Attendance in the PBA left a lot to be desired in 2016 as empty seats usually outnumbered the fans who watched the games either at the Smart Araneta Coliseum or the Mall of Asia Arena.
But in times when the people filled both venues to the rafters, they were witness to some of the memorable moments that added to the rich history of the Asia’s first professional basketball league.
Two moments stood out for the PBA in 2016. First came the Beeracle comeback of the San Miguel Beermen from 0-3 down to beat the Alaska Aces in the Philippine Cup finals. The other was the end of Barangay Ginebra San Miguel’s eight-year title drought by winning the Governors’ Cup, delighting millions of their fans while silencing the so-called haters who have used a popular vegetable to symbolize the team’s constant failures.
Winning those championships in such unbelievable fashion weren’t expected when the year began. For San Miguel, claiming the Philippine Cup proved to be impossible after Alaska moved on a verge of taking the crown after winning three in a row to start their title series and missing June Mar Fajardo to an injury.
In fact, Alaska was on the verge of sweeping the series in Game 4, taking a double-digit lead entering the final minutes. But San Miguel unleashed an improbable comeback and won in overtime to stay alive in the series.
And as if it was not enough, Fajardo, expected to miss the whole series, came back better than ever and led the Beermen to wins in Games 5 and 6, thus forcing a winner-take-all match. And in Game 7, Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter, Arwind Santos, Alex Cabagnot, and Finals Most Valuable Player Chris Ross led the charge for the Beermen, who controlled most of the game to secure the franchise’s 21st title, while adding the frustrations of the Aces, who previously lost their last two finals meetings to the same team.
“A miracle is just around the corner, and now it happened,” said Beermen coach Leo Austria, whose feat eventually led him to winning a second straight Coach of the Year award from the PBA Press Corps.
The Beermen’s success launched what was another season of basketball success for San Miguel Corporation. It ended with Ginebra delighting almost the whole nation.
Since its last title which came in the 2008 Fiesta Conference, Ginebra has been the most scrutinized team of the PBA. Constant defeats in the playoffs prompted many to ridicule the team, going as far as becoming a laughingstock on social media, with the words “kangkong” and “Bora Cup” being some of the running gags.
But the drought seemed to be on the course of ending, especially SMC decided to transfer the great mentor Tim Cone from the Star Hotshots, the team he led to the 2014 Grand Slam as San Mig Super Coffee Mixers, to the league’s most popular ballclub.
In fact, Cone, the winningest coach in PBA history, entered the Governors’ Cup with a new outlook by making some little changes on his trademark “Triangle Offense.” While Cone didn’t admit it, his system seemed to have shown little resemblance of the triangle, as Ginebra played using some free-flowing offense.
Those changes, coupled with a bit of fate when an injury to original import Paul Harris forced Ginebra to tap Justin Brownlee, allowed Ginebra to make an impressive run to the championship. The crowd became bigger after Ginebra beat Austria and San Miguel in the semis.
Ginebra was up against the Meralco Bolts, a team on the rise after going from 1-10 in the Philippine Cup followed by a semis stint in the Commissioner’s Cup. Chances of another flameout grew when the Bolts took a 2-1 lead in the finals, but Ginebra displayed its trademark “Never Say Die” attitude to win Games 4 and 5, pulling from within a game that led them to victory.
Game 6 became a classic battle, with Finals MVP LA Tenorio, outstanding rookie Scottie Thompson delighting the audience with his all-around plays, and Mark Caguioa and Jayjay Helterbrand defying Father Time.
The game went down to the wire, but Brownlee delivered one of the greatest finishes in PBA history by draining a buzzer-beating triple that ended not only the drought, but also the kangkong jokes.
“Wala nang kangkungan!” Caguioa proclaimed.
Overshadowed by the success of San Miguel and Ginebra was the championship of Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the Commissioner’s Cup. The Elasto Painters’ six-game romp of the Aces proved to be unique as they had to parade four imports since the start of the conference, before hoisting the title with the fourth reinforcement, Pierre Henderson-Niles, becoming the first import to win a crown by averaging less than 10 points per game.
It was also the second and final title of coach Yeng Guiao at Rain or Shine. In the offseason, PBA fans were left stunned when the fiery mentor decided to accept the job as coach of the NLEX Road Warriors. Guiao’s departure triggered more moves, first dealing JR Quinahan to the Globalport Batang Pier and second Paul Lee to Star for James Yap.
Fajardo was still to force to be reckon with in the PBA, and it led to him winning a third straight Most Valuable Player award, a first in league history, defeating the likes of TNT KaTropa’s Jayson Castro.
The two players were part of the Gilas Pilipinas team that bombed out of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena, losing to the Tony Parker-led France and New Zealand. The early exit also marked the start of the PBA’s limited participation in the national team as the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas decided to have a core of Gilas cadets, featuring top amateur players and have returning Chot Reyes replace Tab Baldwin as coach.
But in a sudden twist, these amateurs entered the PBA draft with the condition of being called up by Gilas when needed. It saw the emergence of Mac Belo as the league’s top newcomer at the early stages of this season’s Philippine Cup.
Belo, whose rags to riches story out of Far Eastern University has been a source of amazement, and has led to once floundering Blackwater Elite squad a strong start in the tournament.
Whether Belo and the Elite can continue that form in 2017 remains to be seen. But as seen in the year that is about to end, PBA fans should expect the unexpected.