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The PBA's Bad Boys

Old-school cagers who bring back rough-and-tumble memories
by Jay P. Mercado | Jun 1, 2016
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The recently concluded 2016 PBA Commissioner's Cup saw skirmishes between the Alaska Aces' Calvin Abueva and the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters' Beau Belga that led to fouls, some even flagrant. Good friends off court, these hotheads slug it out night in, night out.

But basketball, in general, and the PBA specifically, would always have a need for this type of players who can intimidate the hell out of the opposition. Less physical players would think twice about driving to the hoop, fully aware that a hard foul here, a gentle sahod (undercut) there, or a disguised nudge may actually lead to a career-ending injury. It's no secret that every coach wants to have his own enforcer in his lineup just to avoid being bullied and steer clear from being pushovers, or to serve as henchman to the other team's import or best player.

In the 41-year history of the PBA, several players had made names for themselves due to their, well, excessive physicality. FHM lists down 10 old-school cagers that bring back rough-and-tumble memories.

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Oscar Rocha
(Toyota, Mariwasa, U/Tex)

The Toyota Comets was known as the glamour team of early PBA. But that didn't mean they backed down versus arch rivals Crispa Redmanizers, especially when it came to rough plays. Whenever Coach Dante Silverio fielded the benchwarming Rocha, fans smelled blood. The latter was a primary instigator in the infamous 1977 rumble between the two teams that even led to imprisonment.

In the 2003 Crispa-Toyota reunion game, Rocha was at it again, pestering the opposing legends with his physical play.

Joy Dionisio
(Carrier, Crispa, U/Tex, Galerie Dominique)

Dionisio (third from left, kneeling) with his Crispa teammates

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Likewise, Crispa didn't allow themselves to get pushed around by Rocha and their antagonists. In 1976, they brought in Dionisio, a physical enforcer known for his above-average playmaking skills and more importantly, for scoring the first two points in PBA history. Dionisio relieved Bernie Fabiosa at point guard for the Redmanizers, and was coach Baby Dalupan's foil to Robert Jaworski, Sr. He was just as big as "The Big J," and was just as cunning (read: playing dirty).

Johnny Revilla
(Crispa, Great Taste, Galerie Dominique)

Revilla (#16) faces off against Yoyong Martirez

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It wasn't uncommon to see former University of the East (UE) stalwarts suiting up for Crispa because of the Dalupan connection—Francisco Sr. founded the school while one of his sons, Virgilio or "Baby," coached both teams. Revilla was King Warrior back in the late '60s and was one of the most feared players of his time. Not only was he a wily and prolific guard, he also knew the ways of the street game. Hence, Dalupan used Revilla in the initial PBA season as one of his team's enforcers, whose primary goal was to intimidate Jaworski.

Johnny didn't stay long with Crispa though, moving to the N-Rich Coffee Creamers in the 1976 season. But he continued to terrorize opponents, utilizing his legs (read: tripping, kicking) to make offensive players wary of his presence.

Victor Sanchez
(Tanduay, Beer Hausen, Shell)

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The late broadcaster, Joe Cantada, christened him as "Rambo" because of his ability to bring action on the court. Sanchez was a reliable interior player who can score from inside feeds or putbacks. On the defensive end, he was notorious for his penchant for undercutting his opponents. Former Best Import Donnie Ray Koonce would know. After leading the Alaska Milkmen to a 6-1 record in the 1986 Open Conference, Sanchez waylaid him and Koonce fell hard on his back, hitting his head on the floor, and was never the same again after.

Still, there's no denying Victor's contribution to Tanduay's three-title run from 1986 to 1987, playing reliever to Jayvee Yango while backstopping franchise player Ramon Fernandez inside.

Rudy Distrito
(Crispa, Countryfair, Magnolia, Alaska, Ginebra, Swift)

Another UE product, Distrito was one of the most prolific players in the amateur ranks, before moving to a superstar-laden Crispa team wherein he languished on the bench. He also played for Magnolia Ice Cream, and in 1985, figured in an ugly incident with the Loyzaga family. Distrito engaged in a melee with Great Taste's Chito Loyzaga, and ended up fighting his own teammate, Joey, as well as their father, Caloy, who was watching at ringside. Distrito would later find himself allied with the Loyzaga brothers as part of Jaworski's ragtag Anejo Rhum/Ginebra crew of the late '80s to early '90s.

