Barangay Ginebra is the most popular team in PBA (Philippine Basketball Association). This is a fact I had come to terms with growing up and cheering for Purefoods and Rey Evangelista.
Every Purefoods-Ginebra game was a nailbiting experience that had me spewing all the expletives that my young self knew. I abhorred Robert Jaworski, Sr. with every fiber of my being. I thought that he was a dirty player in short shorts who was inside court only to physically harm the players of Purefoods. Then, I realized that Ginebra was a real great team whose players excited the audience with their fancy passes, ego-crushing in-your-face dunks and crazy alley-oops. They did not give up, no matter what the scoreboard said, and they played their hearts out until literally the last second of the games. This became their trademark never-say-die attitude. Even though I was a Purefoods fan, I had to grudgingly give my respect to Ginebra.
The last time I watched Ginebra play was during the time of Bal David and Marlou Aquino. Jaworski was their playing-coach. As his playing part was reduced to last-minute substitutions and necessity for a three pointer, my respect for him went up. His this-is-you speeches and M&M-looking magnets on the playboard (?) were usually interesting. The inbound-and-shoot plays were a beauty to behold. Of course, I knew that he did not and would not intentionally harm any player.
On Wednesday, April 13, I watched two PBA games after more than a decade of not following the league. The first game was between Star Hotshots and Mahindra Enforcer. Upon hearing the ticket seller, I was like, “Mahinwhat???”. “Ang team ni Pacquiao”, was the reply. Obviously, I did not expect Manny Pacquaio to coach his team that day, but I did not expect Hosthots’ James Yap not to be there. Star Hotshots is the new mutation of Purefoods, but it is not the same. Without Evangelista and Alvin Patrimonio, I have no emotional investment in this team. I clapped only when there were exceptional plays. I clapped thrice for them. Twice for team ni Pacquiao.
The second game was between Meralco Bolts and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. The atmosphere inside Smart-Araneta Coliseum became electric as soon as the Ginebra players stepped on the floor. There was a thunderous applause from 90% of the audience, and cameras and phones flashed like lightning as players warmed up.
Men, women and children alike screamed right from the get go like their lives depended on the outcome of the game. The excitement was so contagious that I followed the ball movement closely from the first whistle.
Meralco Bolts held the number spot in the 2016 PBA Commisioner’s Cup before the game, but that did not faze tied-for-fourth Ginebra. The players traded baskets for the first two minutes. Much to the delight of the crowd, Ginebra slowly pulled away.
Every time a Meralco player held the ball, the Ginebra fans shouted like maniacs. Every time a Meralco player took a free throw, they booed. It actually worked because the free throw percentage of Meralco looked atrocious from where I sat. On the flipside, the efforts of LA Tenorio, Japeth Aguilar, Greg Slaughter, Mark Caguioa, and Chris Ellis were applauded by the Ginebra fans. I watched Tenorio and Aguilar play for Ateneo Blue Eagles and knew they were good. I did not know that they were that good.
By halftime, the score was 51-39 in favor of Ginebra. That did not stop the fans from agonizing over every turnover Ginebra players made. At one stretch, Ellis had two consecutive offensive fouls and a turnover in three successive possessions. Even with a double-digit lead, the fans moaned with discontent. It was actually fun watching and listening to the reaction of the fans. It was almost as fun as the game itself, albeit the lopsided score.
Ginebra had a 14-point lead, 80-66, entering the fourth quarter. I thought that maybe the Norman Black-coached Meralco Bolts could trim their lead to a single digit halfway through the quarter. As far as I could recall, it did not happen. Caguioa and Tenorio made baskets that looked silky smooth. Slaughter dominated the painted area. Meanwhile, Meralco players could not make one, even the super duper close jump shots. It was like the Ginebra fans’ prayers were answered by God. As time ticked away, Ginebra fans started to breathe normally. They started to banter and laugh at the mistakes of opponents.
With three minutes remaining, and an obvious win within grasp, a pocket of fans in Ginebra shirts started shouting “JJ! JJ! JJ!” It took me a while to realize what it meant when the huge screen inside the coliseum zoomed in on JJ Helterbrand. My first thought was, “OMG, he’s still active?” I thought he retired years ago. But I joined in in pressuring Ginebra coach Tim Cone to field Helterbrand. More than half of the audience shouted, “JJ! JJ! JJ!”
The court announcer shouted last two minutes, but there was no sign of Helterbrand. The “JJ! JJ! JJ!” chant continued. With a little over a minute left in the game, Helterbrand’s neon green shoes finally entered the court. An ear-defeaning cheer erupted. Helterbrand attempted two or three shots but did not make any. It did not matter at this point. What mattered was a huge win over the league leaders, with the final score of 103-90 in favor of Ginebra. Oh, and Helterbrand had his time to shine.
This game reconfirmed Ginebra’s status as the most popular PBA team. The Ginebra players are electrifying and flashy. In them lives the spirit of the young Jaworski. No wonder that they have a multitude of loyal fans wore their Ginebra shirts like badges of honor, displayed their banners and shouted until their vocal chords collapsed. Now, that Barangay Ginebra magic is slowly thawing my UAAP Basketball-only loving heart.
Shout out to Victoria for picking Chris Ellis. 🙂 He looks like a lean and mean machine. He reminds me of Tayshaun Prince (Detroit Pistons).