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Look back on PBA Bubble season — from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra’s triumph

The 2020 PBA season was easily the most challenging that the league has ever held due to the circumstances brought upon by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but it was nonetheless colorful and exciting.

Sure, it only featured one conference and ran for just a couple of months after seven months of waiting, but there was indeed no shortage of interesting stories that made Asia’s pioneering pro league the talk of the town.

This unprecedented season gave us lots of it. So before this year like no other comes to a close, we at Tiebreaker Times picked what we deem were the 10 most compelling stories that made PBA 2020 even more memorable.

From 12 teams to 11–almost

2018-asia-league-terrific-12-exhibition-game-macau-vs-ieco-dioceldo-sy Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsBack in July, Blackwater owner Dioceldo Sy announced that he’s selling the franchise for P 150 million, upset over allegations that the Elite violated health protocols for practicing ahead of the league’s planned schedule.

The billionaire businessman told an online interview that his team had actually begun practices, and that caught the attention of not just the league itself but the Games and Amusements Board (GAB) as well.

Sy, however, clarified later on that it was not a full-contact practice but rather a shoot-around with only two players and a ball boy. And he insisted, too, that no health protocols were breached whatsoever.

Still, he wasn’t spared by the PBA. He was slapped a hefty 100,000-peso fine, and the Commissioner’s Office ordered all players and staff to undergo swab tests. He was also probed for declaring that the franchise is up for sale.

But days after his controversial remarks, Sy apologized to both the PBA and GAB, and he eventually removed Blackwater from the selling block.

To further signify his intentions of staying in the league, Sy announced the following month that they will switch monikers from the Elite to Bossing by the 2021 season in a bid to appeal more to the masses.

Blackwater went on to play in the season restart, and the relatively young squad showed promised early with a 2-1 start. But it went on to lose its next eight games, as another season ended in disappointment.

Kelly Williams’ shock retirement

PBA-2017-TNT-vs.-ROS-Williams-0749 Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsKelly Williams surprised many last September when he announced through social media that he’s hanging up his sneakers for good.

Tributes quickly poured in for the 38-year-old forward, who played for 14 seasons in the PBA that saw him win Most Valuable Player honors in 2008 as well as six championships.

However, among those who were shocked with his sudden retirement, of all those close to him, was his mother team, TNT.
The Tropang Giga management was left looking for answers with Williams’ decision, given that he–along with a couple of other players–was actually given a contract extension until the end of the year.

According to team manager Gabby Cui, the team knew of his decision via social media only. And his retirement came days after he left TNT’s bubble training camp in Calamba, Laguna “without any notice or explanation.”

Team management then waited to hear the side of the Detroit native, who got to the flagship MVP franchise in 2010 following a multi-player trade with Sta. Lucia. Williams soon reached out and the matter was resolved, eventually.

Erring ref sent packing

PBA-Season-45-Northport-vs-Rain-or-Shine-pido-jarencio Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsReferee Sherwin Pineda faced what could be the harshest sanction ever meted to a game official when he was kicked out of the bubble following a wrong call in the Rain or Shine-NorthPort match last Oct. 18.

The Batang Pier, at that time, were looking for their first win of the season and appeared to seize that chance when they melted an 11-point deficit and tied things up at 68-all with 3.3 seconds remaining in the game.

That, until Paolo Taha got called for a foul on a driving Rey Nambatac with 1.3 ticks left, sending the sophomore guard to the stripe. He sank both of his free throws, and the Elasto Painters went on to win, 70-68.

Commissioner Willie Marcial admitted that Taha did not commit a foul and said that he got furious with such call, thus his decision to send home Pineda.

Pineda was actually one of the two game officials that got suspended last season in the wake of the controversial Game Seven affair between Magnolia and, coincidentally, Rain or Shine in the Philippine Cup semis.

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The bone of contention was that Rome Dela Rosa’s three with 2:58 left to play should not have counted since the shot clock had already expired, but the officials missed to call the violation. The Hotshots eventually won, 63-60.

Pineda being booted out of the bubble reduced the referees’ pool to 15, and having one less official would go on to be an issue for the league as the season went along. But that is another story.

No such thing as sister teams

PBA-Season-45-NLEX-vs-TNT-Ray-Parks Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsIf we saw a one-sided affair between sister teams San Miguel and Ginebra late in the eliminations in favor of the former, the same could not be said when MVP Group-owned teams NLEX and TNT fought last Oct. 30.

The Tropang Giga, prior to the season, were tagged as a heavy favorite to win it all as it assembled a complete, formidable staring five featuring Jayson Castro, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, Ray Parks, and Poy Erram.

And early in the bubble season, the MVP Group’s crown jewel were living up to expectations. It won its first five games–majority of which came in lopsided fashion–to take pole position of the standings.

But, there were the Road Warriors.

Yeng Guiao’s charges, at that time, were a struggling bunch. They could not string together victories, only winning once in the six games it played heading into their clash with the Tropa.

