in the UAAP and was selected 46th overall by San Miguel during the 2001 PBA Rookie Draft.
The wide-bodied Malindog played for National University from 1992 to 1996 out of sheer determination and as he related, in some twist of fate.
“Pumasok ako doon (NU) kasi sabi ng coach namin nung high school, kapag tryout ko doon, pitong player lang ang regular. Eh nagulat ako na kinuha ako,” Malindog narrated to FOX Sports.
During his final year, he teamed up with Ildelfonso and a then up-and-coming forward by the name of Lordy Tugade in what can be fairly considered as a decent campaign for the Bulldogs. You see, long before NU became a title contender in the UAAP, it used to be the favorite whipping team in college.
Malindog recalled that his final season under long-time NU coach Sonny Paguia was memorable in so many ways because of the rare moment he had of stealing the limelight from his more illustrious teammates during one UAAP game.
Ranged against Far Eastern University, a powerhouse UAAP squad during his time, the muscular Malindog buried a game-winning three in what became a stunning reversal in 1996.
After maximizing his playing years in college, Malindog chose to stay at NU, preferring to earn his diploma first before setting his sight on the PBA.
“Sayang, scholar eh, so tinuloy ko, at least libre ako, naka-graduate ako ng ’99,” shared Malindog.
Though older than Ildefonso, he managed to develop his friendship with the NU star. And little did he know that the friendship he forged with the Urdaneta, Pangasinan native would unlock the doors for his future career path.
Malindog credited Ildefonso, also called “Lakay” by his peers for the latter’s huge impact in his life.
“Malaking bagay sa akin si Danny I. kasi kung hindi dahil sa kanya, hindi ako mapupunta dito (PBA),” he shared.
Still hesitant to enter the draft, Malindog got an invite to be a practice player for San Miguel from his pal Ildefonso, who was the number 1 pick in 1998.
Malindog remembered feeling sick on the day he was invited by Ildefonso to try out. But he felt he couldn’t just turn down a request from long-time NU teammate. American Ron Jacobs, then handling San Miguel saw the potential in Malindog, who made the stocky shooting guard one of the team’s practice players.
After three years of honing his skill as a practice player in San Miguel, he finally felt ready to fulfill his childhood dream.
With encouraging words from Ildefonso and veteran guard Olsen Racela, Malindog applied for the 2001 rookie class which was bannered by the likes of Willie Miller, Mark Caguioa and John Arigo.
Thankfully, San Miguel did not turn its back on its loyal soldier. Although it took a while, Malindog heard his name in the draft after being selected last in the fifth round in 2001.
For Malindog, just hearing his named called officially by then PBA commissioner Emilio “Jun” Bernardino, was already a dream come true.
He may not have the sleeper-to-winner storyline like Star’s veteran gunner Peter June Simon, who was drafted just three spots earlier than him, nor did he have a chance to sign a big-time guaranteed contract. But the burly guard out of NU knew how to be content with the blessings he already got.
“Bata pa lang ako pangarap ko na talaga maglaro sa PBA. Pero di naman tayo pinalad. Di ko na yun iniisip kasi Diyos naman na bahala doon,” he said.
Just four years after being drafted by San Miguel, Malindog “officially retired” from his practice player role to join the team’s utility staff, before being named as Beermen’s statistician.
“Wala yang mga player na yan, niloloko ko nga kasi umiiskor sila, pero ako yung mas highest pointer, mas marami akong naii-score sa kanila kasi ako yung nagiiskor,” he joked.
His role in the Beermen may have changed over the years, but up to now, he is sure of one thing: Ildefonso’s effect still lingers in his mind.
Working with dignity
The saying “some good things never last” was true because late in 2013, Malindog received a startling news that Ildefonso, San Miguel’s long-time resident star, was released to free agency.
Malindog didn’t deny the fact that he was saddened by the move, considering the impact Ildefonso had been good to him and to the San Miguel franchise.
But the former NU shooting guard remained steadfast, moving on and resolving in his heart to continually serve the Beermen with dignity and loyalty.
“Di ako nahihiya sa ginagawa ko, kasi kung mataas pride mo, walang mangyayari sa iyo,” he said.
“Uutusan ako ng coach, uutusan ako ng player, walang problema sa akin yun. Pag nagsu-shooting, papasa rin ako ng bola,” added Malindog.
“Kapag close ko naman, inaalalayan ko bumuhat ng bag yung player, lalo na si June Mar.”
With the baton of leadership now passed on to Fajardo, he sees the second coming of Ildefonso.
Malindog believes the only thing that sets the young SMB slotman apart from “Lakay” is his five-inch difference in height.
Malindog, though, regrets one thing: “Kung si Danny I nandito, lalong gagaling ‘to (si June Mar).”
Though failing to crack the official roster of San Miguel, Malindog was lucky enough to witness the transition from Ildefonso to Fajardo in his 18 years of service. And for that, he could not ask for more.
Malindog experienced the highs during Ildefonso’s time, winning eight championships since the 1999 season.
But Malindog’s longevity with SMB became a running joke every time he crosses path with Ildenfonso.
“Walang hiya, ako nawala na (at SMB), si Lordy nawala na, si Olsen wala na rin, ikaw nandyan ka pa!”
Without a doubt, times have changed and players have come and go, but Malindog could confidently testify that San Miguel’s winning culture lives on. – Jason Mercene
Follow this writer on Twitter: @JasonMercenePH