Crispa was on the verge of completing a perfect conference. Toyota was trying to stay alive.
With the stakes getting higher, the Redmanizers and the Tamaraws played with much urgency, but the series had its shares of controversy, one which happened on this day, December 11, 1980, during Game 3 of their best-of-5 championship series.
In an unprecedented move, Toyota team manager Pablo Carlos fired Toyota head coach Fort Acuña at halftime for allegedly not following orders from the management to use then team captain Robert Jaworski.
Prior to Game 3, there was an alleged leadership crisis happening at Toyota’s camp with Acuña refusing to field in Jaworski.
In an interview with Bert Eljera of Bulletin Today in a published article a day after the game, Carlos asked Acuña why he didn’t field in Jaworski and the coach’s response angered the team executive.
“He was fired,” told Eljera right after Carlos gave Acuña the boot. “His reply angered me. He simply said he would not use Jaworski without bothering to explain why. If he had any personal reason, he should have kept it to himself.
“We have an obligation to the paying public to always play our best and by not using Jaworski, we are cheating them.”
With Crispa on the verge of completing a 20-game sweep and defending the All-Filipino title, Toyota made this bold move firing its coach and inserting Jaworski, who acted as the de facto playing coach.
It wasn’t the first time Emer Legaspi, then a small forward playing for Toyota, saw Jaworski playing such role.
“When I first played in the PBA (1977) for Toyota, it was an out-of-town game and si Jaworski ’yung coach kasi si coach Dante may competition na sinalihan overseas,” said Legaspi.
“Pinaglaro n’ya ako ng guard, but later on pinaglaro n’ya na ako ng small forward so medyo naging maayos na laro ko.”
Three years later, Legaspi saw Jaworski playing a similar role, but with the entire conference of Toyota at stake.
Legaspi wasn’t surprised that Acuna would not use Jaworski.
“I already knew that Fort will not use Jawo because he told some players, including me, during the game,” added Legaspi.
Mon Fernandez, the team’s starting center, wasn’t surprised on both incidents — the firing of Acuña and the benching of Jaworski.
“I wasn’t surprised (benching of Jaworski) because he informed us of his move,” Fernandez, now the commissioner of the Philippine Sports Commission, wrote to ABS-CBN News Online.
“But I was not surprised both things happened.”
Jaworski’s entry fired up the Toyota team, which trailed by 13 points in the early part of the third period, but managed to climb back behind Fernandez, who scored 10 of his team’s last 12 points.
Fernandez scored a game-high 37 points. At the start of the series, he became the first player to make it to the 2,000-defensive rebound club while also scoring 48 points, but the Tamaraws lost, 108-101.
Acuña died in April 1981 of an apparent suicide.
Rey Joble is a sports journalist who has been covering the PBA since 1998, and followed the league as a fan way before that.