End Of An Era

Gonzalo "Lito" Puyat II may be best known for being the first Filipino to be president of an international sports federation and as long-time president of the Basketball Association of the Philippines (1969-1995). But he will also be remembered as the one who triggered the formation of the Philippine Basketball Association in 1975.

That year, team owners forming the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association, known by its moniker MICAA, the country's most popular basketball league, declared themselves professionals and formed the PBA. That meant total independence from the BAP.

The decision to bolt the PBA was made out of pique, partly from BAP arrogance and mainly for financial considerations.

Nine MICAA members, among them Crispa, Toyota and San Miguel, claimed that they had been treated disrespectfully by Puyat who ruled amateur basketball with an iron fist.

Puyat, for instance, would simply announce a tryout for the national team and then yanked the biggest stars of the game without consulting team owners even when the league was in the midst of a tournament.

The team owners also resented that the BAP made tons of money from BAP-sponsored tournaments featuring teams from the MICAA and never shared the proceeds.

Though there were apprehensions, there being just one professional basketball league in the world then, the NBA, the MICAA gallantly took up the challenge and the rest is history.

Puyat never lived down that insurrection and the BAP soon found itself without control of the country's best basketball players since FIBA tournaments allowed only amateur players. When FIBA allowed pros to play in 1989, the PBA went back to representing the country, or reinforcing national teams, but on the league's own terms.

To this day, that arrangement exists: The basketball association must ask the permission of the PBA and its team members before any player belonging to the league is conscripted to the national team.

Though Puyat had the distinction of being the first Filipino to head an international sports federation, the FIBA or World Basketball Federation, the position was more ceremonial than anything else.

Unlike other presidents of international federations, for example, Florencio Campomanes, when he was president of FIDE or World Chess Federation, Puyat never wielded any power within the organization. That power belonged to the secretary general, who decides on all matters of significance, including rotating the presidency to various constituencies. Thus, when the turn of Asia came, Puyat was tapped.

As BAP president, Puyat, however, was the most visible sports personality. He parlayed this popularity to become an assemblyman and a two-time Manila councilor. But when he tried to move up in the political spectrum, he lost two bids for Congress.

Puyat also lived his life as though there's no tomorrow. His drinking binges were legend. He would start his day drinking his favorite Scotch, Old Parr, and end the day, usually the wee hours, still imbibing his favorite drink. That drink was most likely where he got his nickname, Spar, and one which he bestowed on his closest friends.

There's no sportswriter, past and present, who does not have a recollection of Puyat. The guy was always around to offer a drink or two and before one knew it, it was a bottle or two.

Sadly, there's no more Spar to break bread with or to exchange toasts with in the middle of the night, in the darkness of nowhere.

Lito Puyat died Monday. He was 79.

His body lies in state at the Loyola Memorial Homes in Guadalupe. Interment will be announced later.