PBA: Greatest player rivalries of all time

Crispa versus Toyota. Ginebra versus Shell. The ‘Manila Clasico’.

These are just some of the rivalries that have captured the passion of PBA fans over 43 years. Generations of basketball aficionados have pledged allegiance to one club and the love affair is expressed in every victory or defeat. The most passionate followers even dread using the products of the rival squad after losing a game or a championship series.

Amidst the cheers and jeers for teams, our eyes are glued to worthy adversaries who brought out the best of each other. Exceptional in-game performances turned into careers that eventually evolved into legacies that we still revere today.

According to PBA historian Jay P. Mercado, “Player rivalries formed a critical part of the PBA’s early success. While basketball may have been a team game, the strong personas of the players made it possible for Pinoy fans to lap up whatever individual differences these players have.” That’s why a friendly but debateful conversation ensues whenever two players of equal worth are compared.

On that note, let’s look at the greatest player rivalries that have brought attention, credibility, and prestige to the Philippine Basketball Association.

‘Big Game James’ versus ‘The Spark’

Even though they haven’t met in a PBA finals series yet, the Mark Caguioa-James Yap showdown has been the main attraction of the Manila Clasico for over a decade. Though both became league MVPs, their styles were stark contrasts. Caguioa’s flamboyant and exciting brand of ball is a perfect counterpart to Yap’s finesse and composed approach.

With ‘The Spark’ getting limited minutes and ‘Big Game James’ suiting up for Rain or Shine, the Purefoods-Ginebra rivalry is not the same as it was. But in their heyday, the Yap-Caguioa showdown was must-watch basketball.

‘The Captain’ versus ‘The Bull’

A stand-off ensued between RFM-Swift, Alvin Patrimonio’s team in the Philippine Athletic Basketball League, and Purefoods, his team-to-be in the PBA. The Basketball Association of the Philippines decided in favor of the latter and Patrimonio entered the pros as a direct hire in 1988. A year after, Purefoods drafted Nelson Asaytono with the second overall selection and used him as Patrimonio’s back-up for three seasons.

But since they play practically the same way, Asaytono was traded to Swift before the 1992 season. Here, he blossomed into a superstar and a legitimate contender for the Most Valuable Player award. However, he was edged by Ato Agustin in the 1992 voting and by Patrimonio in the 1993 season. Still, the match-ups between ‘Captain Lionheart’ and ‘The Bull’ lived up to the hype, including the 1993 Commissioner’s Cup that the Mighty Meaties won over the Oodles in six games.

‘The Tower of Power’ versus ‘The Captain’

Early in their careers, Alvin Patrimonio and Benjie Paras established themselves as titans of the PBA. They ushered a new generation of big men who played with force instead of finesse. That’s why comparisons between the two are inevitable. The debate intensified during the MVP race of the 1989 season when Patrimonio, Paras, and Ramon Fernandez were engaged in a tight contest.

“Fernandez’s team (San Miguel) won the Grand Slam and was the odds-on-favorite to win the MVP. Paras was the sentimental favorite, being the rookie and having the best opportunity to be like Wes Unseld as the first rookie MVP in PBA history. Patrimonio was ahead in the stats race,” Mercado said. Eventually, the votes went in Paras’ favor. But since then, ‘The Captain’ had the better career by ending up with two more MVPs and two more titles than the ‘Tower of Power’.

Crispa-Toyota player rivalries

It’s the rivalry that gave rise to the PBA: two teams that locked horns not just inside the court but also outside it, and two iconic franchises that dominated the league and won a combined 22 championships. Legends were revered and hated in every hotly-contested game. When it comes to the fabled Crispa-Toyota rivalry, three player match-ups come to mind: Robert Jaworski versus Atoy Co, Bogs Adornado against Francis Arnaiz, and Philip Cezar battling against Fernandez.

Players even result to physicality and pesky tactics just to gain an advantage. In an interview, Cezar mentioned that he had to tickle Fernandez just to gain a psychological advantage. As tensions escalate, fistfights are likely. The most notable was the 1977 opening day post-game brawl wherein players from both sides were detained at Fort Bonifacio. Even though the rivalry ended over 30 years ago, the gospel about these two franchises lives on.

‘The Big J’ versus ‘El Presidente’

From teammates to bitter rivals.

Once stalwarts of the Toyota franchise, Jaworski and Fernandez developed a rivalry that spelled bad blood beyond the hardwood. The conflict started during the bitter break-up in 1984 when Toyota was in the process of disbandment. Super Corollas team manager Jack Rodriguez mentioned that all player contracts will be sold to Beer Hausen. However, Gilbey’s Gin owner Carlos “Honeyboy” Palanca fancied to enlist Jaworski, Arnaiz, Chito Loyzaga, and the late Arnie Tuadles to his squad. The PBA settled the argument by siding with Palanca.

Fernandez was traded to Tanduay for Abet Guidaben in 1985. A year later, ‘El Presidente’ clashed with the ‘Big J’ in the All-Filipino Conference, in which the Rhum Makers won over the Gin Kings in four games. The rivals once again played for a title during the 1988 All-Filipino Conference. Jaworski got even by winning the crown with Añejo in four games, but not after Fernandez was benched after game one due to allegations of match fixing.

The feud ended during the 1989 All-Star game when the two pioneers teamed up for the Veterans squad. With the game in the balance, Jaworski threw the inbound pass to Fernandez who drove through the baseline before making an under-the-basket shot against Paras. After the game, Dalupan ordered both players to shake hands to end their personal conflict. ‘The Big J’ went on to coach the All-PBA basketball team for the 1990 Asian Games and named ‘El Presidente’ as captain.

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