Not your father’s PBA

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

It has been a remarkable week for the Philippine Basketball Association. If someone has told basketball fans just 10 years ago that a team like San Miguel Beer would have been able to rise from the dead and score four straight wins after losing three straight in a Finals series, nobody would have taken them seriously. But there it now stands, an enviable, immutable record not seen even in other parts of the globe. The Beermen are the first team in known history to come back from 0-3 to win a championship. 

I remember talking to Arwind Santos some time in 2014, and he expressed growing frustration with not having won a championship in a while. The team had gained a reputation as a well-paid collection of superstars who had yet to come together and really focus on getting a title, particularly the most prized of all, the Philippine Cup. Santos told me that all the individual awards in the world would not fill the emptiness of not being able to take a team all the way to the top against all manner of adversity. How quickly time flies. Since that conversation, the Beermen have won three of the last four PBA championships, including back-to-back Philippine Cups, frustrating Alaska in each of them.

In earning its league-leading 22nd league title, San Miguel Beer also put more distance between itself and second-running Alaska Milk, which has won 14 championship trophies. San Miguel, the lone surviving original PBA member, had a 10-year headstart on the Milkmen, who entered the league in 1986, just when SMB took a two-conference leave of absence, the only time in 41 years that they did not play in the PBA. In a way, they will be keeping one eye out over their shoulders for Alaska. 

The conference finale was also colorful in so many other ways. Alaska, which historically has traded players who were just past their prime but still had value, maximized the minutes of long-time veterans like Dondon Hontiveros and Eric Menk. Hontiveros, whose flirtation with both San Miguel Beer and Alaska Milk began with the defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association in 1998, has always been a steady presence, and adjusted his game when his athletic ability gradually gave way to Father Time. The 41-year-old Menk, meanwhile, who entered the league as a direct hire for Tanduay, ironically played for San Miguel Beer in the ASEAN Basketball League in 2013, where he has proven time and again that age and mileage aren’t an issue.

San Miguel, meanwhile, did not really rely on Fil-foreign players in its previous incarnations, now has four who all contribute significantly on both ends of the floor, beginning with the formerly just prolific but now well-rounded Alex Cabagnot, and ending with Finals MVP Chris Ross. One thing that hasn’t changed is SMB’s ability to get players like Ross who don’t need massive numbers to impact a game. Throughout its history, San Miguel Beer has only had five players win the Most Valuable Player Award prior to the arrival of June Mar Fajardo: Abet Guidaben, Mon Fernandez, Ato Agustin, Danny Ildefonso (back-to-back), and Santos. The Beermen have always had such great balance, but, unlike in days of old, they now have a center who has proven to be unlike any other in the past, one who can carry the load offensively.

What makes the record-shattering championship unique is that, despite the longevity of the league, it is a first. Statistically, scoring and other marks can be surpassed. You just have to catch the lightning in the bottle. Who ever thought Michael Hackett’s record of 103 points would be broken? But Tony Harris did it. When it comes to firsts, though, it will be hard to remember who comes next, if anyone ever does. And with a record this formidable, all the circumstances have to be right for it to be even plausible once again. It took 41 years, so maybe by the time we see Halley’s Comet again in 2061, it might be ripe for a second time. This occurrence, though, was fully documented and seen by tens of millions, and is a purely human endeavor, not a historical fact.

On the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tradition has shown that San Miguel Beer and Alaska will continue their Goliath vs. David rivalry with utmost ferocity and might, and they will continue to find new ways to win. Each is symbolic of its corporate ideology, and that will never change, no matter who is wearing either jersey. San Miguel Beer will continue to break records, as will Alaska, and each makes the other stronger. Each gives the other added incentive. Each pushes the other, and this time once again, the Beermen are the stronger.

At the bottom of it all, though each team in the league continues to evolve and find its own identity, one thing is certain. Each contributes to forging the ever-changing face of the PBA, and while people like your father might have a hard time getting used to it (a few still don’t even like Fil-Am players), it is there for the fans to accept, embrace, make their own. It is this wireless, social media savvy generation’s PBA. And that should be good enough for us.


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