An oral history of the game that spawned Ginebra's never-say-die mantra

Francis Arnaiz: Jaworski specialized in everything (1:20)

Francis Arnaiz talks about Sonny Jaworski's diverse skillset. (1:20)

The generation of sportswriters who covered his early PBA playing days called him The Big J. The more recent one christened him The Living Legend. To everyone else, meaning the rest of the Philippine population, he is known simply as "Jawo".

Whatever nickname he goes by, he's a certified basketball god. And since he's turning 75, starting on March 2 up to his birthday on March 8 will be publishing seven - it has to be seven - articles on Robert Jaworski, Sr.

In the sixth of our seven "Jaworski at 75" features, we talk to several personalities who were witness to the game that is widely acknowledged to have sparked the never-say-die attitude of the Ginebra franchise

LEGEND HAS IT that Ginebra's mantra of never-say-die, or simply known as #NSD, was born on October 22, 1985. It was the PBA's Reinforced Conference, with seven teams, including guest squad Northern Cement (NCC), going through a double-round elimination round. The prize for the top two teams was an outright berth into the four-team semifinals, with the next four teams duking it out in the single-round robin quarterfinals.

Manila Beer had clinched the first outright semifinal slot with a 9-3 record. Three other teams - Magnolia, Ginebra, and NCC - tied for second with identical 7-5 marks. To break the tie, the league ruled that Ginebra and NCC, who had inferior quotients, would meet in a stepladder knockout game, with the winner facing Magnolia for the second semifinal berth.

That Ginebra-NCC tiff would later become known as the #NSD game thanks to Sonny Jaworski's dramatic return from a trip to the hospital after suffering a serious cut in the second quarter. We talked to some of the players, an assistant coach, and a concerned son about that historic night.

Rino Salazar, Ginebra assistant coach: If you remember our game against NCC, that's where it started. Sonny was accidentally hit by Jeff Moore in his upper lip. He went to the hospital and got seven stitches (note: other reports placed it at nine stitches) and then he came back and played. He made big plays towards the end of the game. That's where it started.

Allan Caidic, NCC guard: I remember we were ahead by a big margin and they came back, inspired by the return of Coach Sonny after he was brought to the hospital.

Francis Arnaiz, Ginebra guard who joined the Ginebra franchise at the same time as Jaworski: When we joined, it was still Gilbey's Gin. But I don't really think they had the spirit of what Ginebra is now. I believe - and I strongly believe this - the one who brought that there was Sonny Jaworski. That was what he gave to Ginebra, his spirit. It started when he joined Ginebra. I was just the companion. I played the same way, I always played a hundred percent. From first quarter to the last, it was all out. But the man responsible for the Ginebra spirit was Sonny Jaworski. There's no doubt.

The TV panel for this game featured the legendary Joe Cantada and veteran Andy Jao.

The starters for both teams were:

Ginebra - Michael Hackett, Sonny Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz, Terry Saldaña, Joey Marquez

NCC - Dennis Still, Samboy Lim, Hector Calma, Yves Dignadice, Jeff Moore

Cantada set the tone early on with this line after Jaworski was introduced: "And here is easily the most popular cager in the land, and he's been that for many years now. Sonny Jaworski, playing coach for Ginebra San Miguel."

The Nationals first tasted a double-digit lead when Lim scored on a short stab with around 3:35 left in the first to make it 20-9. They were running at every opportunity and were going for high-percentage shots from within 15 feet with not a single three-point attempt at that point.

But Arnie Tuadles came off the bench to fuel an 8-0 Ginebra run which brought the crowd to its feet. Cantada chose the moment to inform the TV audience that "Ginebra San Miguel figured in the nine best-attended games of the third conference of the PBA". The groundwork for #NSD had been laid out in that conference.

Ginebra weathered that early run by NCC to take a 23-22 lead heading into the second quarter.

NCC tried to pull away again, staking a 40-33 lead before Arnaiz and Hackett both scored to cut it to 40-37. It was at this point when the game turned.

