The look on the faces of the San Miguel Beermen was one of surrender. With three minutes and 52 seconds remaining before the championship balloons were to drop on the hardcourt, coach Leo Austria called a timeout, glanced at the bench where some his players had decided to stay put and tried to shake off anxiety while the rest of the team huddled around him amid the din that was already threatening to swallow the PhilSports Arena whole.
“Parang nag-give up na kami,” Austria recalls thinking as he drew up a play and gave instructions to save the game.
A few hours earlier, Austria had looked up at the playing venue’s ceiling, where those multi-colored balloons, as league tradition would have it, were hoisted when one team—in this case, the Alaska Aces—was within reach of a championship.
The 1985 Rookie of the Year was hopeful that this was not the night a celebration would happen. But with an 11-point deficit staring at them in the final three minutes of Game Four, the SMB mentor was implored his boys to quit thinking grim thoughts.
It would be doubly painful for Austria to lose anew at the PhilSports Arena; it was at the former ULTRA stadium, after all, that Austria’s most crushing defeat as a player had played out close to 25 years ago. His Shell team blew a commanding 3-1 lead to Ginebra, losing the championship in Game Seven after a last-second heave by Rudy Distrito. The Destroyer's basket had long been immortalized as one of the most legendary moments in the Gin King's ever-popular history.
Clearing his mind of negative thinking, Austria stayed in the present and turned his attention to gutsy guard Chris Ross.
“Chris, you run the show,” Austria told the Filipino-American guard.
And took over he did. As the Beermen pressured the Aces, Ross completed a steal and found Marcio Lassiter who nailed a three-pointer that cut the lead to eight. Several plays later, the Beermen led by three and, straight on through overtime, broke the spell with a 110-104 win.
The veteran guard, who bounced from one team to another in his early years in the league, was actually the most dejected man on the team in Lucena City, where the Beermen had lost, 75-82, and were saddled with a 0-3 deficit and a long four-hour bus ride home.
Thinking things over
One thing about long rides is that it gives you time to think things over.
“I was quite positive when we went to Lucena for Game Three. We were very much in the fight in Games One and Two and I was counting on our sixth man (the pro-Beermen crowd) in Game Three,” says Austria, a Quezon native whose relatives in the province formed part of the throng that cheered on SMB despite the defeat.
“It was a disappointing loss, but we had no time to dwell on it. The next game was Sunday and we faced a possible sweep,” adds Austria.
The conversation among the players on the way back from Lucena City focused on how to avoid total humiliation.
“The players didn’t want to get swept. In Lucena, Alaska were already celebrating one basket after another as if they had already won the championship. Nasaktan ang ego ng mga bata,” says Austria.
“Gusto lang talaga naming maka-isa lang para ma-boost yung confidence namin. So nung natalo kami nung Game Three, nag-usap-usap kami na kahit ano'ng mangyari, pipilitin naming makuha ang Game Four,” says San Miguel forward Arwind Santos.
In hindsight, their prospects would have been better if June Mar Fajardo were around in the first three games of the series. When the Beermen were about to wrap up the semifinal win over Rain or Shine in Game Six, the 6-10 behemoth hurt his knee during a rebound play against the smaller Jireh Ibañes.
“When I saw the injury, I was thinking ‘How am I going to motivate the team?’ We were up by 10 against Rain or Shine when June Mar hurt his knee,” Austria recalls. “Sabi ko lang basta umabot ng Finals, okay lang kami. Mahirap yung mag-Game Seven yung Rain or Shine na wala sa amin si June Mar. Malamang nahirapan kami.”
The victory over Rain or Shine was on a Friday, giving the team close to 48 hours to prepare for its clash against Alaska without their franchise player.
Fajardo, the then-reigning back-to-back MVP, has always been the featured player in SMB's simple yet lethal offense. But he was injured, and with not enough time to revamp their offensive sets, the Beermen just could not get any rhythm going in the first three games of the championship series.
