E.T. | BusinessMirror

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I LOST another friend recently. But more than a friend, he was one of the reasons I decided to venture into sportswriting many moons ago.

Elias Viray Tolentino was one of my basketball idols in my all-time favorite basketball team, the YCO Painters, which I wanted to write about badly. The team was considered legendary by some, and certainly by me, because of who its players were and what it has accomplished.

For instance, the Los Angeles Lakers, which holds the longest winning streak in the National Basketball Association at 38 games, would pale in comparison against my YCO, which had the longest winning streak in local basketball at 40 games. The Yellow Taxi team halted that streak in 1958, but after just a few days, the Painters exacted revenge by smashing them, 99-55. They also ultimately captured the National Open crown that year by drubbing Seven Up, 92-60, in the finals. This was all during the pre-Philippine Basketball Association days. “Ganyan kalupit ang YCO!” as they say in Tagalog.

Elias Tolentino was part of that squad. He was much younger than the players who tangled against teams with names like Yellow Taxi, Yutivo, Seven Up and Frigidaire (among others), but he was one of its certified stars. Just to give you an idea of the athletes who wore the red YCO uniform with the red-green-and-white knight’s shield logo through the years, here’s a partial list: Caloy Loyzaga, Tony Genato, Robert Jaworski, Ed Ocampo, Danny Florencio, Edgardo Roque, Sonny Reyes, Egay Gomez, Felix Flores, Arturo Valenzona, Mike Bilbao, Rene Canent, Orly Castelo and Freddie Webb, among others.

Elias Tolentino’s time to shine was the 1960s and 1970s. He was one of those rare Filipino ballers who still basked in our unchallenged reputation as the best basketball country in Asia, and a basketball force in world basketball. He was a consistent member of the national team who played in 1964 in the Fiba qualifiers, competed in the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and was one of those who hoisted up the Red-Blue-Yellow-and-White when we placed third in the ABC Championship in Bangkok in 1969.

He was a college phenom from Jose Rizal University (then called Jose Rizal College) whose career in the big leagues started with Crispa, then blossomed at YCO, where he joined the illustrated roster that included the best of the best of commercial players in those pre-pro ball days. At 6’2″, he was considered a “big” who could just as easily clog up the lane as shoot howitzers from the perimeter. He was a force to be reckoned with in the paint, an enforcer with finesse, if you get the drift.

Glamour-wise, he had “it,” making the ladies choose YCO as the team to watch, and not entirely for basketball reasons. Well-known for his perennially well-groomed hair, the inimitable basketball commentator Willy Hernandez christened him The Mikado Man, after a brand of pomade that made men’s hairstyles then suave and unflappable. Let’s put it this way. He was the Channing Tatum and Chris Hemsworth of his time.

When the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) dissolved all the amateur commercial teams that peopled the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association, of which YCO was one of the longest holdovers, Elias joined the Toyota Comets (a.k.a. Toyota Tamaraws and Komatsu Comets) where he played alongside equally glamorous company made up of Robert Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz and Ramon Fernandez, to name a few.

He didn’t play long in his new team though and eventually rejoined YCO through its corporate entity, Elizalde & Co. He eventually became assistant coach of the company’s pro team, the Tanduay Rhum Makers, which captured three PBA championships in 1986 and 1987. It was a happy time for Elias, who shared work and play time with his closest team buddies, Egay Gomez and Sonny Reyes, who preceded him in that big basketball paradise in the sky.

The Mikado Man was one of those who made a successful transition from sports to local government. He ran for office and served for a long time as barrio (barangay) captain of his turf, Bo. Pinagkaisahan in Makati. He also had a long and productive term as councilor of the City of Makati where he met his wife, Mary Ruth, who is also a councilor of the country’s chief financial district.

He never quite gave up basketball though. He served as head coach of the Central Colleges of the Philippines Bobcats for years and years, and did his share to develop young players and teams in schools as well as in the local government setting.

In his last years, Elias took on the role of “team patriarch”, always scooping up his old teammates, Turo Valenzona, Teroy Natividad, Orly Castelo, Ed Roque, Felix Flores, Jun Celis, Freddie Webb and the late Egay Gomez for impromptu buffet lunches and get-togethers. The old YCO teammates reveled in each others’ company, perhaps realizing how precious time is these days.

Last year YCO’s hyper kinetic point guard Rene Canent came home for a visit from LA and hooked up with teammates. Alas, the Mikado Man could not join the get togethers he loved so much.

“It’s very sad that Elias left us already. I learned long ago that he was not in good health. In fact, when I came back last January and saw Turo, Jun Celis, Teroy Natividad, Orly Castelo, Ching Bugia and even Bogs Adornado, I asked about him and learned about it,” said Canent.

“When I joined YCO in 1966 Elias was already a star, our starting center. He was a scorer and very consistent until his last year with the Painters. But for some reason or other, management did not retain Sonny, Turo, Egay and Elias in 1975 (when the team turned pro). That year I really missed them and the team suffered its worst years. Elias was still in shape and could still play for 4 to 5 more years. Those guys I mentioned treated me very well like their younger brother,” remembers the YCO point guard.

Elias Tolentino, whom I called E.T.,  is a legend, no ifs and buts. So long, friend and basketball idol. Not good-bye.



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