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He retired from the game after the Games and Amusement Board (GAB) revoked his license after a dangerous nudge on Alaska's Jeff Cariaso in 1995. Too bad, because "The Destroyer" was an extremely gifted offensive player with his patented, "hop, skip, and jump" penetration move that was almost indefensible.


Ramon 'Onchie' dela Cruz
(Tanduay, Presto, Shell)

Dela Cruz (#9) during Tanduay days

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Had there been one player that Jaworski may have been wary of, it was this man. A former national team member, who blossomed as a reliever to point guard Willie Generalao at Tanduay, Dela Cruz was just as tough and menacing as his Ginebra rivals. It was believed that Jaworski often put in Distrito to "soften up" Dela Cruz a bit before he'd join the fray in the middle of the game.

In a memorable incident, Ginebra import Wes Matthews went up for a shot and got hacked by Dela Cruz. Matthews taunted the latter, who appeared nonchalant at first, but ultimately retaliated by spitting on Matthews' face, nearly triggering a free-for-all.

Ricky Relosa
(Toyota, Beer Hausen, Ginebra, Shell, Pepsi, Alaska)

The power forward was a valuable reserve for the Toyota Super Corollas, and was one of the toughest interior defenders in the league. He formed half of the "Bruise Brothers" alongside Yoyoy Villamin at Hills Bros (now Alaska) and was a pillar of strength inside. Getting older and his reflexes slowing down, he resorted to physical tactics to intimidate opponents. In a game versus the Swift Mighty Meaties in 1993, he slapped the nape of import Ronnie Thompkins, then ran towards his bench when the enraged import gave chase. It was one of the most unpleasant episodes to happen to a former superstar, who personified grit and toughness whenever he played.

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Itoy Esguerra
(Crispa, Manila Beer, Tanduay, Shell)

Esguerra (#16) with the NCC-RP National Team

A hotshot amateur player for the Crispa 400s capable of torching nets, Esguerra wasn't able to translate this deadly weapon to the PBA. He had his moments though, and played in the league for more than seven seasons. Unfortunately for him, Esguerra would be remembered more for his ruggedness than his sweet-shooting. He used all parts of his body to get his licks in—elbows, knees, thighs, even fingers (to poke eyes). It wasn't uncommon to see coaches field Esguerra when the game is already getting a little too physical.

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Sonny Cabatu
(Shell, Presto, Purefoods, Sarsi, Ginebra)

Cabatu (#5) shows off his left uppercut

A former two-time MVP in the defunct PABL, Cabatu was the top pick of the 1985 PBA Draft. Despite his impressive credentials, he struggled against the more talented bigs in the pro league, relegating him to reliever status, and at times, the enforcer role.

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In 1988, he punched Ginebra import Jamie Waller and was involved in several brawls and near ones between the Gins and his team, Presto. Curiously, Waller was rehired by Ginebra in 1992 just when Cabatu joined the team. Despite his Mike Tyson features and physique, Waller apparently was still traumatized with the incident four years back that he reportedly shuddered at the sight of Cabatu in practice.

Dennis Espino
(Sta. Lucia, Coke)

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When one is as talented as Espino, fans may discount his knack for playing desperate and dirty when times call for such. He was one of the craftiest big men in PBA history, but was also one tough SOB. Espino's ability to be rough discreetly is a throwback of how Ramon Fernandez and Philip Cezar did it in the '70s and '80s. A innocent-looking pick was actually a hard trip that saw the opposing player sprawled on the floor unseen by the refs.

One of the more memorable incidents involving Espino was during the 2002 Asian Games versus Japan, when he gave Takehiko Orimo a "phantom punch," which forced the Japanese squad's best player to change his aggressive game.

Obviously, more may still be added to this list. Who knows, we might find Belga and Abueva being part of a list of the same kind in years to come. For now though, old school PBA enforcers bring back memories of just how rough, rugged, and at times, dirty, the league was during their respective halcyon days.

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Photos from (Joy Dionisio), (Johnny Revilla, Itoy Esguerra), (Victor Sanchez), (Ramon Dela Cruz), America Pink (Sonny Cabatu), (Dennis Espino)

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