Long-time PBA fans who knew Denis Abbatuan would remember his reputation more than his name.
He’s tough, fearless and won’t hesitate defending a teammate at all cost.
Several times in his career, he figured in an altercation, two of them involving two of the greatest power forwards in PBA history -- Philip Cezar and Abe King -- and against the league’s most popular team, Añejo Rhum 65, then the brand being carried by Ginebra San Miguel.
While driving for a layup, Cezar received a WWE-like clothesline tackle from Añejo import Tommy Davis, as he fell hard to the canvass. The former PBA MVP and first batch of the league’s Hall of Fame awardee, charged onto Davis, but was interrupted by the import’s partner, Jumping Joe Ward.
The Scholar turned to Ward and expressed his frustration on the so-called Minister, but what happened next was a full blown riot which escalated right at Presto’s bench. Players from both squads joined in the fray in what was considered as one of the worst brawls in league history.
Admittedly, Abbatuan was one of them. He was one among those who fought against the imports when all hell broke loose. “Sumugod kasi ‘yung dalawang imports. Pati si Atoy Co, naka-civilian nadamay,” Abbatuan told The Link Podcast.
“Sumugod sina (Coach Sonny) Jaworski doon sa bench namin. Nangyari, ‘yung gulo sa bench namin. Siyempre, team yan, hindi mo puwedeng pabayaan ‘yung kasama mo. Pero ganu’n pa man, ‘yung rumble na ‘yun, sa game lang ‘yun. Tapos na ‘yun doon.”
The other serious brawl where Abbatuan also took part of was during the altercation between King and Dante Gonzalgo of Añejo.
“‘Yung isa naman, si Abe King, sinuntok niya si Dante Gonzalgo,” added Abbatuan. “Pasugod si Dante sa bench namin, pinasalubungan ni Abe ng suntok.”
It cost Abbatuan not just a fine and penalty, but also a scar brought about by the pelting coins coming from the Añejo fans.
“Naalala mo yung malalaking piso nu’ng araw? Tinamaan ako sa ulo noon. Dumugo ulo ko noon, tinamaan ako ng piso,” added Abbatuan.
A tough guy inside the court, but has a soft spot for people with needs, Abbatuan’s unforgettable story didn’t happen inside the playing court. It happened during his rookie year when he was still scrounging to make a living playing professional ball as a member of the Tanduay Rhum Makers in 1984.
On the night he scored a career-high 51 points, Abbatuan shared the story behind that amazing performance, one that was guided via Divine Intervention. Molded as a tough player, the bruising forward’s faith was reinvigorated hours before the scheduled battle for third against guest team Northern Consolidated.
Abbatuan was not fit to play during that day, owing to a bum stomach, but something happened in between that not only rejuvenated his body but also renewed his faith.
“Hindi ako dapat maglalaro noon dahil masakit talaga tiyan ko. I was having LBM mula gabi hanggang umaga. Umaga pa lang tumawag na ako kay Coach Sonny Reyes. Habang nasa labas ako ng bahay, may nakita akong bata. Parang batang grasa, mga nine to 10 years old. Umuupa ako noon sa Alabang malapit sa station ng train. Nu’ng nakita ko ‘yung bata, gusto ko siyang paliguan, linisan, kasi nga ang dungis niya,” recalled Abbatuan. “Nilapitan ko siya, tanong ko, gusto mo paliguan kita? Tumango lang siya. Habang pinapaliguan ko siya, walang imik. Nu’ng nabihisan ko na siya, tinanong ko siya, ‘gusto mo bang pera, may pangkain ka ba’? Umiling lang siya. Tapos umalis na siya. Simula noon, hindi ko na nakita ‘yung bata na ‘yun.”
As fate would have it, Abbatuan felt renewed, re-energized hours later and decided to go to the game and play in Tanduay’s game. It was during that game where he had a breakout performance, the most points scored by a rookie during that time.
“Bawat hitsa ko ng bola pasok,” added Abbatuan. “Ang lakas ko nu’ng game na ‘yun kahit sina (Tonichi) Yturri, (Yves) Dignadice, kinukuhaan ko ng rebound. Nagulat ako sa performance ko na gumawa ako ng 51 points. Gumawa pa ako sa isang quarter ng 26 points. Pero ‘yung nangyari sa akin doon sa bata, kapag ikinuwento ko sa mga matatanda, ang sabi nila Sto. Niño daw ‘yung pinaliguan ko. Minsan nga kapag ikinukuwento ko ‘yung storya ko kinikilabutan sila. Biruin mo nu’ng araw na ‘yun, ang hina ng katawan ko, tatlo o apat na beses akong pumupunta sa CR, tapos biglang lumakas ako nu’ng pinaliguan ko ‘yung bata.”
His breakout performance may have gone in the record books as one of the all-time best single-game performances, but on that day, when he showed his great humanitarian gesture from someone in need, it was truly life changing.
This is Denis Abbatuan, a stark contrast from the tough guy that we knew. The former PBA enforcer is now living a good life as a family man and they’re now based in the United Kingdom.
“Talagang mabait ang Diyos sa akin,” he added. “Lahat ng hiniling ko, ibinigay niya. Ang misis ko, doctor siya dito. ‘Yung panganay na anak ko naman, abogado siya dito sa London, tapos ‘yung isang anak ko naman, manager siya ng isang company. ‘Yung bunso ko naman, artist naman siya. Nagtatrabaho siya sa University of Brighton, tapos painter din siya. So all in all, maayos ang naging buhay namin.”