A night of nostalgia: Toyota Tamaraws celebrate 50th anniversary

The legendary Toyota Tamaraws reunited on Saturday to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Ernie Sarmiento

Some of them walk gingerly now, and virtually all of them are on some form of maintenance medicine. Ed Camus, a back-up center, even joked that his height was now in between 6-foot-4 and 6-5 as his legs are no longer equal in length from his bad hips.

But for ten-plus years beginning in 1973, these senior citizens were part of one of the most-popular and talented teams in Philippine basketball history.

And for one night, several remaining players reunited with their beloved coach and benefactor to sing Beatles songs, recall the time they were thrown in jail with their hated rivals, and generally reminisce about that era when the Toyota Comets/Silver Tamaraws/Tamaraws/Super Corollas/Silver Coronas were basketball royalty.

And so it was that they gathered on a Saturday night in Makati to celebrate 50 years since of being friends and teammates while watching old clips of their games, remembering those who had gone ahead and signing all sorts of memorabilia thrust in front of them by the few lucky fans invited to the event.

"The turnout was very good," said Gil Cortez, the reunion's chief organizer and the team's (and Philippine Basketball Association's) first Rookie of the Year winner. "We thank our coach Dante Silverio for gracing the occasion.

"Since the pandemic is over, we thought of doing it because we're not getting any younger. Everyone is getting old and it's high time that we do it especially since it's our 50th year. It's just fitting that we have this kind of activity."

The Toyota franchise won one championship in the Manila Inter-Commercial Athletic Association and nine in the PBA and produced two future Most Valuable Players, two Rookies of the Year and two Best Import awardees.

Three members of the 25 Greatest PBA Players, named in 2000, suited up for Toyota for the franchise's entire nine-season run. Another one played four seasons. During one season, three of their players were named to the Mythical Five while their two imports finished 1-2 in the voting for Best Import. They were, undoubtedly, a team for the ages.

"Can you imagine? Fifty years, and people are still talking about us," remarked Silverio in his welcome speech. "Isn't that something? We tried to give our best when we played the game, that's why we won championships. And in defeat, we were also humble enough to accept that."

Toyota's history is inevitably intertwined with the Crispa Redmanizers, the Muhammad Ali to its Joe Frazier. The two storied franchises won 13 of the PBA's first 15 championships and faced off in the finals ten times, with Crispa winning six.

No Philippine basketball rivalry was as heated as Crispa-Toyota (or Toyota-Crispa, depending on your allegiance). It became a cultural touchstone, and even today fans from both sides have dedicated Facebook team pages and engage in heated debates whenever their paths cross online.

Like Manny Pacquiao decades later, streets across the Philippines were deserted whenever the two teams met. And like Ali and Frazier, the two sides often came to blows.

One particular brawl in 1977 was so bad that the Philippine Constabulary finally hauled them off for a night in jail to teach them a lesson. "They said that we were just being invited for questioning," Mon Fernandez, the franchise's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, recalled to ESPN. "But when we got there, they were suddenly taking our fingerprints."

Even in a cramped cell, both teams wanted to get an edge.

"The Crispa players were the first to enter the cell," Fernandez continued. "They were nearest to the toilet. By the time it was early morning, their side of the cell smelled really bad. But they wouldn't budge."

When the wife of Crispa guard Tito Varela, who sported a bald pate years before it became fashionable, arrived to check on him, guard Ompong Segura recalled team captain Robert 'Sonny' Jaworski shouting, "Hey Tito, your wife's here with your wig!"

The driving force behind the franchise and the life of the reunion party was Silverio, the team's first PBA coach and later team manager whom all the players still call by his nickname 'Osbok'.

Silverio, a former race car driver who took on the Toyota coaching job despite zero basketball experience, looked spry and energetic for someone who just turned 85, singing three Beatles songs and dancing like it was 1973 while wearing a perpetual smile throughout the night.

"He's a great coach, he's a great person," Cortez said of Silverio, who hosted the event at a building his family owns. "He's lovable. Up to now, he loves to dress up. He's fashionable. That's where we got our being fashionable as well."

"Dante Silverio is the epitome of a leader," said Fernandez. "He motivated us. He was a car racer turned into a coach, but because we believed in him, the team became successful. It's the respect that he gets from all of us."

Under Silverio, Toyota won five PBA titles, including the league's first two. That achievement is not lost on him.

"We won the first PBA championship, we won the second PBA championship," he said. "We lost the third conference, but I'm really happy to be the first team to win a PBA championship."

The team's most popular player of all time was Jaworski, starting point guard and 1978 MVP. Unable to attend due to a serious ailment, he sent his son and namesake Robert 'Dodot' Jaworski, Jr. and grandson Renzo in his place.

"He asked me to come and represent him," Dodot said. "He was sad that he couldn't be here because he wanted to see his former teammates. But with God's grace, hopefully there will be another reunion and Dad can see them all again."

If Jaworski was the team's most popular player, Fernandez was perhaps its best and most accomplished. The PBA's all-time leading scorer and rebounder won the first of his four MVPs while with Toyota, and is regarded by many as the greatest PBA player of all time.

On this night, the reverence shown by ordinary folk at the reunion -- waiters, security guards, building employees -- towards 'El Presidente' was palpable, even as his former teammates treated him like one of the boys.

"This is about reminiscing the good old days," Fernandez said. "It brings back memories of our youth, and I'm just so happy that without even planning this event, it pushed through. In our younger days, when we resided in San Lorenzo Village for a few years, then to Bel-Air for several years, all those memories are brought back tonight."

Fernandez was referring to the team's quarters, which were originally located in San Lorenzo Village before moving to Bel-Air Village, where the single players had rooms and could avail of the numerous amenities provided by team management, including free food, a pool table and a swimming pool. The team knew how to take care of its players.

"We were treated like family and we were pampered," said Cortez. "Though I only played (with the team) for less than two years, still Toyota is my family."

By 11 p.m., the party began to wind down, an acknowledgement from the players that this was no longer the 1970s, when they were carefree and adventurous.

A story from that era made its way to the surface once more and drew laughter from everyone: four players led by Fernandez lifted the car of one of their teammates and hid it across the street from the team quarters. The panic-stricken teammate thought it had been stolen.

"It means a lot to me," Silverio said. "I'm just happy that we pushed through with this reunion of our disbanded team. We may be disbanded, but our fire, our togetherness remains. And that's why these players are here tonight, because of their love for our team."

It seems fitting that the team's first moniker was the Comets. For like a comet, Toyota had a brief but once-in-a-lifetime run, passing through the PBA stratosphere and leaving a blazing trail in its wake, the likes of which are only seen every 50 or so years.