The cost would have been enormous had the odds not swung in their favor.
“I told the players to believe in themselves but it was difficult for them to buy into that at first. In Game One (which they lost, 100-91), we were not a hundred percent but we still fought to the end,” Austria says.
San Miguel actually had the chance to tie the series in Game Two, but Yancy de Ocampo, who was tapped to fill in the shoes of Fajardo, missed two freethrows in the dying seconds and allowed the Aces to escape with an 83-80 victory.
Austria says de Ocampo actually lost sleep thinking about those flubbed freethrows.
“Sobrang dinibdib ni Yancy yun dahil alam niya na kailangan naming manalo para makatabla. Kaya nga siguro hindi maganda ang nilaro nya sa Lucena.”
De Ocampo, a PBA journeyman like Ross, came to San Miguel in 2015 with a nagging back injury. “He couldn’t even drive his car (then),” says Austria. “But we were patient to get him on track.”
Despite those missed freethrows, De Ocampo had actually been providing decent contributions off the San Miguel bench. As Fajardo's designated replacement in the starting lineup, he was even more engaged.
“I would not want to risk the career of June Mar so we had set our mind on playing the series without him." the SMB coach says. "But at the back of my mind, if we could extend the series to a Game Seven, then June Mar might be ready to join us.”
While it was unsettling for the team to compete without its biggest star, for Fajardo himself, the wait to get the all-clear to play was doubly excruciating. In the first two games, he stayed at home to rest and ice his knee.
“Tulog lang, nood ng TV saka yelo sa tuhod,” Fajardo says of his healing regimen. “Ang hirap ng pakiramdam na hindi ka makatulong. Kaysa nanonood lang ako sa bench, gusto ko makatulong sa team kahit papaano. Nung hindi nga ako naglaro, laging nandyan ang mga teammates ko para sabihan ako na huwag ko nang pilitin at sila na ang bahala.”
Return of the Kraken
On the night Alaska was supposed to complete the sweep, Fajardo looked like the unhappiest superstar to ever win the Best Player of the Conference Award.
Though he came to the venue to accept the award, Fajardo, still in civvies and noticeably limping, desperately wanted to play and help his team to avert a disaster. But all he could do was to apologize to his team and cheer on them from the sidelines.
“He said sorry to the team in the pre-game huddle for letting them down and not being there to help,” Austria recalls.
All that changed two games later when Austria himself made the announcement to the team that Fajardo would suit up in Game Five. “Parang nabuhayan teammates niya,” says Austria.
Still concerned about his prized center's condition, Austria managed his minutes the best he could. When Fajardo was finally fielded in the first half, he swished a jumper and pandemonium ensued.
“It was as if he never left. Unang tira pa lang pumasok na so sigawan yung crowd. Sabi ko sa sarili ko ‘Wow, balik na kami sa normal way of preparation’ at nung napatingin ako sa Alaska bench, napansin kong na-bother sila,” Austria says.
Alaska had every reason to be bothered with Fajardo back on the floor in Game Five.
In the first three games of the series, Vic Manuel had been running rings around the Beermen frontcourt and was touted to win the Finals MVP.
“Nung wala si June Mar, ginawa nilang singko si Manuel [the "5 spot" means the center slot]. Pero nung bumalik si Fajardo, hirap na si Manuel na bantayan siya sa poste. Sa depensa naman, lagi tayong naka-zone at nagkataong mababa yung field goal shooting nila sa labas,” Austria says.
As the Aces’ guns misfired, it was time for San Miguel’s outside snipers to do their damage. Double-teaming Fajardo didn't work for the Aces. That only freed up Lassiter and Santos in the perimeter and they feasted on jumpers off the Kraken's pinpoint assists.
“Andito na yung go-to guy namin," Santos recalls. "Ever since my college days in the UAAP, hindi naman talaga ako ang go-to guy. Yung confidence mo madadagdagan talaga kapag nakita mong naglalaro na ulit yung go-to guy mo.” Santos had 22 points and 16 rebounds in the Beermen's 86-73 win in Game Five, his best game in the series.
