The PBA has been around for 37 seasons. Teams have come and gone, coaches are replaced every so often (sometimes too often), and thousands of players have been on PBA rosters since the league's inception. Corporations own the teams. It is the players, however, that draw the crowds.
Of about a hundred and fifty players in PBA lineups per season, there is a class that stands out among the rest. Most of the time, these are the money players, the guys who can draw the crowds to the venues, those whose every precise move or spectacular shot drives the fans into a frenzy, leaving them practically salivating in their seats. These gentlemen are the darlings of the basketball masses. To their admirers, they can do no wrong. Then, there are those other types of crowd favorites — those players that resemble folk heroes, not blessed with the all-around skills of the money men, but who tickle the fancy of fans for one reason or the other, be it their hairstyles, the ink on their skin, their size, or their style of play, despite its flaws. Whether main men, or zany characters, the effect is the same: The crowd roars and always wants more!
PBA history will show that the popularity of the former Toyota guard, Ginebra playing coach, and Senator of the Republic, Robert "Sonny" Jaworski has yet to be surpassed. His forceful style of play and on-court machismo, with charisma that could fill any venue, endeared him to legions of basketball diehards. His effect on PBA basketball lingers until today, as his former team, now known as the Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings, can still bring it in, and the current players still fight to the death, as Jaworski taught their predecessors way back in the 1980s. In recognition of his considerable impact on the PBA, the league scheduled a ceremony on 08 July 2012, to formally commend the man for his contributions and retire his famous jersey number 7. Many say this is long overdue. It should be a special night, indeed.
As the league continues to evolve, there have been many players belonging to both types of fan favorites, who have graced the hard court. The Toyota and Crispa core players, such as Philip Cezar, Abet Guidaben, Francis Arnaiz, and Mon Fernandez, among others, each had their adoring fans. But, whenever Tito Varela, whose bald head was a rarity in his day, would come in and start hacking opponents on defense, the crowd cheered just as loudly. Whenever Ginebra bench guy Ed Ducut came into the court, which meant his team was either way, way ahead, or hopelessly behind, the crowd cheered him on, and screamed in delight whether he made a basket or lost the ball due to butter fingers. Everybody loved seeing Johnny Abarrientos dominate the opponent with a dribbling exhibition, capped off by a soft 17-footer from any angle, but the Alaska fans cheered just as hard whenever Johnny's backcourt-mate, Roel Gomez (readers will now do a search on this fellow), would go on one of his 3-point shooting sprees. It didn't happen often, but when it did, Gomez was a sight to see.
Among the imports, the likes of Billy Ray Bates and Tony Harris surely electrified the crowd. Dazzling dunkers, rainbow gunners from the outside, big guys, small guys, the PBA has had it all. From the 70s to the early 90s, imports would score 50-plus points on a regular basis, and fans would enjoy such scoring sprees and offensive exhibitions. There were Lew Massey, Larry McNeil, Carlos Briggs, Jose Slaughter, Rob Williams, Dexter Shouse, and the list goes on and on.
In 1988, Jojo Lastimosa came into the league fresh from a spectacular amateur stint. The hairdo, the strut, the cool demeanor of Jolas drove the fans crazy. It didn't hurt that the guy had some skills. Some sportswriters and commentators were comparing his early popularity to that of Jaworski. Jolas would play to the crowd. When David Thirdkill passed to him all alone on the fastbreak, he wouldn't just lay the ball in. He would lay it in after doing a three-sixty spin. He could sky so high, with those thunder thighs, hang in the air and be spectacular. Alvin Patrimonio became his teammate in the 3rd conference and quickly joined Jolas as a darling of the crowd, with artista looks and a post-up game that rivaled Celtics great Kevin McHale's. The fans screamed and wailed and never failed to watch the games live, for the chance to get up close and personal with their idols.
Lastimosa's popularity never did reach that of Jaworski (a lofty perch to reach), and his all-business, serious persona with his post-Purefoods teams may have shooed away some admirers. At its peak, however, the magnetism of Jolas was a strong indication of how powerful the attraction for fans to a player can be.
Mark Caguioa finds himself today in a position that many others would envy. He is the unquestioned leader on the most popular team, with an array of moves that dazzle. He has the heart of a fighter, and never quits. He is already idolized as a basketball player, yet, with his ever-changing hairdo, his one-word-answer interviews and penchant for being "different", he has managed to claim thousands of followers more. While known as The Spark, he is in fact the PBA version of The Answer, Allen Iverson of the NBA, who would scoff at practice but hit clutch baskets in the games that really count. While the Ginebra fans used to chant "Ja-wor-ski!", now they chant "Ca-gui-oa!"
Perhaps rivaling Caguioa as a PBA must-watch, James Yap has the game, the nickname (Big Game James), and enough controversy under his belt to be not just a basketball figure, but a national character. Out-of-town PBA games involving his team draw crowds simply because people want to see the fellow that married the President's sister, aside from the signature moves that made him a two-time MVP.
Then, there is the man named Alex Crisano. During Powerade's strong run in the First Conference this season, fans were heard chanting "Cri-sa-no!" during one his short stints on the court wherein he had a couple of blocks, rebounds and about five tumbles to the hard court trying to track down loose balls. The TV commentator recalled that only Jaworski, Caguioa and a few other Ginebra-related players ever had their names chanted that way. What Crisano lacks in natural basketball skills, he more than makes up for in effort and crowd-pleasing personality. He loves to play to the fans, to get the crowd behind his team with his exploits and antics. He personifies the entertainment aspect of the PBA. He reminds the fans, and the other players too, that everyone is at the venue to have fun, to enjoy, and to feel good because they are all part of the sport where giant men fight for a little ball to put into a slightly bigger hoop.
In the world of the PBA, where even bench players have their own fan clubs and cagers date or even marry models and/or actresses on a regular basis, the biggest stars are the basketball personalities that can perform under the bright lights, bring in the crowds, make the fans cheer at the top of their voices, and make the audience want to keep coming back for more and more. Now, that's entertainment!