With that, many expected a snoozefest to take place. But NLEX proved otherwise, becoming the team that made life so hard for TNT by engaging the latter in an emotionally-charged affair.

At the 4:54-mark of the third quarter, Ray Parks–who was among the major providers during the Tropa’s streak–fell badly onto the floor after being in contact with rookie Will McAloney as he got up for a lay-up.

That didn’t sit well with Jayson Castro as he confronted McAloney, before Kiefer Ravena stepped in to pacify the former. Guiao and TNT veteran Jay Washington, meanwhile, were seen trading words at center court.

Cooler heads prevailed, though. Guiao and Washington were then slapped with technical fouls each for verbal altercation. A flagrant foul penalty one was slapped on McAloney, on the other hand.

Parks would then see himself in another commotion with 20.3 seconds left, as he got tangled with bruiser JR Quinahan following a joust for the ball underneath the rim. F1s were given to both players.

As the final buzzer sounded, NLEX won, 109-98, to give TNT its first loss in the bubble. And that, somehow, was the breakthrough the Road Warriors needed to keep their playoff hopes alive.

They went on to win four of their last five games in the elimination round, creating a wild race to the playoffs that featured many scenarios. The Tropa, meanwhile, would only win twice in their last five outings.

And one of TNT’s losses hurt NLEX more than it hurt them. Its 80-74 defeat in the hands of Rain or Shine shunned the Road Warriors’ quarterfinal aspirations, as the Elasto Painters completed the last eight.

NLEX needed Rain or Shine to lose against TNT and Phoenix Super LPG and then take down Terrafirma to force a playoff for no. 8, but all that went out the window when Guiao’s former team escaped from the Tropang Giga.

‘Sagip Kapamilya’

PBA-Season-45-San-Miguel-vs-Ginebra-Mo-Tautuaa Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsFans took to social media and expressed disappointment when Barangay Ginebra got beaten badly by erstwhile reigning five-time Philippine Cup champion San Miguel Beer in their eliminations encounter last Nov. 8.

Netizens even went to as far as saying that a ‘Sagip Kapamilya’ took place between the sister teams since the Beermen were in dire need of a victory that time to keep themselves in the playoff race.

The Barangay headed into the match as one of the leaders with a 7-2 record, but some of its stars saw limited action. Japeth Aguilar played just 17 minutes, while Stanley Pringle played just half of his average playing time with 18.

Gin Kings head coach Tim Cone, meanwhile, was well aware of all that talk, and he took to Twitter the following day to explain what really happened in the match where they absorbed a 66-81 loss.

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“If we lost both of our last two games, we’re not assured of a top four finish,” tweeted Cone, as Ginebra was set to face the lowly Terrafirma days after its match versus SMB for its final eliminations assignment.

“We had to make a decision. If we fall behind early, we’re going to rest guys that were banged up — Stan, Jap, LA [Tenorio], JD [Dillinger]. We weren’t going to risk losing two games trying to fight back in one game.”

Cone even apologized “to the fans if what we did was construed differently.” But it turned out that Ginebra did the right thing as it thrashed the Dyip, 102-80, and eventually locked the top seed with an 8-3 slate.

End of an era: San Miguel sees five-year PH Cup reign end

PBA-Season-45-San-Miguel-vs-Meralco-Cliff-Hodge Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsSan Miguel faced a bevy of challenges in the 2020 Philippine Cup that made many wonder if it could extend its unprecedented dominion in the league’s most prestigious conference to six.

That all began when reigning, six-time Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo suffered a gruesome leg injury during practice earlier this year, forcing him to sit out the entire season to tread the road to recovery.

The Beermen, though, showed that they could do well without their main man following their 94-78 demolition of rivals Magnolia in the season opener last March 8–days before the PBA had to suspend play due to the pandemic.

And the long break somehow affected SMB when the season resumed. It lost its first two games, and the blowout loss to TNT was worsened by the shoulder dislocation suffered by star guard Terrence Romeo.

The former three-time scoring champion left the bubble the next day and the Beermen’s depth suffered a major blow, although those left behind, especially the veterans, carried the fight moving forward.

The injury bug didn’t stop there, though. Chris Ross played through a banged-up knee and an injured thumb, while Marcio Lassiter and Alex Cabagnot both got hurt, too, at the latter part of the eliminations.

Still, SMB hit strides and eventually clinched the fourth seed, which gave them a twice-to-beat advantage for the quarterfinals–the top four teams were armed with such, as the conference adopted the Governors’ Cup format.

The Beermen were then seen to reach the semifinals since it only needed one win to do so. But Meralco, who just made its first Philippine Cup playoff appearance in five years, had other plans.

The Bolts gutted out a 78-71 victory in their first meeting to force a rubber match, and then obliterated their battered counterparts to complete the upset and, ultimately, overthrow the mighty dynasty.

“Ref, lutong-luto ‘to, ah!”


Game Three of the semifinals between rivals Barangay Ginebra and Meralco went to the Gin Kings, but the result was overshadowed by the blatant ‘luto’ accusation that was heard loud and clear on national television.

