Ginebra reaches summit, and they're on to the next one
MANILA, Philippines – The moment was magical. Over 22,000 people stood on their feet, the rumbling and thumping rising, as if they were being pulled in as witnesses by history itself.
The clock read 5.5 seconds, the scoreboard showed an 88-all tie. As two teams concentrated on the huddle at timeout, specks of light began sparkling at the upper gallery. The moment unfolded as organically as possible.
Fans raised their flashlight-equipped smartphones into the air. First a couple, then some more, until it grew into a rallying cry of support. By the time the players filed onto the court to finish the game, the dimly-lit domed ceiling of the Smart Araneta Coliseum was dotted with manmade stars.
It was the perfect preface to an equally fitting conclusion to 8 years of mediocrity and dismay.
Amid the silent prayers of nervous fans, chants of “Gi-neb-ra!” rang through the arena as Sol Mercado prepared to inbound the ball. After a couple seconds of switching, Justin Brownlee received the pass and the clock began its final countdown.
At exactly 2.4 seconds, Brownlee ignored Allen Durham’s defense and pulled up from way beyond the top of the key.
The arena stood still, holding its breath for at least a second. Then, pandemonium. The final buzzer was never heard, drowned in the madness.
Overcome with thrill, Brownlee ran back down the court, his teammates on his heels until they piled up on him. All around ear-splitting cheers rocked the Big Dome and the lights began dancing as their owners jumped up and down.
“You know, it was almost like it was meant to happen,” retired PBA player Ali Peek said on the cable television broadcast as footage of Ginebra players yelling to the heavens in glee rolled on.
“When you saw all those cameras come out from the crowd, it had to have happened.”
Over at the upper box section, a family of longtime Barangay Ginebra fans burst into tears and embraced each other. Another fan since the Robert Jaworski era thanked God for her answered prayers. The long wait was finally over. The Gin Kings, the PBA’s most popular ballclub, are champions once again.
“Our fans are amazing. Best fans in the world,” Mercado said. “Whole world. Not just the Philippines. They’ve been amazing throughout the whole series and the whole season.”
But that was just the blissful ending to a draining 2016 PBA Governors’ Cup best-of-7 finals series battling a very determined Meralco team. There were a slew of other small and big moments, all significant, that led to that vindication.
As soon as the celebrations commenced, the camers quickly cued on coach Tim Cone, the general behind this Ginebra conquest. It was a low angle shot, aptly portraying Cone as a great man. It was, after all, his 19th PBA championship.
Cone had both his hands on his waist in that final play. He watched it unfold intently from the sidelines. When the uproar began, Cone simply turned and started walking over to Meralco’s bench.
“I just, you know, at that situation you feel really bad walking to the other side of the court and shaking the hand of the other coach because there's just nothing he could have done about that,” the two-time Grand Slam coach said of approaching another Grand Slam coach Norman Black.
“They (Meralco) played it perfectly. They denied him (Brownlee), they got the ball far, you know. Just a great shot, nothing he could have done and you feel a little bad. It's not like, I beat you. Just got lucky.”
Cone later admitted the play he designed was supposed to have Brownlee driving to the basket. But the import made the decision to shoot.
“We did set it up so we would get him the ball. But he was supposed to drive to the basket, and he made the decision to pull up and shoot the 3. Any shot at that point would have been a good shot, because it was tied, if we didn't make it, we'll go to overtime,” Cone explained.
“But that was a really difficult shot he made. It was deep, it was far behind. He got the ball too far away, he was supposed to get the ball at the top of the key. Sol didn't give him the ball right away, I wanted to give him more time.
“But at least he got to a shooting position, let it go, and I was like, oh shoot. I’m thinking overtime when he shot it, because you know, it was a tough shot. Then it goes in and oh my gosh.”
The jubilation was the product of many hours in practice trying to pull together a team that’s gotten used to early playoff exits since 2008. Cone took over as head coach just before this season, an all-new challenge after steering San Mig Coffee (now Star Hotshots) to the Grand Slam in 2014.
“I’m just so happy to end it (in Game 6), you can't imagine how happy I am,” he said. “My wife is, too. My wife probably lost 10 pounds this whole series.”
'Mark and Jay, they saved the whole series. At a time when it looked like we were ready to give up, they wouldn't let it happen. They honestly wouldn't let it happen.'
The Fast and The Furious save the day
That Brownlee even had the opportunity to take the game-winning shot was in large part thanks to the heroics of Ginebra’s iconic veterans, Jayjay Helterbrand and Mark Caguioa.
