The PBA opened its third year with a bang on April 17, 1977, as two of the league’s most iconic teams – Crispa and Toyota – renewed their rivalry to start the season.
Like other Crispa-Toyota encounters, the game ended dramatically. But a costly technical foul on Tamaraws coach Dante Silverio with three seconds left sent Redmanizers dead shot Atoy Co to the foul line to nail the marginal free throw that gave the then reigning four-time champion and freshly minted grand slam squad a thrilling 122-121 win.
But the drama that unfolded had its ugly sight when the feverish rivalry of these two teams spilled outside the playing court as on their way to their respective locker rooms, players from both teams figured in a free-for-all.
Forty five years after that incident, Ramon Fernandez and Abe King – then members of Toyota – and Co, the acknowledged ace gunner of Crispa right after he took on the scoring mantle from the injured Bogs Adornado, recalled the ugly incident.
“There was one infamous rumble we had with Crispa. Dinala kaming lahat ni General Olivas. Na-preso kaming lahat sa (Camp) Bonifacio,” Fernandez recalled.
King, an incoming rookie, witnessed what happened on and off the court, but considered himself fortunate not being a part of the incident.
He just played in a championship game for Crown Motors, Toyota’s farm team in the MICAA.
“Rookie ako noon, pero hindi ako naglalaro. I was at the sidelines during that time, as a viewer, spectator. Hindi ako naka-uniform at that time. Katatapos lang kasi ng MICAA noon,” King said.
“Sobrang intense nu’ng rivalry noon. Sobrang init parati ng laro, sa umpisa pa lang. Parang parating nagkakaroon ng personalan.”
Co gave a more vivid recollection of the incident.
“Kasi, tapos na ’yung game. Suwerte, nanalo kami. Tapos naiwan pa kami sa court, may mga naunang players. Sa Araneta ’yun. Siyempre ’yung labasan, isang steel gate lang ’yun. Tapos nakita namin nagkakagulo, nagkakatakbuhan,” he recalled.
“Mga five meters from the gate. Tapos lumalabas itong si Ramon Fernandez, parang nabatukan niya si (coach) Baby Dalupan. Eh siyempre kami, nagkaharap na parang instinct na lang. Hindi ko na naisip na si Fernandez ’yun. Instinct na lang. Kasi nga may away. Kami ang nagkatapat. Kasi kaya ’yun nakunan ng photographer, ’yung mga photographers, nasa likod pa namin behind the gate kaya nakunan ’yun. ’Yun rin ’yung lumabas sa Daily Express.”
The main protagonists of this infamous rumble didn’t escape the watchful eyes of our law enforcers. At that time, the country, under President Ferdinand Marcos, was placed under Martial Law.
“After that, the next day, may practice kami sa Araneta. Tapos may nagpasabi na after the practice, dumerecho kami sa Camp Crame. Natanong ko sarili ko, ‘Bakit kaya?’ Siguro dahil sa away. After practice, naka-short pa kaming lahat, naka T-shirt. Tumuloy kami doon. Tapos pinatuloy kami derecho sa opisina ni General (Prospero) Olivas. Siya ’yung parang head pa ng Metrocom at that time,” said Co.
“There's a big, long table. We were at the other side, facing sa right side namin si General Olivas. Tapos dumating rin mga Toyota players, andu’n naman sila sa kabilang side.”
What happened next was beyond imagination of these players, hard-court heroes looked up to by young players, loved and adored by many.
“Tapos sinabi ni General Olivas, 'Hindi tama ginagawa niyo. Alam niyo bang pinanonood kayo ng mga bata?' Para daw nagiging bad example kami. Tapos sinabi niya, ‘Baka gusto niyo ipakulong ko kayong lahat!’ Nu’ng sinabi niyang papakulong niya kaming lahat, para kaming ngumisi, pero hindi tumawa. Parang hindi kami maniwala na ipapakulong kami,” Co said.
“Eh parang bigla na lang, napikon yata si General. Sabi, ‘Book them.’ Nu’ng pagkasabing book them, maya-maya may dumadating na na apat na makenilya. Tapos, fingerprint na kaming lahat. After that, isinakay na kaming lahat sa Metrocom bus, dinala kami sa Fort Bonifacio. Ikinulong kami sa mga may kasong pulis. Sa isang kulungan lang kami nilagay, mga players ng Crispa at Toyota. Ayun, sa isang kulungan, kuwentuhan. Kanya-kanyang kantiyawan, 'Sabi na huwag na gagawin ito, eh’.”
Even inside the cell, that so-called rivalry was present and Co described the atmosphere even during the time when they were locked up.
“Wala rin kaming kibuan sa loob. Crispa, Crispa. Toyota, Toyota. Parang naiilang kami sa isa't-isa. ’Yung mga Toyota players naman nu’ng araw, nagkikita kami sa disco, pero batian lang kasi siyempre, medyo nagkakailangan. Sa isang lugar sila, sa isang lugar kami. Para kaming may Berlin Wall,” Co said.
“Pero nu’ng ikinulong kami na sama-sama kami, mas masarap pagkain namin. Pagkain namin galing Casa Marcos. Kasi ’yun ang favorite place ni Mr. Danny Floro. Kapag nananalo kami, champion, doon kami nagsi-celebrate. Nu’ng nakulong kaming lahat, Casa Marcos pa rin kami. Steak pa rin.”
Newspaper accounts of that infamous were able to bring life to those people involved.
"When it was all over, Fernandez emerged with a nasty cut below his right eye. He walked out of the coliseum clutching chunks of ice trained at his cut eye, which was a bit close and puffy," wrote veteran sports journalist Al Mendoza, who was then a scribe for Bulletin Today.
"Crispa's Rodolfo Soriano took a pebble-sized lump over his right eye and another lump beside his mouth besides having absorbed bruises in the neck and arms. Rey Franco, Soriano's teammate, showed a reddened right ear and majority of the players from both camps showed marks of punches and clawing."
Veteran sportscaster Sev Sarmenta, who also covered the Anejo-Presto Battle For Third encounter in 1988 and considered to be the worst on-court brawl, witnessed the free-for-all during the Crispa-Toyota match 45 years ago as an avid PBA fan.
"I was also a fan in the audience when Toyota and Crispa fought in the Araneta walkway after opening day of 1977 season. Buti na lang hindi siya nag-spill over sa audience," said Sarmenta. "Ikinulong silang lahat kasi Martial Law noon."