On paper, it was an ordinary elimination round meeting. But with bizarre and one-in-a-blue-moon circumstances turning the tides, it became a special night that will resonate among the minds of Filipino sports fans.
It was only fitting that the night cap of the PBA on a humid Wednesday featuring the Kia Carnival and Barangay Ginebra was played inside the Cuneta Astrodome, the league’s home during the 1990s and an arena that served as the venue for many colorful moments not only in the PBA but also in culture, as it hosted religious gatherings, beauty pageants, and talent shows through the years.
The Cuneta was no MGM Grand; there were no luxurious suites, thousand-dollar tickets, pay-per-view subscriptions, fountains, state-of-the-art lobbies, or concierge. There was no beer nor expensive cocktails nor elegant buffets. Instead, there were hotdog sandwiches and buckets of popcorn that barely costed a dollar inside, and a handful of street vendors outside selling variety of street food on an oven-hot afternoon.
On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, the venue graced, in a way, a momentous occasion that will be remembered especially by those who took time to witness what happened on that day.
To borrow from MMA fighter Ronda Rousey:
Barangay Ginebra makes any arena its homecourt. Ditto with eight-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who seems to have people follow him wherever he goes.
On that night, it was an arena that belonged to Filipino sports enthusiasts.
In the second quarter, with fans attached to the highly-physical and toe-to-toe exchange between Kia and Ginebra and oohs and ahhs surrounding the hardcourt with every move, a simple appearance by one of the most relevant personalities in the archipelago caused a collective standstill.
Pacquiao suddenly emerged from one of the hallways of the Astrodome, and the entire place erupted with chants of Manny! Manny!
“It’s a good day for us. We won the game so that’s a plus but also, it is a great honor to shake Manny’s hand at the end of the game. Just to see how the fans reacted when he came in gave me goosebumps. It shows our support for him and the things he accomplished. It was awesome. No didn’t even know he was here. It was great he took time out of his busy schedule to show support for the PBA. This is a memorable day.” – Jayjay Helterbrand, Barangay Ginebra guard
It was only the first day back home for the national treasure who was in Las Vegas last week for a mega-fight. His itinerary itself was also packed with motorcades around the metro and national television guestings, but found a way to squeeze the basketball match into his list.
Before the third quarter fired off, Sports 5’s Erika Padilla asked a few questions to Pacquiao, as the thousands observed from their respective seats. Pacquiao was ever gracious, and the people reciprocated the gesture with rounds of applause.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the showdown between the two squads provided enough electricity for the rest of the night. Orlando Johnson was his usual explosive self, finishing with thunderous slams. The Carnival’s pint-sized LA Revilla tried to wile his team back in action, scoring punch after punch to keep it close. Bodies slammed onto the hardwood in a battle reminiscent of the 90s, with Ginebra trying to out-#PusongPacquiao Kia while the Carnival trying to out-#NSD the Gin Kings.
Ginebra made a patented run, complemented by raucus chants of Hee-ne-brah! Hee-ne-brah! that enveloped the stadium. Kia would make a comeback of its own, and the fans would turn their attention to Pacquiao’s wards.
The game back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Until one side had to give until the final whistle.
Teams shook hands centercourt in a rare occasion which feted two of the most relevant icons in Philippine sports: a transcendent fighter who overcame poverty and triumphed in and out of the ring, and a hoops team genuinely loved for the same spirit of never giving up — qualities which mirror those of the Filipino.
“It was a great experience. It got even better once he [Pacquiao] got there. He makes the enviroment a better place. When he came, he jumped right in and they worked it out. He wanted it to happen and he inspires people. All in all, it was a great game for basketball and the PBA, and you know, the history of the situation.” – Rob Wainwright, Kia assistant coach
At a nearby convenience store after the match, people were still talking about a missed chance at having a photo with the Pambansang Kamao.
A few moments later, inside a passenger bus bound for the southern part of Metro Manila, a man quipped
The game was officially over, but its picture of Hee-ne-brah and Manny, Manny intertwined still resonates among those who have seen it.
The night may have finally come to an end, but its relevance to Filipino sports fans will never die.