Life of a PBA Enforcer: Onchie dela Cruz relishes role as league ‘bad boy’ in 80s

Rey Joble

Posted at Jan 26 2022 12:38 PM | Updated as of Jan 26 2022 12:41 PM

As soon as he stepped on the PBA hard court in 1985, Onchie dela Cruz knew he would go on to play a bigger role for his team.

No less than “The Big J”, Robert Jaworski, welcomed the rookie to the big league and in his first game as a professional player, Dela Cruz knew exactly that playing in the PBA meant survival of the fittest. 

“First game namin against Ginebra, sinapak ako ni Jaworski sa nguso. Gumanti naman ako agad,” recalled Dela Cruz. "Ang nangyari, technical foul ako, tapos deliberate foul. Tinamaan ko siya, nu’ng nag-foul ako.

"Intentional na ginagawa ko sa kanya kasi ’yung ginagawa niya sa akin, iba rin. Fine kaagad ako noon, P1,500 yata. Hanggang sa lumaki nang lumaki, umabot ng P30,000."

Facing Jaworski in his first game was a baptism of fire he needed as Dela Cruz developed toughness inside the court. In a short time, he became one of the toughest guards in the PBA.

In battling Ginebra, Dela Cruz was aware he had to deal with not just the tough, physical plays of the league's most popular team, but also its boisterous fans.
 
"Hindi ako nakaranas na tamaan ng piso, kasi kapag ganu’n, kumukuha kaagad ako ng tuwalya. Ang nakaranas na tamaan ng piso, ’yung kapatid ko. Kasama siya ni Tessa Jazmines kasi nagchi-cheerleader ’yun dati. Tinamaan. Grabe daw ang sakit. Isipin mo galing sa taas ’yun, iba ang dating noon," he said.

For Dela Cruz, playing the role as an enforcer is a special task. Never mind if it meant sending an opponent to the ground because of a hard foul or if he gets fined when he played extra rough. 

" ’Yung fine, management ’yung nagbabayad. Kasi kung ako nagbabayad noon, wala na akong susuwelduhin," Dela Cruz said.

Of all the challenges he encountered, it was the fierce battles against old nemesis Ginebra San Miguel that Dela Cruz considered the toughest. 

"Kapag kasi Ginebra kalaban mo, ang dami mong kalaban," he said. "Halos pagtulungan ka na. Nananakit rin ang katawan ko, pero hindi naman ako nagpapakita na nasasaktan ako. Kailangan lumaban ka ng bakbakan."

Although he embraced a special role for the teams he played for, Dela Cruz's toughness and intimidation played a key role for his champion squads — Tanduay, which he helped win 3 championships, and Presto Tivoli of the old Great Taste franchise, which upset Purefoods in the 1990 All-Filipino Conference. 

In the series against the Hotdogs, Dela Cruz was handicapped by a broken nose, but he played in pain and helped the veteran-laden Tivolis to win the series. 

"Natatandaan ko noon, championship namin against Purefoods, napa-trouble ako kay Jolas (Jojo Lastimosa). Ang nangyari noon, nag-practice kami sa Acropolis. Nag-fake ako kay Padim Israel, nabagsakan ako ng siko sa mukha, basag ’yung ilong ko. Lintik ang sirit ng dugo," said Dela Cruz. 

"Pinagpahinga ako. So ensayo lang, shooting, shooting lang muna ako. Nu’ng championship series para lang huwag mawala sa kundisyon.
Nu’ng championship namin, sa rebound, binigyan ako. Ang ginawa ko, binanatan ko kaagad si Jolas. Umarte naman, bumagsak. Sabi ko sa sarili ko, 'Naku, patay na. Fine na naman ito. Yari na naman ako kay (commissioner) Rudy Salud," Dela Cruz said.

But he also experienced mixing it up against fellow enforcers and the one who stood out was "The Destroyer", Rudy Distrito. 

"Kay (Rudy) Distrito naman noon, nag-away kami. Inawat naman kami. Pero si Distrito, bilib ako diyan. Salbahe sa court, pero kapag nasa labas kayo, iba na siya. Sa court, walang kaibi-kaibigan d’yan. Bibirahin ka talaga niyan," Dela Cruz said.

The stocky guard would do whatever it takes to win since they're serving at the pleasure of the management. 

"Ang natutunan ko d’yan, oo, salbahe akong lumaro pero minsan, magsisisi ka rin kapag umuwi ka ng bahay. Pero part of the game ’yan. Kailangan nating kumita ng pera, gawin mo ’yung trabaho mo, para naman ’yung management, maging masaya kapag nanalo," he said.

“Natatandaan ko noon, suki ako kay Rudy Salud. Sasabihin niya, 'O, Onchie, andito ka na naman. Hindi ba sinabi ko sa iyo huwag ka na babalik dito.' Kasi alam mo, pagdating ng game, makakalimutan mo ’yan,” Dela Cruz said.

“Ultimo kaibigan mo, makakalimutan mo kasi ang gusto ninyo manalo. Gagawa ka ng paraan para hindi maka-shoot ’yung kalaban. And’yan ’yung takutin mo, saktan mo agad, para magulat, pati mga imports.”

Among the imports, former NBA champion Wes Matthews of the Los Angeles Lakers, who saw action for Ginebra San Miguel in the season-ending Third Conference of 1991, experienced how rough and tough Dela Cruz was.
 
"Sabi ni (Ignacio) Gotao (team manager) sa akin, gawaan ko ng paraan. Sabi ko naman, 'Ano gusto mo boss'? Sabi niya suntukin ko daw, siya daw bahala sa fine. Nag-isip ako, paano kung ma-ban ako? Ayoko, kaya naisip ko duraan ko na lang. Minura ako ni Matthews, sabi ko 'Don't shoot'," recalled Dela Cruz.

Rey Joble is a sports journalist who has been covering the PBA since 1998, and followed the league as a fan way before that. 

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