It may not be as prestigious as a Grand Slam, but to be crowned as champions at the end of an extraordinary PBA season is definitely something else.
Barangay Ginebra lorded over the 2020 Philippine Cup, emerging as the best team in a tilt held in a bubble which, easily, is the most demanding campaign the league has ever held.
Sure, nothing worth having comes easy, and the same goes when it comes to championships. But the road the Gin Kings had to tread a difficult road to the crown given the harsh conditions of the tourney.
There was little time for Ginebra and the rest of the field to recover in between games, for one. The league compressed the schedule of the season resumption, fitting the tilt into just two months.
There was even a time where all the ball clubs played nearly every day following the brief pause of the conference from Oct. 30-Nov. 2 as a coronavirus (COVID-19) scare took place inside the bubble.
But aside from that killer of a schedule, the Barangay also had its own challenges. It didn’t have a complete lineup when it entered Clark, as stars LA Tenorio and Japeth Aguilar came in late.
Tenorio underwent a laparoscopic appendectomy two weeks prior to the restart. Meanwhile, Aguilar reportedly went inactive for two months after being caught playing in a pickup game in violation of the government’s health protocols.
The team also didn’t have Greg Slaughter, who entered a surprising sabbatical last February following the expiration of his contract. He returned from the States last September but did not join Ginebra in the bubble.
And then, of course, there was the tedious task for the coaches of getting everybody into game shape and re-calibrating them into their schemes, since the league paused play for seven long months.
Still, the Barangay rode out the challenges. They even started the conference with four straight wins, the first time for the franchise since the 1986 Open Conference. Yes, 34 years.
Ginebra eventually locked the top seed with an 8-3 card. Coach Tim Cone was wary, though, having experienced seasons where his no. 1-ranked teams exited the playoffs too early.
His charges, however, proved him otherwise. The Gin Kings put their win-once incentive to good use and eliminated Rain or Shine in the quarterfinals, returning to the all-Filipino semifinals after missing last season.
There, it faced a familiar foe in Meralco. The Bolts felt greatly motivated to finally break the Ginebra riddle after losing to the latter in three of the last four Governors’ Cup Finals, including last season.
Morale was sky-high for the Bolts entering the best-of-five series. They had just ended the five-year reign of San Miguel by blowing the Beermen’s twice-to-beat advantage in the quarters.
And Norman Black’s wards looked finally poised to win one over their rivals. They forced the series to the limit, and had a shot to win it when Reynel Hugnatan made a trey to tie the game at 80 with 14.5 seconds left.
Lady Luck, however, smiled on Ginebra instead. Scottie Thompson sank a booming triple with six-tenths of a second left. The Barangay marched on to the Finals while leaving a shattered Meralco side in their wake.
A titanic clash then ensued in the titular bout. The Barangay faced the MVP Group’s crown jewel in TNT, who, like the former, was among the favorites to win it all following the beef-up it did in the offseason.
The Tropang Giga acquired Poy Erram via trade last February, finally addressing their need for a legit big man. They also created a formidable starting five that features Jayson Castro, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, and Ray Parks.
Parks, 27, was coming off a stellar showing in the semis where he lifted his side from a 1-2 deficit versus Phoenix Super LPG. He averaged 27.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in the series that also went the distance.
Injuries, unfortunately, hampered TNT at the worst of times. Parks aggravated a calf injury in the opener, eventually missing the entire series. Castro, meanwhile, got hounded by bone spurs on his knee in Game Four.
Their absence was indeed a tough blow, although Pogoy, Rosario, Erram, and the rest of the Tropa tried their best to carry the fight. They all were keen on ending the franchise’s half-a-decade title drought.
Still, Ginebra spoiled their corporate rival’s gallant efforts. It finished the series through a gentleman’s sweep to claim the championship.
Thirteen seems to be a lucky number for the Gin Kings. They won their first Jun Bernardino Trophy in 13 years, then collected their 13th overall crown to tie the celebrated Crispa franchise for fourth all-time most.
By striking gold, the present-day Ginebra matched what that 1986 crew led by the great Sen. Robert Jaworski did: start a conference 4-0 and then win it all.
Back then, Jaworski and Co. gave the storied franchise its first PBA title.
Tenorio was adjudged as the PBA Press Corps Finals Most Valuable Player for the stability he displayed in the series. He averaged 13.6 points, 6.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in five games.
But Tenorio wasn’t alone in making the triumph possible. Aguilar, who tried to regain his form while inside the bubble, playing his best game of the season in Game Five with 32 points, nine rebounds, three steals, and two assists.
Stanley Pringle, the most consistent player for the Barangay all season long, came through as well in the title-clinching match. He had 13 markers, including big baskets in a 10-0 run late in the game that turned the tides for his side.
Joe Devance and Jared Dillinger were instrumental as well, flexing their vast experience – especially in the last two games of the Finals, when Cone opted for a veteran-laden starting unit.
Cone, meanwhile, further solidified his place as the PBA’s most accomplished mentor by winning his 23rd championship. He is eight championships clear of the late, great Baby Dalupan with a record that will surely stand the test of time.
For the 62-year-old, he strongly believes that Ginebra will be remembered forever for reigning supreme in the unprecedented bubble meet– a set-up inspired by the successful blueprint of the NBA.
“It’s just so unique, and I think it’s going to be remembered forever,” Cone said.
“And it’s nice to have that legacy. Our players, even our young rookies, they’re going to remember this bubble championship.”
Surely, they will be.