The backcourt pair known as “The Fast and the Furious” turned the series around with an inspired Game 4 performance, raising Ginebra back from sure death in a 16-point hole and to 3 straight wins for the title.
Helterbrand, playing on his 40th birthday that day, sparked the Gin Kings to a huge fourth quarter rally and a series-defining momentum shift that the Bolts could not overcome.
“Mark and Jay, they saved the whole series,” Cone declared. “Honestly, I shouldn't be here. Mark and Jay should be here, they should be the ones talking. They were the series-savers.”
“They played with such intensity and desire and hunger that it rubbed off on everybody. It became not a thing of ‘I want to win it for me’ or ‘I want to win it for myself’, it became a thing of ‘I want to win it for Mark’ and ‘I want to win it for Jayjay’.”
Helterbrand normed 6 points and 2 rebounds in 4 games in the finals. He scored his most points, 11, in Game 4. But in Game 6, it was his layup off a steal in the fourth quarter that shoved Ginebra ahead for the first time in the second half.
Caguioa, who turns 37 next month, averaged 7.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in 5 finals games.
Neither contributed the big numbers that used to dictate outcomes in their youth. But they were significant enough to jolt the rest of the Gin Kings back to life.
“They were so hungry to win. We could see it every day,” said Cone. “Jayjay, who's normally very quiet, he's off the bench yelling and screaming, coming to practice talking to everybody.”
Cone acknowledged the weight of what the pair, the only remnants of the 2008 champion team, had done for Ginebra.
“At a time when it looked like we were ready to give up, they wouldn't let it happen. They honestly wouldn't let it happen,” he said. “They saved the series in that Game 4. Without that Game 4, we wouldn't be sitting here. Probably would have been finished in Game 5.”
“They were amazing,” Cone emphasized, “they were absolutely amazing.”
Quest for more
Not to be forgotten are the vital contributions of guys like Mercado (and his cold-blooded 3-pointers and his clutch putback in Game 2), rookie Scottie Thompson (and his wily playmaking and relentless rebounding), Japeth Aguilar (and his holding fort inside sans injured Greg Slaughter plus his game-winning jumper in the semifinals), Joe Devance, Aljon Mariano, Jervy Cruz, Dave Marcelo and the rest of the guys down the bench.
Not to be forgotten, also, is the resurgence of LA Tenorio. The veteran guard has had a good season and an even better Governors’ Cup as he regained the old spring in his step and the glimmer in his eyes under longtime mentor Cone.
He was consistent this conference and reliable in the finals, allowing him to claim the Finals MVP honor. Tenorio averaged 17.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in the last series.
“I don’t know how but he brings out the best in me every time we’re together,” Tenorio said in Filipino and English of Cone, who also coached him back in Alaska.
“I really trust his system so whatever he tells us to do we believe him, we know that he will lead us. I knew in time he will lead us to a championship and here we are.”
Tenorio wasn’t the only one Cone enlightened. After bouncing from one team to another over his 8-year career, Mercado just this conference said he’s finally found a home in Ginebra and under the guidance of Cone.
“Coach Tim is amazing. I was talking to Joe (Devance) at practice and we're saying how my career would've been if I would have been with coach Tim for those 8 years. But like I said God had purpose in all of that,” Mercado shared.
“I owe a lot of my growth to coach Tim. It was all worth it, finally found a home and this is the best home. If my rookie year they told me that I was going to bounce around from team to team and then end up in Ginebra, I would have said, ‘yeah, I'll sign up for it let's do it!’”
After Brownlee’s big triple, every setback in the last 8 years became worth it – whether it was in a humbling finals sweep against Alaska 3 years ago, a painful semis Game 7 heartbreak versus rival San Mig Coffee two years ago, and even the “kangkong” comments and dwindling faith of a proud fan base.
In the 7 days since the confetti fell, Ginebra has been aboard the grand championship tour: clubbing, exit interviews, a fans day, and a thanksgiving party for San Miguel Corp. employees.
They likely will bask under their hard-earned spotlight until the last possible minute when Cone will force them to look ahead to the new season and the 2017 Philippine Cup starting on November 20.
The Gin Kings need not worry, though. This may not be the last time they’ll experience the championship joy ride. After all, Cone was never in the business of simply ending a title drought.
“This is not ‘a’ championship. In our minds, this is our ‘first’ championship. This is not the only championship that we're going to get,” Cone declared, the beer and champagne still overflowing from the Gin Kings’ locker room.
“We're not into just winning a championship, we want to win many. That's our challenge and we want to continue to grow as a team. We have to grow from this one into the next one, and into the next conference.” – Rappler.com