“Just to make things clear, it might be standing room only because a lot of people are expected to attend, just like in Game 1.”
This was the message I received from Gerry Ramos, associate editor of our brother sports website Spin.ph, the man who had scored me a ticket to Game 2 of the PBA Governors Cup Finals, where the Meralco Bolts were going head to head against Barangay Ginebra San Miguel at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
His message made me nervous. My palms were sweaty and there were butterflies crashing into each other inside my stomach. It was the kind of nervousness I usually associated with getting a new tattoo or going on a first date—painstakingly exciting.
It was my first time watching a PBA game live, and the thought of being uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting made me uneasy. Not to mention the fact that I wasn’t there for sheer entertainment, but I was assigned by my editor—as a sort of sick joke—to cover the event.
Basketball, you see, was never something I was interested in. Growing up, I was always the guy in the group who didn’t understand the language. For some reason, literature, movies, and music spoke more to me. Contact sports, not so much. I wasn’t drawn to the NBA or the PBA, and it wasn’t like anyone was going out of their way to invite me to shoot hoops at the village basketball court.
My circle of friends, most of whom play the sport or are highly passionate about it, would joke about how I could barely handle a ball, let alone recognize pertinent terminologies associated with the game. My lack of interest, however, didn’t stem from any negative experiences with the sport. In fact, I admire those who have an innate kinetic intelligence, a skillset I secretly deem superior to useless intellect. Basketball is such a big thing in our country, I sometimes pretend to be in on the secret, albeit failingly so.
'My lack of interest, however, didn't stem from any negative experiences with the sport. In fact, I admire those who have an innate kinetic intelligence, a skillset I secretly deem superior to useless intellect'
As a Filipino, being unable to connect to the game always put me on the outs—with family, friends, and even at work. Drinks with my buddies always became alienating once the conversation was led in the direction of sports, the names of players and specific moves sounding like incomprehensible mathematical equations coming out of their mouths.
I listened to the anecdotes of Allan “The Triggerman” Caidic once at a photo shoot for FHM back in 2011, his legendary status flying right over my head. He was a charmer, entertaining the crew with his no-fuss professionalism. I remember how he told us stories of the PBA back in his day, of how the players were treated like gods amid mortals. Atoy Co was there, too—another local basketball great whom I had little to no knowledge of. They laughed and waxed nostalgic on those times, like old friends finally reunited. I was in the presence of icons, yet all they reminded me of were those cool uncles who always liked to reminisce about the past after one too many beers.
Game 2 of the Governors Cup Finals felt like my chance to give basketball a shot, to seriously observe the sport from an outsider’s perspective and learn more about what I was missing out on. Plus, it was work, so I really had no choice.
Stranger in Strangeland
The Big Dome was illuminated by glaringly bright lights—a stark contrast from the last time I had been inside it, attending a dimly lit Stone Temple Pilots concert before Scott Weiland’s fatal overdose. The venue’s vastness was overwhelming, and I couldn’t help but feel like the Martian in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strangeland, an extra-terrestrial faced with the challenge of acclimating himself with the foreign customs of a futuristic Earth. That’s how basketball has always registered in my brain: a universe light-years away, and I was already too late to board the rocket that was headed there.
Despite what Gerry had originally told me, I was given a seat at the patrons section. I was happy to have a chair close enough to the court to see fans taking selfies with their favorite players, sportscaster and former covergirl Erika Padilla dressed in a tight black dress sashaying along the sidelines, and football star Anton Del Rosario, his son perched on his shoulders, both sporting orange in support of Meralco.
The infamous enthusiasm of the Ginebra fans was on full display, an audiovisual experience all on its own. A scarlet sea flooding the bleachers, their pre-game roaring filled the stadium with a thunderous energy that left no room for stillness. Meralco’s supporters, not wanting to be drowned out by their rivals, waved ridiculously oversized heads of players Cliff Hodge, Allen Durham, and Chris Newsome. Ginebra’s mascot, an anthropomorphic gin bilog, danced in the middle of the court, orchestrating the audience’s cheers like a maestro. The game hadn’t even begun, and it was like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I was already enjoying myself.
'The infamous enthusiasm of the Ginebra fans was on full display, an audiovisual experience all on its own. A scarlet sea flooding the bleachers, their pre-game roaring filled the stadium with a thunderous energy that left no room for stillness'
Like gladiators tracing the hot sand of an ancient coliseum with their swords, the players from each team jogged on to the court, doling out smiles and high-fives and hopeful looks that said, “We’re going to crush the competition”. I couldn’t help but observe that, the higher the fans were on the bleachers, the rowdier their show of support became. And it wasn’t the kind of rowdiness that could be deemed uncivilized. Rather, it was so primal and passionate and potent, that it felt almost pure. Suffice to say, there were no audience members from the patrons section screaming and twerking and holding on to hand painted banners that announced their adoration in sweat-stained lettering.
