With the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and the Meralco Bolts set to duke it out in a repeat of last season's Governors' Cup Finals, one wonders if a new rivalry is brewing between these two teams. They belong to vying conglomerates, are handled by the winningest coaches in the game today, and have key players who admitted to disliking each other (in jest, though).
A major, under-the-radar side story, though, is the featured Finals battle between two topnotch imports. Both are comebacking reinforcements and were the top contenders for last year's Best Import award (eventually won by the Meralco’ Allen Durham), and they remain to be the only ones in the running for the honor this conference.
Durham has been the critical interior presence that the Bolts sorely need, but Justin Brownlee, the hero of the Barangay's title conquest last year, is equally important. The two are expected to become their respective squad's resident imports in the coming years—a testament to their skill, talent, and attitude.
This classic feud-in-the-making has FHM looking back at the history of the PBA Finals and tracing the greatest import rivalries ever in a championship series.
1976 and 1977 Open
Cyrus Mann (Crispa Redmanizers) vs Byron "Snake" Jones (Toyota Comets and U/Tex Wranglers)
The first of its kind in the league, especially as both protagonists came from the arch-rivals. Jones successfully won two titles in the '75 season and was intent on giving Toyota a back-to-back in the Open. But Crispa found a gem in Mann, who first played for Palmeiras-Brazil in 1975. He and Bill Bunton took the first round against Jones, before the latter joined U/Tex in the '77 Open with Charlie Neal. Once more, the Wranglers lost to Mann and Ricky Hicks of Crispa, 3-2. Mann and Jones engaged in the paint as both were dominant inside operators.
1993 Governors' Cup
Kenny Travis (San Miguel Beermen) vs Tony Harris (Swift Mighty Meaties)
Another one of those classic offense vs defense battles between two contrasting imports. Defensive specialist Travis went toe-to-toe against an offensive juggernaut in Harris in their best-of-seven series. In Game 1, Travis stole the ball off a Harris pass with San Miguel ahead, 139-138 in the second overtime. A split from the free throw line led to Harris looking for the last shot, but he lost the ball because of Travis' pressure defense.
After Swift tied the series, 1-1, Travis once more stole off Harris with a few seconds left in regulation to force OT in Game 3. The Beermen then went on a 16-2 run in extension to snuff out the Mighty Meaties' chances of taking the series lead. Harris scored 54 points, including his team's only two points in the extra period, when the game was already beyond reach. San Miguel went on to win the series, 4-1, as Travis achieved a rare feat of being able to stop the "Hurricane."
James Hardy (Crispa Redmanizers) vs Andrew Fields (Toyota Super Diesels)
The last time Crispa and Toyota figured in the Finals—making this series extremely special for old-timers. Both teams were even and had the top reinforcements around. Hardy, an ex-Utah Jazz forward versus eventual Best Import awardee Fields, in his third tour of duty with the Super Diesels. The series was hotly contested, and Commissioner Leo Prieto made sure the officiating was at its best, hiring NBA top cops Jim Capers and Lee Jones to handle all the games. Hardy, impressive in the eliminations, cracked under pressure and floundered, while the experienced Fields dominated the shaded lane. Toyota won the Game 5 clincher, 103-97, ending what others to this day believe as the best title series of all time, witnessed by a packed crowd (32,000) at the Big Dome.
1995 Governors' Cup
Sean Chambers (Alaska Milkmen) vs Kenny Travis (San Miguel Beermen)
When the resident imports of two dominant teams collide in the Finals for the first time, it was bound to be special. Chambers has been playing for Alaska since 1989, while Travis has been with San Miguel since 1992. While the two didn't guard each other, they led their respective teams to a close series, won by the Aces in seven games. It was tied at two apiece heading into Game 5 and Travis exploded with 48 points, including nine in the second overtime, to give the Beermen the win, 117-110, a win away from the title.
But Chambers exacted payback in the next match, tallying 35 points and rallying to set up the clincher. He outscored Travis for the first time in the series, 28-27, leading Alaska to another come-from-behind victory, 99-86, and the third franchise title. Travis, a Norman Black favorite, was never rehired by the San Miguel after as Ron Jacobs took over the coaching mantle.
1983 Reinforced Conference
Billy Ray Bates (Crispa Redmanizers) vs Norman Black (Great Taste Coffee Makers)
Crispa was destined to win this conference after winning the All-Filipino in dominating fashion. And with Bates joining the team, it was just a matter of time. But Black and Great Taste had other plans. Already on his third team in three seasons (Tefilin in 1981 and SMB in 1982), his solid play may not be as electrifying as his rival's, but was Black just as effective, averaging close to 50 pointes per game. The Coffee Makers established a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five series with Black norming in the high 30s to negate Bates' 45.6 ppg. But in Games 4 and 5, the legendary Crispa reinforcement pulled out all the stops, scoring 47 and 52 points, respectively, while Black accounted for 42 and 45 himself, in a virtual battle royale between two of the PBA's greatest imports. In the end, it was the "Black Superman" who came out victorious.
