How the brink of losing led to one glorious win


(Editor's note: This article was originally published in The Filipino Connection and is reposted with permission from the website.)

MANILA, Philippines — Three minutes and 53 seconds left in a crucial game, a Game 4 — at a basketball series’ championship point.

That’s when a story just begun.

The plot’s called a comeback, one of sports’ most aspired endings. Just when one’s ready to sob and wither, the heart pounds in anxiety. Beleaguered and all, athletes facing such a black hole cling on to what’s left of them.

In the brink of losing, these athletes just hope for that one break —one break— that makes them continue breathing, still hoping, and playing, and dreaming. Then finally, winning.

Go to the Philippines where a professional league that is Asia’s first — the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) — witnessed on February 3 one improbable fairytale. That story, engineered by the San Miguel Beermen, began on January 22, on a “break” in which an 11-point deficit over the Alaska Aces was wiped out. Overtime was forced and won.

That started the greatest of all comebacks in any sport worldwide, regardless of the level of play: A 0-3 deficit in a championship series turned into a sweet, savory 4-3 victory and a 2016 PBA All-Filipino Cup title for the Beermen.

The Philippines has a basketball league whose calendar year is divided into “conferences,” an all-locals tournament and two import-laced conferences. Championship series in those conferences are either a best-of-five or seven-game affair.

So for the team that was about to lose on Game 4, playing before a “sea of milk white” in Alaska fans, and without a star player at that time to carry the cudgels, the Beermen pulled a rabbit out of a hat at the end of regulation. The Houdini act was a 14-0 run over a 3:30 stretch, although Alaska’s Cyrus Baguio drained a three to send the game into overtime. In the overtime period, Alaska power forward Vic Manuel muscled for two inside incursions for a 102-98 Aces lead, and for that drumbeat of an Alaska championship momentum.

But au contraire, the Beermen hung tough: San Miguel guard Chris Ross scored four quick points, then made a couple of stops in the succeeding plays. He led that 12-point barrage to end the game and score that first win in the series, 110-104.

Form that time on, who would have thought sports’ toughest of escape acts will be pulled off? The toughest comeback in a basketball series, in any part of the world, was a 1-3 series deficit. In a game, imagine being down 36 and still winning.

Those first four games, a towering presence —two-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo (6’10”)— was sidelined with a bum left knee given a bloody seminfinal clash against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. San Miguel felt the void in the middle, and Manuel and 6’8” center Sonny Thoss asserted their might for the Aces.

"After (our) first win, I thought that miracle is just around the corner," recalled San Miguel coach Leo Austria. (On February 3, San Miguel’s fans hoped for a #Beeracle.)

San Miguel forced that Game 7 with another overtime win in Game 5, 86-73, and a dominating 100-89 triumph in Game 6.

So enter Game 7, and “superstition” set in. Alaska coach Alex Compton burned three consecutive timeouts following tipoff as if they were trying to give their three losses a nonchalant shrug. It didn't sit well with the 23,616 crowd inside the Mall of Asia Arena, especially the SMB gallery.

For a flabbergasted Austria, however, it was a war tactic. "Our impression is that they were trying to disrupt our game plan. (But) it's a championship and we didn't want to make major changes in our game plan."

From the looks of it, San Miguel and Alaska were blowing away the cobwebs in the first two quarters as both squads came from a four-day layoff separating Games 6 and 7. There were no significant rallies or “ohh”-inducing highlights expected from a match of this magnitude. It was supposedly a swashbuckling contest from start to finish.

The real battle began in the second half, but it was the Beermen who immediately gained the upper hand behind Fajardo, who barreled 11 of his 21 points in that penultimate quarter. San Miguel was holding a comfortable 19-point cushion on Ross' reverse layup, 65-46. Its fans, who thought their team already had seized control, went berserk and began their deafening "SMB" chants.

But as in their previous games, the Aces displayed signature Alaska basketball and sliced that insurmountable deficit thanks to an airtight full-court pressure: a spirited 19-7 outburst brought the Aces to within striking distance, 75-70, with 7:36 left.

Off a timeout, though, Fajardo made a quick undergoal stab to restore order. Ross and streak-shooting Marcio Lassiter then conspired in the final minutes, with the former canning the free throw that sealed the All-Filipino title with 10.1 ticks left.

I can’t even imagine we pulled off this comeback, Austria said in Filipino moments after their 18-day title series ended.

Ross’ Game 7 feat was laced with 21 points and four triples, including a crucial trifecta in the dying minutes.  "In Game 7, a non-shooter stepped up and he looked like Marcio out there," Compton said of Ross, known more as a defensive stopper.

“I'm happy for Ross. I told him I needed his pressure defense but the good thing is, he kept scoring," said Austria.

An underrated cager, Ross also had a low-key response when asked about his tour-de-force performance, giving credit as well to the whole team. "They had faith in me, my skills and my abilities. It's a better atmosphere when everyone has trust in each other. It's not just me, it's the whole team."

San Miguel’s title feat, while its mother company is celebrating 125 years of doing business, augurs well for a 42-year-old league that represents a developing country’s mania for a global sport. In world basketball, the Philippines remains in the middle pack of the rankings. The Philippines also has a storied history in global and Asian basketball feats, including a bronze medal at the old World Basketball Championships. This Southeast Asian country’s small players are now trying to relive a trademark that height, even in world basketball, goes beyond looking up to a tall player boxing out for a rebound.

A new trademark was then created that night at the Mall of Asia Arena: the Philippines pulled off a rare feat in sports. If opposing coach Alex Compton employed a bit of “superstition” that he wanted to keep “close to his heart,” Finals MVP Ross had another Filipino trademark —religion— to bank on.

"If God brings you to it, you can make it through. There's never an obstacle too tough to climb,” Ross said. If you can't get over it, you have to get through it. That's what we embraced in this team this series, and so does my life."

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