Flashback Friday: Ramon Fernandez and his enduring basketball legacy

Ramon Fernandez’s name may no longer ring a bell in today’s younger generation of basketball fans.

But “Don Ramon”, as he was called during his heydays, was just one of two players to claim the PBA’s Most Valuable Player award four times.

By the time he called it quits at the end of the 1994 PBA season, Fernandez concluded his decorated basketball career with 19 league championships.

He was also a perennial member of the pro league’s Mythical Team, underscoring further his legendary status in Asia’s first professional basketball league.

For 20 long years of sheer dominance and incomparable passion on the sport that holds a special place in the heart of every Filipino, the man also known by his monicker “El Presidente”, belonged to a league of his own and only a few—if any—would make any argument.

“I think he’s not just the best local big man, but he’s the best player ever in the history of this league,” Meralco coach Norman Black said, who as an import in the PBA during the 1980s, had countless hardcourt battles with Fernandez.

Black, now 58, served as one of Fernandez’s premiere rivals during the 1980s before finally becoming teammates from 1989 till “El Presidente’s” retirement.

“I think Mon led the league in just about every category possible—from points to rebounds, to blocks, to assists to steals. I mean, I’m sure at one point in his career, at one particular year he probably led the league in everything,” he added with a smile.

An agile 6-foot-5 center equipped with steady dribbling skills, shooting prowess and great footwork that enabled him to play every position possible, Fernandez stood head and shoulders—literally and figuratively—over his contemporaries, making him one of the most beloved and iconic figures during the pro league’s most colorful years.

For Fernandez, what sustained him for two decades in the PBA was his passion for the game year in and year out.

“It’s pretty hard as they say to reach the top and even harder to stay on top. You really have to cultivate the passion for the game,” he said. 

Very smart player

Growing up, Olsen Racela has already admired how Fernandez dominated the pro league in nearly all fronts.

“Toyota fan ako. Nakita ko na at nasubaybayan ko rin ‘yung PBA career ni El Presidente. Back then unheard of ‘yung big man marunong magdala ng bola, magaling pumasa. Tsaka sa mga times na ‘yun, hindi ko pa alam triple-double pero si Mon Fernandez ginagawa na ‘yun,” said Racela, who eventually became one of the Beermen’s greats.

“‘Yun ‘yung napansin ko kaagad at an early age. How Mon Fernandez can be an all-around player at his height.”

Racela, himself a student of the game and currently Ginebra’s assistant coach, said what separated Fernandez from the rest was his court smarts.

“Number 1 utak—he’s a very smart player.”

And that, Racela said,is what Fernandez used throughout his professional cage career as he asserted himself—against locals or even foreign big men.

“Payat naman siya pero nagagamit niya mga siko niya para makalusot. Hindi rin siya strong player pero nakaka-depensa rin siya,” said Racela, a member of the 1994 Coney Island (former name of the Purefoods franchise) that defeated Fernandez’s San Miguel team in the 1994 All-Filipino Finals.

“Napakautak na player. He knows when to take over games. Alam niya kung kailan dapat pumasa at tumira. ‘Yun ‘yung kakaiba sa kanya as a basketball player,” stressed Racela.

But for Fernandez, apart from depending on his court smarts, critical every year is the decision to stay in tip-top shape.

“I guess it was an advantage for me physically na hindi ako tumaba or lumaki or overweight. Because if overweight ka, injuries set in. I guess that was an advantage—that I was not heavy build and built in heavily. All throughout my career my passion was to be on top,” said Fernandez, now serving as commissioner of the Philippine Sports Commission.

“Ang advantage sa akin ‘yung payat ako, because I can eat anything as long as I practice 100 percent and stay in shape, hindi ako lumalaki. And you can eat healthy, your diet, your supplements, the sports science side has to come in also.”

Even Black could attest how Fernandez overcame his lean physique.

“Despite the fact he was on the slim side, he had very long arms, he was a good athlete, not many people know that, he had great timing, and can greatly time his shot blocks,” noted Black.

“He probably led the league in shot blocks too and he knew how to position himself, in addition he was a great defensive rebounder so when yo’ure great at that, that means you’re good at defense. He just has the body for it, he had long limbs, long arms, long legs and great timing.”

Work ethics that’s off the charts

Long before Fernandez moved over to San Miguel, Black said he and Fernandez were “not good friends” at all.

