Francis Arnaiz remembers
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2014 - 12:00am

SACRAMENTO, California – Relaxed and cheerful. Those are the two words to describe Francis Arnaiz, even when he was still playing in the PBA. Now, he has become even more serene, as his family life is complete with all his children finding their own paths, and he can relish the company of his grandchildren. This writer sat down with the PBA legend to reminisce about his beginnings.

“My teacher told my mother a story of how, when I was four, she saw me after school trying to shoot my knapsack into the hoop at school,” the Negros native revealed. “Then my mother passed the story on to me. Before that, I remember taking off my socks and shooting them in the clothes hamper.”

Splitting his time between soccer and basketball, Arnaiz would be ready to run from the classroom even before the dismissal bell rang, trying to maximize the daylight. He would rush to the football field or outdoor courts, and play until it got dark. Then he would run to his home a couple of kilometers every day. Eventually, he would be good enough to play for his grade school and high school teams at St. Clement’s and earn a trip to Manila to play in the national PRISAA tournament, where they were, frankly, ignored. But they beat the NCAA champion and Visayan champion and other top-tier schools from big cities to win a national title.

“What made that special was that nobody gave us a chance,” Arnaiz recalls with the familiar twinkle in his eyes. “People were focused on our senior team. But we beat all the big schools. It was unforgettable.”

Armaiz was recruited by Ateneo de Manila athletic director Fr. Edgar Martin, SJ and was just thrilled to be able to play the game and get an education. He led the Blue Eagles to the 1969 NCAA basketball championship, but admittedly, didn’t put any effort into studying, and ended up returning home to Bacolod. Still, the lure of Manila was just too strong. The 5’9” guard found himself playing for Meralco in the MICAA, where he would be paired for the first time with a player he had never been teammates with before, but would forever be identified with: Robert Jaworski.

After helping Meralco win the MICAA overall championship in 1971, Arnaiz and Jaworski’s teamwork and friendship grew into something special. They both ended up on the pioneer Toyota squad in the PBA’s maiden season in 1975, and won two of the three tournaments played. 

“They sat me down and said, ‘Now you’re going to be a professional.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’” Arnaiz laughed. “They said, ‘It means you’re going to have a contract, and you’ll get paid more.’ I said, wow!”

At the end of the first PBA season, Arnaiz received an unexpected accolade from the highest official of the land.

“The PBA named Bogs Adornado the MVP at the end of the season,” Francis told this writer in his living room here. “But a new award had been created, the “Malakas at Maganda” which honored the best athlete from every sport. I was named Professional Basketball Athlete of Year, and Pres. Marcos handed me the trophy himself.”

Arnaiz soon distinguished himself as the PBA’s answer to Jerry West, our own “Mr. Clutch”. But people didn’t know that his daring and fearlessness came from hours of extra practice, in the mornings before Toyota would converge on the gym, and often after practice had ended. Arnaiz says he also started the practice of shooting the teardrop or “palobo”, which took him years to perfect, and became the most effective weapon against seven-foot imports.

Arnaiz also followed Jaworski in starting something new with Gilbey’s Gin, which inevitably became Ginebra. They saw it as an opportunity to rebuild a team and establish themselves as leaders in a new environment. But by the mid-1980’s, the diminutive guard realized it was time to move on.

“It was really just time to do something else, that simple,” says Arnaiz, who will be retiring from a government position in the California state capitol this December. “There were times after a particularly tough game, my knee would hurt so bad and swell so much, they would have to drain the fluid.”

Arnaiz has since lived a contented life with his wife and three children and grandchildren in California, and is looking forward to visiting the Philippines again in October. After that, it will be a well-deserved series of travels for the man who loved the game, knew when to walk away, and created a whole new happy life for himself and his children. And as time passes, Francis Arnaiz treasures more and more the times when he gave millions the pure joy of watching him become one of the best basketball players the Philippines has ever seen.



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