Joel Banal, PBA's original big guard, was a winner wherever he went

Joel Banal led Ateneo to the 2002 UAAP title. Ernie Sarmiento

Joel Banal has been a winner in every stage of his life, starting as a college player with the Mapua Cardinals in the 1970s, to his journey with the national youth team to the men's squad, his professional career with Great Taste in the PBA, and his coaching career that saw him win titles in four different leagues.

While he never really won an NCAA championship with the Cardinals as a player, the time he invested working on his game and his learner attitude served as a strong bedrock for his eventual championship-littered pro basketball career.

That same attitude shaped the way he viewed life, especially when he transitioned to coaching, winning NCAA championships with his alma mater Mapua, Ateneo-Hapee in the PBL, and Ateneo in the UAAP before becoming a champion coach as well in the PBA with Talk 'N Text.

Humble beginnings

Banal joined Mapua during the mid-1970s as a 5-11 guard. He initially played point guard due to his height, but a few years later, he shot up to 6-4. However, he stuck to his point guard duties, dishing off assists and setting up his teammates during games.

"When I started in Mapua, I was 5-11. During that time, the mindset of a coach is, if you're a small player you play point guard. But then, I grew to 6-4, and because I had the experience of handling the ball, I knew I could do it," Banal said in a conversation with An Eternity of Basketball.

Back then, a young upstart and big guard by the name of Earvin "Magic" Johnson was dominating the US NCAA scene. He eventually got drafted and starred for the LA Lakers in the NBA, popularizing high-octane basketball known as the "Showtime".

"I liked to dominate, but still, I liked to get my teammates involved because during that time Magic Johnson was the idol of everyone," he recalled.

Banal didn't win an NCAA title with his Mapua, but right after his first year in college, having spent much of his time playing against more experienced players in practice, he felt his skills improve tremendously.

"During my first year in playing in Mapua, that was 1976, I played well already. It really honed my skills because all I did was practice," Banal said. "Thanks to my coaches, I was so ripe. So right after my first year in NCAA, we were called to try out for the national team," he added.

Being a gem of a young talent, Banal was practically a shoo-in for the youth team. But he remembered how one of the BAP (Basketball Association of the Philippines) officials named Nes Mayoralgo approached him one time and told him something that caught him off-guard.

"I remember Nes Mayoralgo, he talked to me and said, 'Joel, you're just 18. Puwede ba sa next Youth (tournament) ka na?' Parang he was asking me if puwede hindi niya muna ako kunin," the 62-year-old Banal recounted.

Though he did skip the 1977 edition, which the Philippines won in Kuwait, Banal eventually made it to the next ABC Youth tournament the following year.

As a versatile player who could play multiple positions at any given time, Banal remembered teaming up with Chito Loyzaga and Marte Saldaña and combining for over 50 points in their gold medal match against China to help the Philippines retain its ABC Youth championship at the Araneta Coliseum.

"I was raising the trophy at the Araneta Coliseum and I was trembling. We made everyone proud because we were no. 1 in Asia," he said.

Tug of war

Being a young and talented basketball prospect, Banal became the apple of Toyota and Crispa's eyes after averaging a tournament-best 23 points per contest in the NCAA in his second year.

Crispa, in particular, was showing keen interest in him. "Three times, Crispa was trying to get me and three times, I was at the office of (Crispa owner) Danny Floro," Banal recalled.

But in the end, Toyota won out thanks to what Banal feels was a good strategy.

"I felt like probably I'm okay (to play in the commercial league) because these top two teams in the PBA were recruiting me already," he shared. "Toyota had a very good strategy. Their players then were Mon Fernandez and (Sonny) Jaworski, they were my idols and I was 18 and I practiced with them. And so practicing with them was like so surreal," Banal continued.

"I couldn't believe Jaworski was passing the ball to me and I scored and then Mon Fernandez was giving me high fives. It's like I was dreaming," he said, with a smile on his face. "So I signed (with Toyota's farm team Crown Motors). "It was a good technique, playing with your idols. I signed without asking my father or my brothers and so they got me already."

Back then, collegiate rules barred players from playing in the commercial leagues like the MICAA. When players elected to play in the commercial league, they lost their chance of returning to play for their school teams.

"I felt I love challenges. I felt I've done this already. What's in it for me next year?" Banal said, referring to his first two years with Mapua.

By opting to move to the commercial league, Banal eventually lost his scholarship at Mapua. But he was determined to earn his degree with Mapua.

"Though I prematurely moved to the commercial league I really tried my best to finish my studies. To me that's so important," Banal stressed. "Yes, I was also in the national team for three years, and there were times we'd go abroad, but Toyota (Crown Motors) was already paying for my tuition because I lost my scholarship when I moved (to the commercial league)."

Turning pro

Shortly after his stint with Crown Motors, the team decided to disband, allowing Banal to sign up with Great Taste's farm team in the semi-pro league.

By 1981, Banal felt he was ripe for the pros. He joined the PBA and suited up for the Presto Fun Drinks under coach Jimmy Mariano beginning in the second conference that season.

As a rookie, Banal showed huge potential as he went on to average 8.6 points and three assists per contest.

Speaking fondly of Mariano, the former Filipino basketball Olympian, Banal described him as his "favorite coach."