Instead, seated next to me was a young couple, mid-twenties, the guy’s arm wrapped comfortably around her shoulders. Based on the manner in which she kept on fidgeting and staring at her phone, I would say it was only their second or third date. To my right was a family from Bicol (I guessed this because they were all wearing "I LOVE BICOL" T-shirts), a husband and wife whose two little boys had fresh crew cuts. Seated in front of me were a father and his teenage son. "Text mo mama mo na matatagalan pa tayo dito,” I could hear the dad saying, undertones of wanting to extend the father-and-son bonding time bubbling to the surface and escaping from the corners of his lips.
That night, Barangay Ginebra dominated in the first quarter—the triumvirate of import Justin Brownlee, LA Tenorio, and Japeth Aguilar playing a vital role in sustaining an early lead against the Bolts. Tall and sturdy as a tree, but as aggressive as a hungry predator, Brownlee stood his ground and allowed his teammates to feed him the ball for shot after shot after shot. It wasn’t till Mighty Mouse Jimmy Alapag entered the game for the second quarter that the Bolts were able to upset the momentum, keeping the scores tight and tense throughout.
In the middle of shoving hot French fries down my throat, I wrote down notes and took pictures and made mental pointers to ensure that, if I couldn’t describe the game the way a sports journalist would, I could at least try to capture the moment in my own little way. What’s funny was I found myself yelling, cheering, and jumping off of my seat for team Ginebra, a pervasive pack mentality penetrating my skin. I had no prior knowledge or biases coming into the game. I had yet to do my research and shared no affinities with either team. But somehow, seated among those dressed in red, it was easier to succumb to the feverish zeal of the majority. It didn’t feel like I was pretending. I was, in fact, having fun.
That night, Alapag broke the record for most three-point shots ever made in a single career, a title that once belonged to Caidic. It took me back to that time I had met the Triggerman a little over five years ago, naïve to the contributions he had made to the sport. I wondered: Out of the 18,287 people in attendance for Finals Game 2, was I the only one who wasn’t a diehard fan of the game? I felt simultaneously blessed and unworthy to be witnessing basketball history unfold right before my eyes—a familiar emotion I experienced when I had the chance to meet the PBA All-Star Alapag had taken his new title from.
Aside from Mighty Mouse, one player who stood out was Sol "The Sol Train" Mercado. There was finesse to his movements that belied his stocky visage, a ballerina disguised as a determined bull. And even for a basketball noob such as myself, his consistency and dependability throughout the game was evident all the way up to the end, when he landed the winning shot against Meralco stalwarts Allen Durham and Reynel Hugnatan that gave his team an 82-79 victory.
Leaving with Lessons
Meralco carried a slight lead until the third quarter—the volume of the Ginebra fans' jeering waning in contrast to the ascending strength of the Bolts' tempered defenses. During this period of the game there was a pivotal point, a shift of power that resonated with the crowd when Brownlee soared off the hardcourt to secure an explosive dunk. At that very moment, Ginebra fans jumped and pumped their fists, their fervor fueling the team's adrenaline. I could feel it. The change in mood. The sudden lilt. The requisite game-changer, if you will. I learned that unpredictability in basketball, as in life, is the key element that keeps the audience excited, the players pummeling on, the coaches slamming their fists on their thighs in a gesture of approval. Just when you thought it was a done deal, you can count on an impervious import to stir things up.
'I learned that unpredictability in basketball, as in life, is the key element that keeps the audience excited, the players pummeling on, the coaches slamming their fists on their thighs in a gesture of approval'
When the clock ran out, the fans chanted. Players hugged and shook hands and patted each other on the back, signalling the end of another game. It seemed there was camaraderie amidst professional enemies. I was happy to see that although the stakes were high, humanity still prevailed. Barangay Ginebra San Miguel eventually won the Governors Cup Championship on October 19, putting an end to an eight-year long state of stagnancy.
I, on the other hand, left Araneta that night neither an expert nor a fanatic. But at least I had a good story to share with my friends and co-workers, and a better understanding of the hype attached to the sport. It was a visceral experience to say the least, and honestly, I’m not really sure if I would go out of my way to catch another match. In the end, being afforded the opportunity to crawl out of my comfort zone was enough of a reason for me to feel like a winner.