Six-time PBA champion 'Plastic Man' Terry Saldaña remembered fondly following death at 64

Former PBA player Terry Saldaña, who died Wednesday due to complications from a kidney ailment, was a loner for the majority of his 64 years on this earth.

But, now in death, he needs his family to come forward.

Saldaña’s remains are still in the morgue of the Quezon City General Hospital because no relative has come forward to claim them.

“The situation is, the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) rule states that you cannot get the body unless it’s next-of-kin,” Ed Cordero, secretary of the PBA Legends Foundation and a teammate of Saldaña’s when they were rookies, told ESPN.

Cordero said Saldaña had a son with his first wife, but both have migrated to the United States. The son supposedly came for a visit in 2021 when Saldaña’s health took a turn for the worse, but no one was able to get his contact details.

“The wife migrated to the States along with the son after they separated,” Cordero said. “It was the first time they (Saldaña and his son) saw each other after so many years.

“When I visited, the son had left already. I didn’t get his name or even talk to him. I think there’s a picture of them at a Laguna hospital which was posted on Facebook. But I don’t know who posted it. It must be somebody who visited also.”

Cordero is hoping the son eventually reads about Saldaña’s passing and gets in touch with anyone here.

“We want to give Terry a very good burial or cremation and then hold the ashes until such time that we contact the son. But the DSWD won’t allow it. Otherwise, under the law the body will be declared abandoned and we don’t want that to happen.”

Yeng Guiao, who revived Saldaña’s career as a rookie head coach in 1990, said he was “truly saddened” by his former player’s passing.

“Terry made a name for himself as a gifted, talented young player in the PBA,” Guiao told ESPN in a message. “I was a young coach when he first played for me with the Swift franchise.

“He was instrumental in our early success with this franchise and made an indelible mark in the way I viewed the value of toughness in ‘big’ men. Terry was a soft-spoken, shy and humble soul who let his game speak for itself.”

Ginebra days and a horrendous injury

The power forward dubbed “Plastic Man” played 17 seasons in the PBA and won six championships with three different franchises. He was known for his brute strength and unorthodox moves under the basket.

Saldaña was part of the star-studded rookie class of 1982. He and Cordero were two of four rookies signed up by the Toyota franchise, which won two titles that year. Midway through the season, Saldaña was a favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but was disqualified during the Invitational Conference after getting into a fight with players from the Korean national team, which was participating as a guest team.

Saldaña bounced back the following year, leaving Toyota for Gilbey’s Gin and doubling his scoring average from 6.5 as a rookie to 13.2. The leap earned for him the league’s first-ever Most Improved Player award, which he used as a springboard towards superstardom. In 1984 he averaged a career-high 18.9 points per game for Gilbey’s.

By next season, the team had changed its name to Ginebra San Miguel, and its playing coach Robert Jaworski had changed the course of league history. Ginebra rode a wave of popular fan support with its never-say-die mantra, and Saldaña was right in the middle of it. There were times during the 1986 season where he was clearly the best player on the court for Ginebra.

“He was called ‘Plastic Man’ because he was awkward,” Cordero said. “He didn’t have pivot moves like Mon Fernandez or Abe King. But he was strong. When he jumped even if his feet weren’t set, he could easily do it. If he got the ball in the low post, you were in trouble. And he was really athletic. He had a natural feel for basketball. He was that talented. It was inherent in him, how to play basketball.”

In Game 1 of the 1986 All-Filipino Finals, a mouth-watering clash between bitter rivals Jaworski and Mon Fernandez, Saldaña was virtually unstoppable. He scored 33 points in a Ginebra victory, and during the post-game interview, he took a jab at Fernandez, who had fanned the flames of the rivalry by predicting a 3-0 sweep for his team, Tanduay.

“Well, at least we got one,” he said while holding up one finger to the camera.

JB Yango, Saldaña’s counterpart at Tanduay who was also an elite low-post player of that era, still remembers that game.

“He scored 33 on us. We had so much trouble defending him,” Yango told ESPN in Tagalog. “Terry was kind-hearted. He didn’t talk much. If you didn’t talk to him he wouldn’t talk to you. He kept a low profile.”

Yango and Tanduay, though, would have the last laugh, winning the last three games to win the title. As a bonus, Yango was named Finals MVP.

But Ginebra would win the championship in the next conference, and was well on its way towards cementing its status as the league’s most popular ballclub. But just 12 games into the 1987 season, Saldaña suffered what is still regarded as one of the most gruesome PBA injuries ever caught on camera. Chasing down Hills Bros. point guard Marte Saldaña (no relation), Terry leapt into the air and landed so badly his knee got twisted into the most horrific position possible.

Joe Cantada, who was calling the game for the TV audience, repeatedly requested viewers to pray for Saldaña as he was being carried off in a stretcher, even as the production crew needlessly replayed the injury over and over. There was belief that night that Saldaña had very likely played his last PBA game.

“I was very concerned when I saw it,” Cordero recalled. Seeing the replay, I was really worried that he wouldn’t be able to come back from that. But there you have it. He came back and even had a good season. He’s one of a kind, I guess.”

Colorful life

After sitting out most of the next two seasons save for a brief stint with Alaska, Saldaña was plucked from the expansion pool by Guiao, who had just been named head coach of the expansion team Sarsi. In just their second season, Guiao had guided his team of PBA rejects to the All-Filipino finals. They took a 2-1 series lead against heavy favorites Purefoods, and were on the cusp of a historic title when the local police arrived at their dugout before Game 4 to arrest Saldaña.

“I don’t remember anymore why he was arrested,” Guiao recalled in a 2020 episode of An Eternity of Basketball. “We had to request the police to let him play first before they arrested him. And the funny thing is, he played great in that game. After that we kept kidding him that we were going to have him arrested for each game so that he would play well.”

The team threw their support behind Saldaña, paying for his bail and assigning their lawyers to handle his case. It all worked out in the end, and Saldaña won two championships with the franchise.

Saldaña won one last championship in 1997, fittingly with Gordon’s Gin (Ginebra’s name that season). He played a season in the MBA before wrapping up his career with Guiao and Red Bull Barako in 2000.

Three years later, he made news again. After the Crispa-Toyota reunion game, which Toyota won, Saldaña, who was named best player after scoring 15 points, said the Crispa players played like “squatters.”

Cordero, who also played in that game, admitted the remark was ill-advised considering players from both sides had buried the hatchet already after years of animosity. “By that time we were friends already. I got to be close to Atoy Co as a matter of fact, so that didn’t sit well. But you cannot advise Terry on anything.”

In 2021, Saldaña again hogged the sports headlines after photos of him in a wheelchair surfaced on social media with an appeal for financial help as his health began to deteriorate. By this time, Cordero said Saldaña had no permanent residence and was living with a friend in Laguna. They raised funds for him several times as his medical bills began to pile up.

Then last Sunday, he was rushed to the hospital one final time. Three days later, Saldaña breathed his last.

“I have fond memories of Terry at his prime, that’s why I was heartbroken when I learned of his failing health these past years,” Guiao said. “Thank you, Terry for those memories and being part of my journey in this game we both love. Pahinga ka na Terry sa piling ng Diyos. Salamat. Mahal ka namin.”


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