Tonichi Yturri missed a baseline jumper, and Moore and Jaworski both jumped to contest the rebound. Jaworski jumped first, going straight up to collar the rebound. Moore, coming from the weakside, jumped into the Ginebra playing coach as he too tried to get the ball in the air. But his right elbow collided with Jaworski's lip and both of them crashed to the floor. There was no call, and play continued even though Jaworski was still down and blood could be seen on his mouth. Due to the rules back then on stoppage of play for an injury, it was only after the ball was tapped out of bounds on NCC's next trip down the court that Jaworski was subbed out. The PBA's resident physician at the time, Dr. Ben Salud, quickly took a look at the gaping wound. "While the game is in progress, there is no way you can stop play even if somebody is really injured," Jao noted.

Before that, the Big J dusted himself off and tried to play defense on an NCC fastbreak attempt.

"Jaworski bleeding from the mouth!" Cantada exclaimed.

A few baskets later, the camera caught Jaworski walking to the ULTRA's locker room area, holding a white towel over his mouth. NCC would take a 50-46 lead into the halftime break.


Freddie and Sonny, rivals and co-stars

Freddie Webb and Sonny Jaworski were rivals on court and co-stars on the silver screen.

A FEW SECONDS into the third period, Jao informed the TV audience that Jaworski had been brought to the hospital. "It's doubtful if he can come back," he noted. "Ginebra San Miguel will have to go at it alone without their coach and spiritual leader," Cantada added.

Salazar: I really thought he wasn't coming back because I saw the cut in his upper lip. It was really big. I said, "Oh my God."

Part of the myth that has been passed on through the years was that NCC pulled away once Jaworski left and Ginebra was down big when he returned. In reality, the Gins actually grabbed the lead, 55-53, early in the third period on an undergoal stab by Hackett.

The crowd was back in a frenzy, and Cantada uttered what was probably the first-ever reference to Ginebra's "homecourt advantage" when he remarked, "There's nothing like a homecourt advantage, and this is practically a homecourt advantage for Ginebra San Miguel."

(Sidenote: Samboy Lim could really play. He tied the game at 55 on a hangtime move with Arnie Tuadles practically draped all over him.)

Lim's basket sparked an 8-0 NCC run that gave them a 61-55 lead with around 4:30 left. After Arnaiz turned the ball over, Salazar sued for time. During the timeout, Jaworski reappeared on the Ginebra bench (a "miraculous reappearance", according to Cantada), his upper lip bandaged. He had been brought to the Cardinal Santos Memorial Hospital where he was given nine stitches on his upper lip, Cantada reported.

Salazar: I didn't know if he was coming back, but when I saw him, our spirits were lifted. We were up against NCC. Ron Jacobs and they had a really strong team: Allan Caidic, Samboy Lim, Hector Calma.

Dennis Still, NCC center: One thing about the Philippines: the crowd. Love their basketball, and they love Jaworski. When he did come back in, it was like, "Oh Lord. Here we go." It was all quiet now, and he came in and he's like "Let's go!".

After both teams traded baskets, Jaworski reentered the game. From the time he left, NCC had outscored Ginebra by a marginal 23-20, so the Gins did well while he was out. In fact, as soon as he returned, Moore scored seven straight points against a lone basket by Saldaña to give NCC a 70-59 spread. But the Gins closed the quarter with a 9-4 run highlighted by Jaworski's first triple of the game to come to within 74-68 entering the fourth.

Caidic: It was really loud especially when Ginebra was rallying. Back then, fans would throw coins onto the floor whenever there was a wrong or controversial call.

This was exactly what happened early in the fourth with NCC leading 76-71. Moore had picked off a pass and was streaking downcourt with only Jaworski to contend with. Jaworski appeared to stop his run just when Moore elevated for a layup, which missed. A referee blew his whistle, Jaworski reacted with outrage, and the fans started pelting the ULTRA floor with all sorts of debris. Cantada seemed to agree with Jaworski, calling it "a rather questionable call. Did Sonny even lift a finger?"

Play was halted for several minutes as utility personnel cleared the court and game officials gave the crowd extra time to calm down.

That call was as much a catalyst for the birth of #NSD as Jaworski's dramatic comeback from the hospital, for it fired up the Big J.