Fajardo, meanwhile, scored 13 points in 16 minutes of action.
It was not only Santos who regained his confidence. In SMB's Game Six overtime triumph (100-89) Lassiter scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half, playing the two-man, inside-out game with Fajardo. The Beermen unloaded 11 unanswered points in the extra period to force a rubber match.
“Nung una ang mindset lang namin ay makaisa. Tapos, biglang nandoon na kami naglalaro sa Game Seven,” Santos recalls.
It was after the Game 6 victory that talk in the San Miguel locker room shifted from survival to making history.
“I told them we would be making history so wag na namin palampasin ito. I told them that let’s win the championship and history will take care of itself,” Austria recalls.
The gods in charge of schedules also seemed to be working in the Beermen’s favor. Since most venues had been booked on January 31 (a Sunday), the pivotal Game Seven was played on February 3, a Wednesday, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
That gave each team four days to prepare for the all-or-nothing final match. “We took the day off on Saturday then practiced the succeeding days. Imagine, it had been a month since we had a real break from practice or actual play. Nakatulong sa amin iyon dahil dagdag na pahinga rin para kay June Mar,” Austria says.
The atmosphere during Game Seven was reminiscent of all classic PBA Game Sevens in the past, maybe rivaling even that of the NBA. Basketball fans, knowing the history and the rivalry between the two squads, scrambled for every available spot at the MOA Arena. Game 7 drew in 24,000 fans, according to news reports.
When the game started, Alaska did the unexpected, calling three mandatory timeouts in succession merely a second into the game, following a jumpball violation by Santos. The timeouts delayed the game for six minutes.
Coach Alex Compton’s ploy did not immediately make sense. Some saw it as a way to throw off the rhythm of their surging foes. Austria, on the other hand, first thought of it as some sort of protest while someone else told him that it was meant to reduce the intervals during the game.
Independent of this series of bizarre moves, the Aces, as the SMB coaching staff had expected, wanted to apply its vaunted full-court, press-and-trap tactic to the hilt to tire out the Beermen.
And so they buckled down to business at the resumption of play, finishing strong in the first half following a late surge that whittled down San Miguel’s halftime lead to just five points at 43-38.
San Miguel would again offensively assert itself in the third quarter with a 68-47 lead, but the Aces were not about to roll over. They cut the Beermen's lead to five twice—75-70 and 77-72—behind its relentless press and Calvin Abueva and Chris Banchero's combined 26 fourth quarter points.
Those late rallies produced some anxious moments for the Beermen.
“We were not doing anything in practice but press break," Austria says. "That was why I got mad because we were not doing the proper alignment to break the press. There was one time when June Mar was forced to call a timeout because he could not inbound since our formation was wrong. But when the boys finally did what was needed to be done, we were able to beat the press and the trap and attack them.”
Fajardo, Ross, Alex Cabagnot, and Santos would take turns keeping the Aces at bay. Santos, whose three-pointer had broken the Aces’ back in Game Seven of the 2015 Philippine Cup Finals, sank a three-pointer to make it an 80-72 lead, sparking a 10-3 run capped by triple by Ross for an 87-75 count.
It was only apt that Ross, whose shooting has always been considered by many as suspect, would be the one punctuate the rally, a run he himself had initiated four games ago following that bus ride from Lucena.
“You can’t look at the first three games that you lost. You have to win possession by possession. You have to enjoy the journey, the journey of getting to the mountaintop, how we weathered the storm,” Ross, who was rewarded with the Finals MVP following the title-clinching 96-89 win, said.
And so it came to pass that San Miguel Beermen, PBA pioneer, winner of the 1989 Grand Slam, the winningest team in PBA history with 22 championships, succeeded in creating a new lore for local basketball: pulling off the greatest comeback in PBA history.
Photography: KC Cruz and Jaime Campos (Spin.ph)