After all this time: To those who never said die

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“Wala nang kangkungan!”

Mark Caguioa yelled this into the microphone moments after he gave Jayjay Helterbrand a The Notebook-like plea to never leave him. The drought is over. Ginebra is done with vegetation. They have reaped what they sowed. Champion na ulit ang Barangay.

What a moment. Mark’s teary request for Jayjay to never leave him is the 2016 version of the Rudy Hatfield “I Wanna Thank Myself” speech. Just another classic Ginebra story.

And there are more: Tim Cone won his 19th. Joe Devance his 7th. Sol Mercado got his first. The Fast and Furious got their One Last Ride (although much like the movies, I have a feeling they’ll keep it going until we beg them to stop), and Aljon Mariano is finally a champion. There was a Jimmy hero moment that never happened even though we all were just waiting for it, Reynel Hugnatan isn’t Finals MVP, and Allen Durham was about a half inch away from sending Ginebra fans home crying again.

All those storylines, not enough for a book. Rafe Bartholomew was in the venue showing off his near-Alex-Compton-level Tagalog on TV though, so maybe a book is in the works. But for all of those narratives to come together the way they did, for it all to finish in that manner: via a (almost) buzzer-beater? For the win? With Jaworski in the building? They always accuse the PBA of being scripted, but not even I could write it up the way it happened. I mean that shit was crazy. I’m sorry. No other way to say it. Ang baliw nung nangyari.

One of my best friends in the world Finn Santos was in Araneta by himself for game six. Throughout this playoff run, he’s watched front row next to me, at home next to his equally-die-hard dad, on the street standing at a tricycle terminal, on Twitter swearing at EDSA traffic, and, for game six, in Araneta, on the Meralco side, by himself.

“Mabubugbog ako dito” was his caption to an Instagram story he posted. It was a photo of the court, from left quarter, I would say about 20 rows back. Flanking the view however were orange balloons, orange shirts, and a ton of Meralco fans that seemed to have sprouted from the ground, out of nowhere.

He messaged me asking if I was there, looking for someone he knew. I apologized, I was home. See, I didn’t grow up a Ginebra fan. Let’s get that out of the way. I’m still not one now. I don’t root against them. Ginebra’s just like Star Wars for me. Dude you guys really dig it and I can see why. I ain’t hating on you for liking Luke and Leia and a dude in a robot suit with a cape, and my man, the little green guy, whose sentence construction is all backwards. I see the point of it. I just don’t love it as much as you do.

My friend however, Finn, yeah he loves Ginebra like a Stormtrooper cosplayer loves George Lucas. Eventually he moved spots to be in less hostile territory. I texted him again and told him, “If ever, moment yan. I-live mo.”

And so Chris Newsome got rolling. Brian Faundo was Danny I-like with the midranger. Chris Ellis apparently was still on the team, and college students Baser and Anjo hit big shots. All these, tiny little ripples around the tidal wave of a third quarter from LA Tenorio.

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LA’s a friend. I’m lucky to be able to say that. Three times a week or so I see him at the gym doing extra work, usually on the brink of passing out. All that paid off, one ridiculous floater at a time. Finals MVP for a guy who’s supposed to be past his prime. A classic game from someone cut from Gilas. A now-legendary Ginebra performance from a guy who wears shorts like it’s 2002. A championship promised, and delivered, by an elite point guard and a hall-of-fame husband, father and friend.

There’s something chilling about imagining him sitting in that locker room at halftime, down double-digits, with close to no offensive rhythm whatsoever. He’s seen this before: a team full of weapons, himself included, all shooting blanks when it mattered most. And then he sees The Big J come in, The Living Legend, the savior, appropriately dressed in white. What it must have been like to see LA realize that out there, on the same court, under the same lights, he could, if he willed it enough, have a moment similar to the ones Jawo had before him.

He would have 24 more basketball minutes. He would have a lead to overcome, a deficit to erase, a championship to win. Eto na yun. May mas Ginebra pa ba kesa sa sitwasyong ‘to? And LA, in that moment, in that locker room, decided: Eto na’ko. Amin ‘to.

The fans, the almost-impossible-to-please, meme-sharing, comment-box-filling Ginebra fans, got the LA they always dreamed of and more. Tenorio’s heard it all, read it all, felt it all. The love, the disappointment, the occasional keyboard warrior who takes it way too far. He gets that it’s part of the job. Once he told me, “Ganyan talaga sa Ginebra brad. Kelangan makapal balat mo, tanggapin mo lang. Pero makapal din dapat mukha mo, tira ka padin.”

And shoot he did. And yell, and scream, and chant, and apologize-to-LA-for-ever-doubting-him, the Ginebra fans did in return. That’s what really makes this special, that much is obvious. A championship going to any other franchise would be an incredible story to tell. But when it goes to Ginebra, when its fans take that trophy home, it’s something else entirely.

The magic of the crowd, the mystique of the fandom passed down from fathers to sons and daughters, the legitimate pain that losses cause and the life moments generated by nights like last night, those are things that all fanbases have. Except Ginebra does it bigger, does it better, does it like no one else.

People will write endlessly about Mark and Jayjay, they should also write about Tim. Someone go write about the redemption of Sol and the validation of Japeth. Our next SLAM issue has something about Scottie, and I hope Rafe does get around to writing that book.

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But for everything I’ve written here on SLAM – many of which are about all of us, or no one at all – this one, in the words of the poet Aubrey Graham, “is not to be confused, this one’s for you.”

For you the die-hard. You who shared photos of Andris Biedrins and hating on whoever can’t identify him. You who fought that one guy online when Calvin got cut. You the Cavs fan who finally brought it home to The Land. You the Warriors fan who cried when they gave up a 3-1 lead and can’t wait for KD and Steph to bring vengeance from the gods. You the Cubs fan who prays for the drought to end at 108. And yes, most especially, you the Ginebra fan: the most extreme of us, the most volatile of us, the most deserving of us.

Often we leave when things aren’t easy, or fun, or new anymore. We give up. We seek elsewhere, often not even for something better, because who knows if that even exists, but for something different, just because. We cross bridges and burn them behind us, only to look back and wonder if you can survive the impossible swim back because there’s no place like home.

Either that or we stay in silence, in disinterest, with passion extinguished and hearts heavy because god knows why. We float until we drift, we drift until we forget, we forget and then we let go.

That is of course, unless you’re a Ginebra fan standing in Araneta on the Meralco side fearing for your safety, praying to have a moment you can live in. Why? Because you have faith unconquerable, you have love undefeatable, you have logic that challenges even logic itself.

“Di ka nag-iisa. Ang dami niyo diyan.” I texted this to Finn at halftime.

Today, the morning after, the bastard messaged me. “Bro, champion Ginebra. Baka lang nakalimutan mo.”

Ang saya niya. Ang saya niyo. And you all deserve it.

Here’s to the never-left’s. Here’s to the ride-or-die’s. Here’s to the you-and-me-against-the-world’s. Here’s to the Never-Say-Die’s.