After Moore sank both free throws to make it 78-71, Jaworski uncorked a triple that sparked an 18-8 run that gave the Gins an 89-86 lead. His three-point play off a Moore foul were the go-ahead points. After Calma hit a jumper, Jaworski barreled down the lane once more and converted on an acrobatic scoop shot that had the crowd drunk with euphoria.

Salazar: The crowd went wild because he was hurting but he still delivered.

On the next play he forced Still into an out-of-bounds violation. Still, upset by what he felt was a no-call earlier, was whistled for a technical foul moments later to the further delight of the crowd, with Hackett converting the free throw to give Ginebra a 92-88 lead with less than five minutes left. #NSD was taking form.

Still: [Jaworski] would chop you up left and right. And he wouldn't smile at you either. Look at you like you're crazy. He knocked Jeff out, almost broke his knee. Then after the game he'd be like, "How you doing, Dennis?"

After Calma hit another jumper, Hackett found Jaworski cutting to the basket for an easy layup to restore the Gins' four-point spread.

But the Nationals fought back. An Elmer Reyes basket capped a 6-1 run to give them back the lead at 96-95 with a little over a minute left before a Hackett putback with 43 ticks left restored the lead for Ginebra.

Then fittingly, it was Jaworski who delivered the coup de grace. NCC went for a quick basket to get the ball back in the event of another Ginebra score, but they failed to convert. Jaworski brought the ball down and set up Hackett in the low block. The Nationals instinctively collapsed on Hackett, who had burned them for 34 points already. Jaworski slid behind them along the baseline, received a pass from Hackett and sank the game's last basket while drawing a foul. He missed the bonus shot, but grabbed his own rebound to preserve the Gins' 99-96 win. #NSD was officially born.

"This is where never-say-die started. You're already bloodied, your face is a mess, but you still play and win the game." Dodot Jaworski

Elmer Reyes, NCC forward: We were already ahead but we still lost. That's the way it is in this game. I guess it was breaks of the game.

Still: I felt sorry for the guards, because they didn't like to play him at all. He would hit you when the ref wasn't looking. But you know what, he loved the game and that was part of it.

Jaworski scored 12 points in the fourth period, all coming after he was called for that dubious foul. He scored all of his 17 after returning from the hospital.

TWO NIGHTS LATER they would beat Norman Black and Magnolia, 106-98, behind Hackett's monster 48-25 double-double to clinch the second outright semifinal berth.

Ultimately, NCC got the last laugh, sweeping Manila Beer in the finals to become the first - and thus far only - amateur guest team to win a PBA title. Ginebra couldn't sustain its form in the semifinals, going just 2-4 to fall to a third-place best-of-seven series with Great Taste, which Hackett turned into his personal showcase by dropping 103 points and grabbing 45 boards in Game 1 of the series to set the tone for a similar four-game sweep.

But in the grand scheme of things, that game launched a fandom that has spanned several generations of PBA fans. A mantra that started with the original "never-say-die" quote of the mid-80s has now evolved into a hashtag, #NSD, for the social media-savvy generation. Through it all, even though he last suited up in a Ginebra uniform 24 years ago, Jaworski has been a constant.

Dodot Jaworski, eldest son: I was at home watching. I remember we were so worried. There were no cellphones back then. But we found out he had to get stitches. Then all of a sudden, he comes back with a plaster on his face and they end up winning the game. Again, these are the defining moments of never-say-die. This is where never-say-die started. You're already bloodied, your face is a mess, but you still play and win the game.

Salazar: It's all Sonny's effort and how he handled himself inside and outside the court. When he was inside the court, you could see he was a competitor. He gave his best every time he played. Even after he'd been in the PBA for a long time, he could still play a whole game against younger opponents.

Arnaiz: One time I was in Manila, two or three years ago when Ginebra won the championship with Tim Cone in Araneta Coliseum. So Sonny and I watched the game. [It was the] first time Sonny and I watched together in Manila. The moment they saw Sonny step into the court going to his seat, the whole coliseum goes "Ja-wor-ski! Ja-wor-ski!". And this is in the middle of the game! I was shocked. They didn't even know who I was. They thought I was [Yoyong] Martirez.