The Big J

Lito A. Tacujan - The Philippine Star
The Big J
Robert Jaworski

(Ed’s note. Here’s an updated version of the tribute to the Big J on the occasion of his 78th birthday Friday)

MANILA, Philippines — Love him or leave him.

They come cascading from the nosebleed section of the coliseum into the parquet floor of the court, rolling in uncanny rhythmic cadence with accent on every syllable.

‘’Ja-wor-ski! Ja-wor-ski! Ja-wor-ski!“came the chant from fans ever loyal and faithful to an ailing Robert Jaworski.

And smarting from the first volley of cheers, the fans would come hollering back, in full throated blast that even non-believers could only watch in awe.

‘’Gi-ne-bra! Gi-ne-bra! Gi-ne-bra!‘’ 

Looking back one wonders what’s in this team and team captain that made them look like a perfect match during their glory years in the PBA, becoming the toast of the entire league?

He isn’t only a legend but a lasting basketball icon as he celebrated his 78th birthday the other day.

These all came back like snatches of memory one acquires frame by frame, filling up a reel to some of the highlights of this man’s career that best defines the kind of basketball we all love – rugged, tough, physical.

He embodies all these old-fashioned traits that somehow got adulterated by naturalization and the onset of Fil-Ams with nebulous roots.

No other player has captured the imagination of fans and ballers. He was called a lot of names – skipper, spiritual leader and above all, BIG J, a moniker reportedly coined by a veteran sports editor long gone. It was in his MICAA days where, during warm-up, he would pick the basketball up with one big hand. From Big Hand to Big J.

Love him or leave him.

No other player could stir up a deeply seated hatred or an outpouring of love than Robert Jaworski.

His charm and charisma dazzled his army of fans who stayed with him for generations. He would stand up and raise his hands and the uproar over poor officiating would immediately die down.

But the man could only do so much and he would reach his breaking point like in Game 6 of the title playoff in the 1990 First Conference against Formula Shell before a full house of screaming crowd.

Frustrated by what he charged was horrendous officiating, he called for a walkout and led the team out of the court. And as if on cue, furious fans stormed out of ULTRA (now PhilSports Arena) and in minutes, league officials watched as the venue turned silent, half-empty and bereft of  Big J diehards.

Jaworski had it all. 

Charismatic and forever full of fight, he was a member of the Philippine team that ruled the Asian Championship several times, claimed a number of PBA titles under the Toyota franchise – nine in all – and with the Ginebra banner – four as playing coach. He was a member of the squad that played in the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympics.

In fact, the PBA owes its existence and unprecedented popularity to this man who is reportedly in serious health condition. His leadership kept his team intact and potent at the height of Crispa-Toyota rivalry, inspiring a war of attrition that fed the fire and passion of the nation.

The PBA is aware of the legacy the man has left the pro league. If Carlos Loyzaga was enshrined in the Hall of Fame for the impact he has created to be named Mr. Basketball in the ‘50s, the Big J should be given the distinction and the honor he richly deserves as Mr. PBA.

And  when that time comes the generation of fans whose lives he has touched would gather one last time in the enclaves of Barangay Ginebra and intone, “JA-WOR-SKI! JA-WOR-SKI! JA-WOR-SKI!”

Indeed, his storied basketball life will live on, anchored on his enduring battlecry: “NEVER SAY DIE!”

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