Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

40 Years Later with the first PBA Rookie of the Year

This appears in the Monday, September 5, 2016 edition of the Business Mirror.

40 Years Later with the first PBA Rookie of the Year
by rick olivares

It has been 40 years since Virgilio “Gil" Cortez won the first ever Philippine Basketball Association Rookie of the Year Award, and he says even after all this time, it is both sweet and bittersweet at once.

In 1976, after a spell with Manila Bank’s MICAA squad and with the national team, Cortez joined the Toyota Comets in the PBA’s sophomore season. Toyota was denied a Grand Slam by rival Crispa in 1975 when the Redmanizers took the last conference. The Comets looked to bounce back mightily the next season. Toyota had a veteran team while Crispa featured a lot of younger players who had come up in the early 70s. That didn’t mean they were going to be easy pickings as they were stocked with long range shooters, the type who could stretch defenses because of their unerring accuracy. 

Cortez was one of the few young players on what was a veteran-laden Toyota squad. The lanky 6’4” forward-center made his presence felt, regularly scoring in double digits while sometimes asked to guard the opposing team’s top scorer. And with Crispa, that meant the likes of Atoy Co.

Unfortunately for Cortez and Toyota, Crispa was a juggernaut in 1976 as they won the fledging pro league’s first ever Grand Slam each time dispatching the Comets in the title series. The only consolation for Cortez was that he was named Rookie of the Year. 

During the finals of the third conference, the prestigious All-Filipino tournament, Toyota looked to pull the rug from under Crispa, reprising in twist the ending to the maiden season of the PBA where the Redmanizers prevent Toyota from winning the Grand Slam. Toyota took what seemed to be a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. The last win never came as Crispa won the last three matches to officially cement their dynasty.

Cortez, like his other teammates, was devastated. Over a late lunch at Estancia in Pasig, the former ROY bared his soul. “It took me two months, maybe more to get over that loss. There were moments in between where I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. That was such a gut-wrenching loss for the team. I wanted to win a championship so bad; not for myself but for the team. Just one more win…..” he said with his voice trailing off.

Cortez hurt his knee in that All-Filipino finals. At one point, all his teammates saves four others had fouled out. Cortez on one leg, returned to the game. “I just played center, tried to rebound and block shots but otherwise couldn’t run. Crispa knew that and that hurt us all the more in the end,” he recounted of that fateful third conference. 

The Pampanga-born and bred Cortez knew that he had joined a glamour team in Toyota. After coming out of Holy Angel University in his hometown, Cortez was supposed to join the Ateneo Blue Eagles under head coach Baby Dalupan. But the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry so Cortez instead found himself turning semi-pro with Manila Bank’s MICAA squad. He was then wooed away to suit up for Toyota.

Despite being one of the younger players, he showed uncommon courage even driving on Robert Jaworski during practice. “I showed no fear as a rookie,” said Cortez. “Or at least, I tried to. If you showed it, the veterans would be all over you. I guess it paid off because I got considerable playing time.”

Unfortunately, his stint with Toyota lasted only a year and a half. Midway through the 1977 season, he transferred to Mariwasa Honda in 1978 then was one of the first players for Gilbey’s Gin (what would be the Ginebra franchise) the next season. He ended his career by playing two seasons for the U-Tex Wranglers.

He would later win his one and only PBA title and that was with U-Tex in 1980 and ironically, over Toyota in that infamous match that the Super Corollas lost despite leading by four points with 16 seconds left. “Like I said, bittersweet,” pronounced Cortez. “On one hand, I was happy to have finally won a championship. On the other hand, it was against my old team including some teammates who I formed lasting friendships to this day.”

Unable to reprise his deadly rookie form after that knee injury, Cortez called it a day after a five-year pro career. He hied off to the United States to figure out the direction his life would take. Still unsure, he flew back to the Philippines where he took up coaching first at the nascent Milo Best Center then with De La Salle Zobel and the International School of Manila. He later had a hand in forming the Pampanga Dragons of the Metropolitan Basketball Association, a team that won a title in its maiden conference. “I think I realized at this point that I would rather form teams than coach,” said Cortez. “As coach, I had difficulty sleeping after a loss. I told myself, ‘it’s not for you, boy.' So I decided I’d rather be the person who is in the background who will put a good team together. I am comfortable with that unlike some who want to take on the dual role. I am a person who believes in good organization."

Cortez worked his magic with Harbour Centre in the PBL then with the Smart Pampanga Buddies in the Liga Pilipinas.

Today, Cortez is busy with a lot of things. Chief among them is his being the Regional Director for Region 3 and member of the Board of Trustees of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas while serving as the chairman and founder of the United Central Luzon Athletic Association (UCLAA) that tips off in a few days’ time. “The passion for sports has stayed with me after all these years,” he noted. 

As does his attachment to his old Toyota team. “Those were good days,” he marvels with his eyes gleaming perhaps recalling those carefree days of a bygone age. “It would have been nice to win a championship to go with that ROY Award. That would have been sweet. But it didn’t happen. On the other hand, it drove me to become better maybe not at the pro game but in everything else in life."

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