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by Henry Liao
He was big. He was great. He was a game changer. Rolled into one, he was Carlos Loyzaga, the greatest athlete in Philippine basketball history.
Say whatever you hoop fans from the younger generations want, there won’t ever be another Loyzaga, who was synonymous to the country’s Golden Era in basketball during the fifties and sixties.
No single player from the last six decades can approximate his local accomplishments, let alone surpass his exploits on the international front.
A bull-strong 6-foot-3, 200-pound center during his prime, Loyzaga spanned an era that contributed in no small measure to the tremendous popularity of the game now being enjoyed by Filipinos.
If there is a singular personality responsible for enhancing the mass appeal of any sport in the country, so much so making it the Filipinos’ national pastime, it is Loyzaga, who was known as “Pomfret” to his friends and relatives and “The Big Difference,” “The Great Difference” and “King Caloy” to his basketball fans during his time.
The handsome Loyzaga was a rarity in that he could play all three positions – center, forward and guard – with equal efficiency.
But it was at center that Caloy was mostly recognized – a tough, deadly and graceful slotman who sowed terror in the hearts of the opposition.
A product of San Beda College, he powered the Red Lions to four championships. The school captured back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title in 1951 and 1952 and 1955, the latter of which allowed the Bedans to claim permanent possession of the prestigious three-legged Crispulo Zamora Cup that was awarded by the NCAA for the first team to secure three titles.
Another highlight of his distinguished collegiate career was the Mendiola-based school’s annexation of the National Open crown in 1952, which was the biggest plum in local hoopdom at the time.
Around this time, the goldmine with the mestizo looks named Loyzaga was already getting a lot of journalistic ink from local sportswriters and broadcasters.
In the midst of collegiate ball, Loyzaga was already moonlighting in the commercial ranks. He suited up for PRATRA and PRISCO that romped away with the National Open competitions in 1950 and 1953, respectively, before joining the fabled and popular Yco Athletic Club that was a member of the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) league, the harbinger of the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), in 1954.
Along with some of the game’s greatest names, Caloy helped the Yco Redshirts/Painters establish records that may never be duplicated in local basketball history.
It was with Loyzaga that Yco strung together 49 consecutive victories from 1954 to 1956. In his inaugural year with the club in 1954, the Painters accomplished the first so-called Grand Slam in local hoops history when they bagged the National Open, MICAA and Challenge to Champion titles.
Moreover, Yco won a record seven consecutive National crowns starting in 1954, a streak that concluded only in 1961 when its arch rivals, the Ysmael Steel Admirals, rose to provide, together with Loyzaga’s team, what may be the greatest singlular rivalry in Philippines basketball annals (counting even the Ateneo vs. De La Salle and Crispa vs. Toyota rivalries).
Still, it was the multi-dimensional Loyzaga’s various accomplishments in the international scene that propelled him to national prominence.
Caloy, who first saw the light of day on August 29, 1930, made his debut with the Philippine national team at the age of 21, donning the national colors during the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi, India, where the country broke through with a gold-medal finish and a lily-white 4-0 record.
It was the start of a long, brilliant career by the San Jose, Mindoro Oriental native as a national player, a stint that was cut short by retirement in 1964 at age 34 due to various injuries, including a chronic knee ailment.
No other prominent cager since the 1970s – active or retired – has had more experience at the international level than Loyzaga.
Loyzaga wore the Philippine uniform on 10 occasions, including four stints outside the Asian region. The most memorable of all was our third-place finish during the 1954 World Basketball Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In that spectacle, Loyzaga and his teammates wound up with a 6-3 record, losing only to the champion United States and runner-up host Brazil (twice). To date, it remains the highest finish by an Asian country in World Cup history.
In three other stints on the global stage, Caloy starred for the Philippine Olympic team during the 1952 Helsinki Games (3-2 record , ninth place) and the 1956 Melbourne Games (4-4, seventh place) and the 1959 World Basketball Championship in Santiago, Chile (4-2, eighth place).
Loyzaga played exceptionally well during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics so much so he was twice offered athletic scholarships at the University of Oregon to play for the Ducks in the U.S. NCAA, all expenses free. He rejected both invitations, however.
The initial offer he turned it down because he did not want to be away from his mother, brothers and sisters. Loyzaga nixed the second offer a couple of years later because of Victoria Cuerva, his beauteous wife, and son Joaquin Jr. (or Chito), his first-born and potential heir apparent.
Loyzaga also was a hands-down selection for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. However, he failed to join the Nats due to a fractured right wrist he suffered while playing softball at the old Cortabitarte Field, which is now the site of the Ospital ng Maynila.
Astonishingly, Caloy snared the gold medal in all of his six appearances in the Asian competitions.
They included the Asian Games on four occasions – 1951 New Delhi, India (4-0), 1954 Manila, Philippines (6-0), 1958 Tokyo, Japan (6-1) and 1961 Jakarta, Indonesia (7-0) – and the Asian Basketball Confederation (now known as the FIBA Asia Cup from FIBA Asia Championship) on a pair of editions – 1960 Manila, Philippines (9-0) and 1963 Taipei, Taiwan (9-2).
To recap, Loyzaga NEVER once played on a national team that registered a below-.500 record. Overall, he put together an eye-popping 58-14 win-loss record overall during his illustrious playing tenure with the Nats.
In his 15-year basketball career, Loyzaga amassed a total of 25 gold medals.
He was King Caloy – the GOAT in Philippine basketball history.