Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. passed away on the evening of June 16 from what I was told an illness he has been battling for some time now.
He was 85.
I do not claim to know the man like his family does. Nor have I worked with him in any of his companies or sports ventures.
I met him a grand total of twice, but each time was a lengthy one-on-one conversation. The first was at his office at the San Miguel Corp. headquarters about three or four years ago. The second was like an hour and a half after a basketball game.
It was the first meeting that was more memorable. I was there to discuss a book about his sports teams — from Northern Consolidated Cement to San Miguel and to La Salle. Throw in his love for horse racing, too. Thirty minutes were allocated to me by his executive secretary. I had to defend the project.
It ended more than four hours and 30 minutes later. ECJ had Mang Joe, his chef, whip us up a five-course lunch. He had some delicacies brought over and he even asked his aide to go to his house to bring me a bottle each of white and red wines from his vineyard in Australia. There was more to me mentioning that. I will get to it later.
Danding Cojuangco was a man of opposites.
He was related to former Philippine President Cory Aquino and yet his political leanings were the opposite.
He spent more years in the Ateneo Grade School than any other school he went to but he supports La Salle.
He believed in a free exchange of ideas, yet, he advocated a heavy-handed approach to management.
However, that to me wasn’t what he should be remembered.
Basketball mind ahead of his time
I think of him as a builder.
Look at San Miguel Corp. Whatever the story was about his acquisition of it, it did grow. Although he pointed to Ramon Ang as the visionary.
I asked him about his choice of Ang as his successor and his response was: “The problem with most families of successful businessmen is they hand over the reins to their family. I believe you give it to the person best suited for it. And the growth of San Miguel is Ramon. It was his vision to diversify. What do I know about these other things? I am a farmer at heart. I am thankful though that he runs important matters through me even if he doesn’t need to. But that is loyalty and respect.”
Look at SMC now, the model of a top international corporation.
That fabled NCC team? He was ahead of his time, this team of the best collegiate players backstopped by naturalized players long before anyone did that was amazing. In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Smart Gilas picked up the baton 22 years after NCC’s swan song. And now, it has been once more revived with the Gilas Cadets.
His bringing in Ron Jacobs to coach was a high watermark in Philippine basketball. Because in the era of ouido coaches, he stood out with a scientific approach. I recall one time how when Jacobs took over San Miguel Beer, one of his players said that in their first week together, they didn’t touch a ball. They had classroom sessions where players studied the PBA rulebook and the plays they needed to run. They had to draw it on the board. That season, the Beermen led the league in forced turnovers and were en route to a second period of dominance under Jong Uichico.
And I think of what ECJ said: You get people who are capable and not people are lesser than you. Hence, SMC, NCC and the Beermen. I found myself nodding in agreement as I recalled a similar quote about advertising legend David Ogilvy advocated the hiring of people better than yourself because they will make the company and you look good.
When the San Miguel Beermen version 2.0 returned to the PBA, Crispa, Toyota and Great Taste were the leaders in championships won. Well, Cojuangco started the Beermen out on their road to dominance. And the record for PBA crowns is all theirs.
And there was his patronage for the La Salle Green Archers that began in the late 1970s, to which he returned in this second decade of the new millennium.
One might say that his sports teams escalated competition and brought that “win-at-all-costs” mentality. On the flip side, one could say that it elevated levels of competition and performance.
While most only know of his patronage of basketball teams, ECJ was just as passionate if not maybe more about horse racing. That and his own vineyard in Australia.
That first meeting at the SMC office was postponed once, because ECJ was ill. Then one day, his then executive secretary called to say that the Ambassador was free to see me. When I arrived, he had a spring in his step and was the one who personally opened the door to greet me. I was stunned. This. Man. Is. A. Tycoon. And who was I that he would open the door for me?
I wasn’t sure what to call him. I stammered, “Mr. Cojuangco . . .” I began. He laughed, “Mr. Cojuangco is my father… just call me Danding.” I said, “Sir, I am not close enough to even say that without an appellation.”
He laughed once more while extending a bowl of fruit. “Is boss all right?”
Bueno, he accented.
During that meeting, he asked Mang Joe to prepare a five-course lunch for the two of us. We sat in front of each other and spoke about many things. “Ask me about anything and I will answer,” he said. Even the off-limits. He did with candor and brutal and sometimes frightening honesty.
Over that lunch, he suddenly broke stride and said, “Joe, wala nang kanin si Mr. Olivares.”
Imagine that. Despite his getting in on the years, his faculties were sound, as was his observation. People talk about his vision. And that isn’t just being goal-oriented. It is his powers of observation.
That book that I proposed to write about? What he said was he wasn’t comfortable talking about himself. I replied that he didn’t need to; we could have his former coaches and players do that. Bueno, he said. I left him the draft of the proposal but about three weeks after he fell ill once more. So it got postponed. When we next spoke it was after a basketball game and while many of the La Salle supporters were present, he took me aside to chat for an hour and a half as we talked about resuming the project and other personal matters such as family and health.
Except now, the book will not happen.
Then as it was, it will be others to talk about him.
Rest in peace, Boss Danding.
That game of your life was well-played.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).