Shooting for the moon in Belgrade, ‘El Presidente’ weighs in

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by Dennis U. Eroa

TO BE clear, cage great Ramon Fernandez, aka El Presidente, Don Ramon and owner of the unforgettable “elegant shot” is a man who wears so many hats.

Despite opting to focus more on issues outside basketball, Fernandez continues to be relevant when you talk about the country’s favorite sport. His basketball wisdom is always right on target because of his experiences as a cage hero.

Ramon Fernandez winning his fourth PBA MVP plum.
Ramon Fernandez winning his fourth PBA MVP plum.

The pride of Cebu is the jack of all trades and unlike many, who simply faded into obscurity after their playing careers are over, Fernandez is a cut above the rest. Even when he was still busy collecting his fourth MVP award and lording it over the pros, the University of San Carlos gem was already planning for life outside basketball.

After donning the country’s colors in various international tournaments and playing for the San Miguel Braves in the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA), the young Cebuano strutted his wares to the Komatsu Komets (later renamed the Toyota Comets). He helped Toyota win nine PBA titles from 1975 to 1983.

After helping the country pocket the silver medal in the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, Fernandez hung his jersey in 1994 to pursue business interests. His relationship with the Living Legend Robert Jaworski dominated the headlines during their PBA career, though the 6-foot-4 do-it-all beanpole would later clarify that the “feud” was a product of media hype and various types of speculations.

I was at the courtside at the Ultra, now Philsports in Pasig City, when all’s well that ended well between the two basketball giants. The event transpired during the 1989 PBA All-Star game where Jaworski rifled a pass to Fernandez underneath the basket that gave the Veterans a hairline, 132-130 win over the Rookies-Sophomore team.

Deafening roars of approval flooded the Ultra as they yielded from the prodding of the late coaching icon Baby Dalupan to shake hands. Both Jaworski and Fernandez are members of the PBA Hall of Fame. My piece which came out at Sports Flash magazine edited by the venerable Recah Trinidad won the SCOOP Award for Best Feature Story.

At the end of his memorable career, Fernandez was the all-time leader in most points scored with 18,996. That record still stands today.

Ramon Fernandez with Manila Beer [photo credits: MB library]
Ramon Fernandez with Manila Beer [photo credits: MB library]
Fernandez is one of the four Philippine Sports Commissioners helping chairman William “Butch” Ramirez craft the direction of Philippine sports. The PSC’s vision is to come out with a unified sports program that will enhance the quality of life of the Filipinos, instill national pride and attain international prestige through sports excellence. Its manta is Sports for All.

 

Fernandez, the country’s chef de mission to the Vietnam Southeast Asian Games, also launched an advocacy Atletang Pinoy aiming to boost support for Olympic-bound Filipino athletes. The PSC fully supports Atletang Pinoy, which is not focused solely on the Tokyo Olympics but on making more and more Pinoy Olympians.

Then outside sports, Lechon ni El Presidente is also attracting a loyal clientele due to its crispy, mouth-watering taste. He has many business interests, providing livelihood to the community.

A man of conviction, I believe that Fernandez is also a realist. This means he accepts and deals with things as they are. His hoop career had its share of ups and downs and I am sure that even during his present career, there are disappointments. But, Fernandez, whom I heartily voted to win his 5th MVP award in 1989 (he lost to Rookie of the Year awardee Benjie Paras due to mind-boggling media votes) isn’t somebody afraid to tackle and solve challenges. He tells it like it is.

Recently, praised releases flooded the sporting world when the country was given the rare seat of joining the Belgrade Olympic qualifiers on June 22. This rare chance was given by the ruling International Basketball Federation to the Philippines following the decision of the New Zealand Tall Blacks not to compete due to the pandemic.

Fernandez termed the never-ending saga of Philippine hoopdom as a positive development. The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas headed by Al Panlilio said that it’s going to send the best team possible to make Filipinos proud. Fernandez and I are gladdened to hear these courageous words. It showed the Filipinos trait to excel when facing overwhelming odds.

But the most pressing question is quite simple: How do you come out with the best team possible?

We have the Gilas Pilipinas but it’s common knowledge that its roster, talented but young and untested, will not hold its ground against the likes of the other contenders, who are going to die to gain a slot in Tokyo. The PBA must come to the rescue but that remains a big IF due to conflict in scheduling and of course, the fear of management to their top and costly players will get injured in Belgrade.

Bugbugan ang labanan, peeps.

Ramon Fernandez [PSC photo]
Ramon Fernandez [PSC photo]
There is also a question on whether Kai Sotto will don the country’s colors, especially what transpired recently where he bolted out of the Ignite camp in the US to join the disastrous Calamba bubble. This must be clarified to all and sundry.

For Fernandez, the nationals must soak in the experience of tasting a high-level brand of international basketball.

“It will be very difficult for us to get the slot in Belgrade. I will be the first to delight if we make it and I continue to hope for a triumphant campaign,” said Fernandez, many-time member of the national team. “We need to look at the positives.”

Bullseye! It will not hurt us to temper our expectations. Because we are basketball-crazy. it is prudent I think for the gods of Philippine basketball not to give fans unrealistic hopes because in the end our national pride will be deeply wounded. We cannot afford to add suffer another misery especially in times of COVID.

The country’s best finish in Olympics basketball came in 1936 Berlin and the last time we qualified was in the 1972 Munich Games. Since then, we were overtaken by our neighbors though basketball remains the country’s favorite pastime.

Teamwork is quite crucial, says Fernandez. And he hit the nail on the head when he noted that this may pose a problem for the nationals due to the sudden twist of events. The PBA is graciously opening its door for Gilas to test its readiness in the Philippine Cup in April. Everybody knows that the pandemic laid to waste preparations for training not only for basketball but for other sporting disciplines as well. Hopefully, the PBA stint will expose the weaknesses of the national team so that those can be remedied by the coaching staff.

Even a PBA-reinforced Gilas isn’t a sure-fire formula that we can have a delightful experience in Belgrade other than visiting its attractions like museums, historic buildings, fortresses, cathedral, tower and many more we only see in movies.

Gilas Pilipinas [FIBA.com photo]
Gilas Pilipinas [FIBA.com photo]
Look at the situation. Only the champion, repeat the number one team, will advance in Tokyo. A total of 12 teams will see action in Tokyo and the 2019 World Cup already produced eight qualifiers. Japan, being the host, is automatically qualified, while Iran is already in as it emerged top-ranked Asian country in the World Cup.

There are four FIBA Olympic qualifiers with the champions advancing.

Gilas is bunched with the Dominican Republic and, hold your breath, host Serbia in Group A. We need to win at least one to keep the flag flying and make it to the semifinals against the top two teams in Group B composed of Puerto Rico, Italy and African powerhouse Senegal. The semifinal winners will dispute the lone seat and will join Australia, Nigeria and the champions in the Split, Croatia qualifier. Those competing for a slot in Split are Germany, Russia, Mexico, Tunisia, Brazil and the host country.

China joins Greece, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Turkey and host Canada in the Victoria qualifier, while South Korea tries its luck in the Kaunas, Lithuania qualifier along with Venezuela, Poland, Slovenia, Angola and the host country.

Already in aside from Japan and Iran are top favorite US, France, Spain, Australia, France, Argentina and Spain.

As it looks, the scenario isn’t favorable for Gilas. The crux of the matter is our preparedness plus the tremendous manpower advantage of our rivals. The good thing is that SBP is not raising the white flag of surrender but continues to shoot for the moon.

The last time, I heard, the ball is still round. This, I’m sure, ‘Don Ramon’ will agree.

Dennis Eroa