"I love him so much because he loves me. Parang ako lang ang kailangan niya sa loob ng court. I felt so valuable and needed," he said with a grin. "I don't know who else but probably Mon Fernandez or Sonny Jaworski, but I was one of the rare local players in the PBA who played 48 minutes, like I played in two games for 48 minutes."

Although Presto was then a middle-tier squad, the team's fortunes started to change heading to the 1983 season. With a Fil-Am super rookie by the name of Ricardo Brown and three-time league MVP William "Bogs" Adornado leading the charge, the pioneer PBA franchise reached the finals twice in the Reinforced Conference and Open Conference in 1983.

Both times, Great Taste lost to the Billy Ray Bates-led Crispa squad, which went on to win a second Grand Slam title.

By 1984, Banal said Great Taste seemed poised to win a championship with the entry of former Toyota playersArnie Tuadles and Chito Loyzaga, Woodrow Balani and Redentos Vicentor from Galerie Dominique as well as Frankie Lim from Tanduay.

After a quarterfinal finish in the first All-Filipino Conference, Great Taste reached the finals once more during the 2nd All-Filipino Conference where it arranged a best-of-five titular duel with Fernandez's Beer Hausen.

Tuadles, by then a four-time PBA champion, gathered the Great Taste players in his house for a pre-Finals party.

"What I remembered of Arnie was the first time we went to the finals with him, because he learned this from experience, he held a party in his house just to tell us what it means (to win a championship)," Banal recalled.

Banal felt the party somehow popped the lid for the Great Taste franchise, which went on to score a 3-0 sweep of Beer Hausen in their 1984 Second All-Filipino championship tussle.

That triggered a series of PBA championships for the franchise from there.

"I felt it (party) helped us and we bonded. We had one goal, that was to win the championship that conference. And true enough we started winning because we won four straight championships," he added.

With the strong bond serving as the foundation of Great Taste, and with the legendary coach Virgilio "Baby" Dalupan at the helm, the Coffee Makers whipped Crispa to win the 1984 Invitational conference.

Great Taste kept pouring on the heat, ruling the Open Conference behind 6-foot-9 import Joe Binion in 1985, before successfully defending its All-Filipino crown that same season.

The 1985 season saw Brown take the lead as he went on to win the Most Valuable Player award, joining teammates Manny Victorino and Willie Pearson in the Mythical First team.

Banal spoke highly of Brown.

"We lost twice to Crispa in the finals in 1983 and then we started winning in 1984 to 1985. That's four championship together. So we were together through pains and defeats and victory," shared Banal.

"We had good times together, and this guy (Brown) showed me what dedication means. He runs in the middle of the day, and noontime he runs outside and he's so dedicated," Banal said of the Quick Brown Fox. "We used to protect him because everyone was targeting him (on defense). He broke his rib in one of the playoffs, and he fell but he still played."

Banal believes the Coffee Makers' dominance during the mid-1980s had a lot to do with the team's strong camaraderie.

"Sometimes talent can win you a championship, or sometimes good coaching can win you championships, or management can win you as well. But chemistry will win you four championships," he explained.

"Chemistry will dominate just like what happened to us in Alaska. There's so much chemistry that the team dominated for a long time because if there's no chemistry, after the championship, it will breakdown, egos," Banal added, referring to Alaska's seven PBA titles in a four-year span, including the 1996 Grand Slam crown. Banal by then was serving as one of Alaska coach Tim Cone's deputies.

Retirement and coaching

Banal's basketball career took a downturn though by the time the Coffee Makers were gunning for a Grand Slam championship in the third conference of 1985.

While playing against Tanduay in the semifinals, Banal recounted how he ruptured his Achilles' heel.

"I was already having pain in my Achilles' heel. In fact ang mali yata dun parang meron akong injection, pain killer because I wanted to play and win the Grand Slam. Little did I know it was affecting my Achilles," Banal shared.

"I was playing in defense in the shaded lane. Then someone pushes someone and someone's shoe hit my Achilles. I felt it was so painful that I couldn't move my foot. I don't know what that was, so I limped going back to the bench," he added.

Great Taste eventually lost to amateur guest team Northern Consolidated in their knockout match for one of the two finals berths, their Grand Slam title bid going up in smoke.

Playing in an era where recovering from an Achilles heel injury wasn't easy, Banal admitted going through painful rehabilitation.

"In the 1986 season, during the first game of the semis, exactly one year after I got injured, I had a comeback. But after that game, I was practicing with Great Taste, I kind of felt my other foot was hurting so I stopped," he explained. "I was still feeling my injury and feeling my other foot so that's it."

With nagging foot injuries, Banal decided to hang up his sneakers after just a few years in the PBA, admitting he couldn't afford not to play at his absolute best each game.

But while his basketball career ended prematurely, Banal transitioned to coaching in two years' time when he accepted the challenge of handling Mapua. He led the Cardinals to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992.

A decade later, Banal guided the Ateneo Blue Eagles to the UAAP men's title, just a few months after leading Ateneo's core, known as Hapee, to the PBL title, and a year later led Talk 'N Text to the PBA All-Filipino crown. To this day, he remains one of only two coaches to win titles in the PBA, PBL, UAAP and NCAA, the other being Turo Valenzona.