Play was paused with 10:04 to in the fourth quarter and with the Bolts down by 10, 56-66, when a referee headed to the officials’ table to clarify something. And that’s when somebody yelled, “Ref, lutong-luto ‘to, ah!”

Netizens quickly took to social media, and fingers pointed on Reynel Hugnatan as the one who said that as he was upset over an earlier call where he got whistled for a foul while defending counterpart Japeth Aguilar.

The league then decided to further investigate the incident, only to end up with nothing as it could not identify who really was the one who shouted. Hugnatan himself denied that it was him.

PBA bucks COVID-19 scare inside the bubble

PBA-Season-45-Alaska-vs-Blackwater-Vic-Manuel Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsThe PBA Bubble got rocked to the core late in October when a referee and eventually a player were suspected to have contracted COVID-19.

League officials were left befuddled as to how that happened, for they insisted that everybody inside the safe zone complied as much as they can to the stringent health protocols put up to ensure the integrity of the bubble.

Part of the protocols is sending positive cases into quarantine, and that affected the referees. It came to a point where only seven worked the games as eight were isolated after being in close contact with the suspected ref.

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Sixteen referees were brought by the league into Clark, but it got reduced to 15 as Sherwin Pineda got booted out of the bubble for a missed call late in the Rain or Shine-NorthPort match last Oct. 18.

The virus scare put the season in jeopardy. The league had to pause play back on Oct. 30 in compliance with the recommendation of the IATF-EID Technical Working Group and the DOH Advisory Group of Experts.

Games weren’t held until new protocols proposed by the IATF and DOH are out in place. Fortunately for the PBA, the stoppage didn’t last long, and action resumed by Nov. 4 although the schedule got more compressed.

It was proven as well that the two suspected cases were false positives following a series of re-tests, and the season went on without hiccups and eventually concluded successfully.

Commissioner Willie Marcial said that completing the bubble tilt was the best Christmas gift he’s had, and this basketball-crazy nation that longed for local hoops to come back amidst the pandemic surely felt the same way.

Comeback of comebacks: Calvin Abueva returns

PBA-Season-45-NLEX-vs-Phoenix-Calvin-Abueva Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsOctober 25 actually felt like a bittersweet day for PBA fans. Yes, it was when the league announced that a player tested positive for COVID-19, but it was also the day Calvin Abueva was finally reinstated in the league.

That officially ended his suspension that lasted for 16 long months, which he was slapped with following two separate incidents–first due to his obscene gestures towards Ray Parks’ girlfriend and then his hit on Terrence Jones.

He played his first game back on Oct. 26 after 512 days, and he played like he wasn’t gone for that long as he made 21 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists to help the Fuel Masters beat NLEX, 114-110.

Abueva indeed helped elevate Phoenix Super LPG’s game higher. The Fuel Masters locked the second seed with an 8-3 card and reached the semifinals for the second straight time in the all-Filipino conference.

The former San Sebastian star finished the season second in the statistical race with 37.1 statistical points, making him a strong candidate for the Best Player of the Conference award to be named in January.

The do-it-all forward–who averaged 19.4 points, a league-leading 12.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.0 steals in the bubble–was then rewarded by a three-year max extension by the Fuel Masters.

Barangay Ginebra emerges as bubble king

PBA-Season-45-Finals-Game-Five-Ginebra-LA-Tenorio-selfie Look back on PBA Bubble season -- from Blackwater almost leaving to Ginebra's triumph Bandwagon Wire Basketball PBA  - philippine sports newsComing off a stellar championship run in last season’s Governors’ Cup, expectations were high for Barangay Ginebra heading into the new season as they were among the favorites to win the Philippine Cup.

And the Gin Kings went on to live up to such. They conquered fellow favorites TNT through a gentleman’s sweep in the Finals to claim the throne, ushering in a new era in the all-Filipino wars lorded by San Miguel in the last five years.

It could be said that Ginebra was bound for something special this season when it started 4-0, the first time the franchise did so since the 1986 Open Conference–when the team was led by the great Sen. Robert Jaworski.

The Gin Kings went on to secure the top seed with an 8-3 card. And they did not waste their win-once incentive in the quarterfinals as they dispatched Rain or Shine to reach the semis, where they faced a familiar foe in Meralco.

They went on to frustrate the Bolts anew big thanks to the series-clinching corner three-pointer by Scottie Thompson in the winner-take-all Game Five to return to the Big Dance after three years.

Ginebra then defeated the injury-riddled Tropang Giga in five games to bag home the coveted Jun Bernardino trophy, and take the distinction of being the best team in the bubble.

LA Tenorio, who underwent laparoscopic appendectomy two weeks before the season restart, was adjudged the Finals MVP for his steadiness at the point in the series to make his first Philippine Cup title even sweeter.

The Barangay finally ended their 13-year title drought in the import-less tournament. They also collected their 13th PBA championship overall, tying them with the fabled Crispa franchise for fourth all-time most titles.

Written By

Oftentimes on the sidelines. Forever a student of the game. Morayta-bred.

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