1996 Commissioner's Cup
Sean Chambers (Alaska Milkmen) vs Kenny Redfield (Formula Shell Zoom Masters)
Alaska was on a roll, having won the All-Filipino and reached the Finals first. Shell had to eke past Ginebra, 89-86, courtesy of Redfield's Hail Mary buzzer-beating shot. In the Finals, the Zoom Masters surprisingly held its own against the Milkmen, abusing mismatches and relying on their reinforcement's all-around game, to win, 85-82. The Milkmen recovered in Game 2, but only had the series lead after taking Game 5, 70-63. Redfield then made a near-triple double of 21 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assits, but it was Shell guard Richie Ticzon's miraculous buzzer-beating fadeaway that put the game away for Shell, 88-85, and sending the series to a Game 7. Despite Kenny's monster effort of 33, 16 and 6, Alaska leaned on the heroics of Chambers' 26 points and a couple of key offensive rebounds to capture the championship in their quest for a Grand Slam.
1987 Open Conference
David Thirdkill (Tanduay Rhum Masters) vs Michael Young (Great Taste Coffee Makers)
Two genuine NBA first-round picks: one was an interior operator and defensive menace, while the other was a gunslinger who shot the lights out from afar. It wasn't a surprise that Thirdkill was playing for defense-oriented Tanduay, and Young reinforced the offensive-minded Great Taste. It came as a shock, though, when the offensive stopper stamped his class over Young, averaging 52.4 points in five games, leading the Rhum Masters to the championship, 4-1. The series was actually close, as the Coffee Makers' locals stepped up, particularly Allan Caidic, who scored 48 points in Game 2, and Ricardo Brown, who tallied 30 and 36 in Games 1 and 5 respectively. But it was Thirdkill's absolute dominance inside that spelled doom for Great Taste as no one could stop the "Sheriff" from establishing control.
1999 Governors' Cup
Lamont Strothers (San Miguel Beermen) vs Sean Chambers (Alaska Milkmen)
It's been a decade since Chambers first played for Alaska, but he was still leading the team to the Promised Land. This time around, he found himself up against another worthy rival from San Miguel in Strothers, a prolific and acrobatic scorer. The series was close, with both teams exchanging victories in the first four games, before the Beermen pulled off a crucial 74-68 victory in Game 5 for a 3-2 lead.
With San Miguel having bigger locals, an older Chambers had to scrounge for his points and rebounds. Strothers, on the other hand, was also struggling from Alaska's defense. But the "Helicopter" wisely acted as decoy and set up his teammates Danny Seigle and Danny Ildefonso, who helped the import anchor SMB's offense. The Beermen squeaked past the Aces in an exciting Game 6 finish, 72-69, a low-scoring game that underscored the ability of both imports to play on both ends of the floor.
1988 Open Conference
Norman Black (San Miguel Beermen) vs David Thirdkill (Purefoods TJ Hotdogs)
Purefoods bought the Tanduay franchise at the start of the season and rehired David's services, not surprising as playing coach Ramon Fernandez was a former teammate in Tanduay. But Black, playing coach for San Miguel, was determined to build a dynasty. The series was so even, no team gained momentum from their wins, with SMB getting Game 1, only to fall behind, 2-1, then 3-2. In Game 6, Black outscored Thirdkill, 42-31, coupled with the defensive blanket put up by the Beermen against the Hotdogs that led to a series-knotting win, 105-85. In Game 7, Black re-established his dominance, scoring 38 points, but the greater story was Thirdkill, who could only muster 16, the lowest output in his PBA career—that put his integrity in doubt. Still, Purefoods competed, but came up short, losing to San Miguel in Game 7, 94-92. David never got to play in the PBA after that debacle, further fueling allegations.
2010 Fiesta Conference
Diamon Simpson (Alaska) vs Gabe Freeman (San Miguel)
This was a dream matchup featuring two of the most versatile imports of their time—Simpson, a tall, 6'6" forward versus the do-it-all, 6'3" guard Freeman. With both imports capable of scoring and rebounding, many expected the outcome would eventually be decided by the locals. Alaska coach Tim Cone did the unexpected, though. Discarding his vaunted triangle offense, Cone went to the post several times and fed his recruit, who used his athletic, lean frame in one-on-one situations. Simpson proved Cone right, putting up double-doubles in points and rebounds in every game, including a 20-20 in Game 1. Freeman was equally impressive, but made several head-scratching mistakes that spelled the difference in the series. The Aces won in six games, losing only in Game 3 and barely surviving Game 5. In the end, Simpson's skill level topped Freeman's boundless energy and gave Alaska its 13th championship.