Black, who began his PBA career as Tefilin’s import in the early 1980s, competed fiercely in the shaded lane with the league’s top big men.

The American coach said when Fernandez hits you with his elbow, you can actually feel it.

“Mon had hard bones. Me may not have been huge as far as size is concerned, but some players that lacked lot of weight, he had hard bones, when you hit him and he hit you, you can feel it,” he said with a laugh.

And he may not like Fernandez’s veteran smarts and ability to maneuver imports with his physical presence, but in the end, Black admitted that the pride of Maasin, Leyte gained his respect when he got a chance to coach him at San Miguel in 1988.

“We were not friends when we weren’t playing with each other, believe me. But once we started playing with each other, we had a lot of respect for one another and we won a lot of championships together,” he said.

The 58-year-old Black also mentioned that when Fernandez moved over to San Miguel, his respect for the 6-5 big man grew further after seeing how hard he worked in practice.

ramon-fernandez-san-miguel-beer-throwback-photo-youtubeI had the pleasure of being able to play with Mon. I won two championships with him as a player and coach and that was the time that I gained so much respect for him because I always knew he was good when he was with Toyota and Purefoods,” shared Black, an eight-time PBA champion coach.

“But what I found out when I played with him was his work ethic was off the charts,” said Black, who served as the Beermen’s mentor when Fernandez helped the team complete a rare Grand Slam feat in 1989.

The long-time Philippine resident coach pointed out that Fernandez’s “elegant shot”, “kili-kili” shot, among others were products of countless hours the 6-foot-5 PBA legend put in practice.

“Those elegant shots and all those other shots that he has names for and who gave him names when he was a player, he actually practiced those shots. He get his work early and every single day of the week,” shared Black.

“Mon was a do-it-all player.  He can do it in the basketball court and he was one of the reasons why he won many championship with San Miguel.”

Proud achievement

The PBA record books are filled with Fernandez’s achievements, but he cited that nothing comes close to the feeling of representing the country in international tournaments.

Fernandez admitted that playing for the Philippine team served as the highlight of his basketball career, having dreamed of representing the country when he was a young boy.

“It’s hard to choose which one because there were so many highlights but one thing I cannot forget is playing for the national team. And that was really what I consider as the apex of my career, yung playing for the national team at 19 years old was my biggest achievement,” recalled Fernandez.

“I made it there because that was my dream as a young kid.  So all the other things like the PBA, it’s what we call the icing in the cake.”

The long-limbed Fernandez suited up in the national team for the first time in 1972, helping the Philippines capture the gold medal in the FIBA-Asia under-18 championships in Manila.

The following year, the six-time PBA All-Star was included in the seniors level, helping the Philippine men’s squad win the gold medal in the FIBA-Asia men’s championships right before a wildly-cheering Filipino basketball fans.

In 1974, Fernandez was again tapped to represent the country, competing in the FIBA World Championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

When the PBA was established in 1975, the former University of San Carlos standout went on to play for Toyota, which developed a seething rivalry with Crispa in the first decade of the pro league.

The 13-time PBA Mythical First team member felt he would have improved his game further if he continued playing for the national team.

“Sayang lang at nag-pro tayo nung 1975. I could have represented the team and improved some more, yun lang ang downside na nakita ko,” shared Fernandez.

The soft-spoken Fernandez played at a time when professional basketball players were barred from joining FIBA-sanctioned tournaments.

But when the open era in basketball started by 1990, Fernandez said he was fortunate and blessed to be part of the first-ever all-pro national team that competed in the Beijing Asian Games.

Although he was already the oldest member of the national team at 37, Fernandez managed to hold his own against Asia’s younger, more athletic and faster players, helping the Philippines finish with a silver medal in the Asiad.

“Playing in 1990 (for the national team), that i consider the highlight of my career because in 1974, I was 20. I was the youngest in the national team back then,” recalled Fernandez, who played with the likes of Jimmy Mariano, Sonny Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz, Abet Guidaben, Rosalio Martirez, Manny Paner, Alberto “Big Boy” Reynoso, Dave Regullano, Ricardo Cleofas, Bgs Adornado and Rogelio Melencio. – Richard Dy and Jerome Lagunzad

Follow these writers on Twitter: @richava and @JLFoxSports