When PBA great Fortunato “Atoy” Co Jr. leads the Mapua Cardinals out on the court for the first time in NCAA Season 89 that starts this Saturday, he will not only try to end a two-decade title drought for the school, but fulfill one of his long frustrations after a checkered pro basketball career.
The Cardinals’ job is the first collegiate coaching stint for Co, a back-to-back NCAA Most Valuable Player in 1971 and 1972, when he played for Mapua.
While Co was revered as a pro, having powered the Crispa Redmanizers to several titles in the PBA, the chances of picking his vast knowledge of the game came few and far between, forcing him to find a job outside of basketball.
Co dabbled in show biz, became a three-term Pasig City councilor and put up several businesses, before he was called up to take the Cardinals’ job.
“As a player back then, you would always want to be involved in basketball after your playing days are over,” Co said.
Known for his silky-smooth shooting stroke, Co only had a very brief stint as coach of Crispa in 1990 in the now defunct PABL.
“It’s a frustration of mine—not coaching after my playing days,” said Co, the 1979 PBA MVP and nine-time mythical first team selection in a 13-year career in the pro ranks.
It took him three decades to land a coaching job again and the PBA legend couldn’t help but hide his excitement, especially that he’s back with his alma mater.
Despite Co’s individual brilliance in his three-year playing stint, the Cardinals failed to win a title and the man known as the “Fortune Cookie” is hoping that changes now that he’s on the bench.
“One of the reasons why I took the job, is because I want to give back to the school,” Co said in Filipino.
“It’s been awhile since Mapua won the title so I’m hopeful we can do it.”
The Cardinals’ last NCAA title came in 1992, although they have figured prominently in the Final Four in recent years.
Co has no illusions of instant success with the Cardinals, but said trusting the system borne out of the team concept will be a good start.
The Cardinals skipped pre-season games in Manila, but played tuneup matches in Cebu against Far Eastern U and other Cebu-based squads. Co will not have the luxury of a star-powered roster with Josan Nimes still hampered by a back injury, while Gab Banal decided to leave the team to focus on the PBA D-League.
Still, Co believes his Cardinals are capable of pulling a surprise.
“Basketball has evolved so much since I was playing, but the only thing that remains constant is the fact that there’s always a greater chance of winning if you’re playing as a team,” said Co.