I had the chance to interview former Letran Knights’ team captain Tonichi Pujante last year. Most of the interview revolved around his upcoming position as the first commissioner of the Vietnam Basketball League (VBA) that time. As the interview shifted from his Vietnam stint to his opinion about the current state of college basketball, Tonichi had the perfect answer: a lot has changed.
Tonichi was part of the Knights team that won three straight NCAA titles from 1982 to 1984 with PBA legend Samboy Lim. When asked about the current state of the league these days, Tonichi was well aware that the game of basketball, in general, has come a long way far from his days.
Tonichi was quick to emphasize that games were more physical back then. Players play in a scrappier manner which, most of the time, get tangled with their oppositions. Teams pay more attention on heavy defense in the 80s -- which eventually led to awful calls from referees. In addition, players are likely to be ejected because of fouls or by on-court fights and commotions. Unlike now, players play more conservative.
“That time was more physical, walang hiya nun eh,” said Tonichi. “Ngayon players are more athletic kasi iba na ‘yung science, iba na ‘yung technology.”
Indeed, science and technology have crossed paths to innovate a lot of things including sports. Tonichi admits that players are presently more athletic. Various supplements paved way for better physical attributes and performance; as nutrition is just as important as basketball shoes. Back then it was all about improvement through hard, exhausting training routines. There weren’t much lifting of weights or does drinking protein shakes improve one’s dexterity. Instead, players work day in and day out on the court to improve.
“Dati kami dito fishball, balot at penoy lang eh,” Tonichi joked. “Pati dati ‘yung mga sapatos namin manipis ‘yung ilalim, pero ngayon iba na.”
The game has much class these days for Tonichi, and it isn’t because of the players’ conservative style of play or the essential things they take, but because he doesn’t see the same grit and grind attitude teams used to show in the 80s.
“Back then our coaches always tell us to never give up,” he said.
As cliché it may sound, the quote has turned into some kind of conviction for players during Tonichi’s days. He was well aware that basketball wasn’t only about winning and losing, but about character and willingness. As it turns out, a team’s character and willingness eventually tell the outcome of the game.
But if there’s one thing Tonichi wants to tell the teams, especially to the current Letran Knights, it’s to take pride of their school’s name. He shared how pride empowered them, playing not just for themselves but for their alma mater. Passion brings you to places, but pride takes you to greater things. Undoubtedly, it’s what brought him, Samboy, and co. to their grand slam victory in the NCAA and wishes it for the current team of Muralla and the next generations to come.
“When they play, they should play with pride,” he said. “Kung ano man yung kulang ng team, yung pride at willingness ‘yung mag-oovercome dun.”
(First published on The LANCE's June Issue)