Long before the final buzzer sounded, the balloons and confetti fell, and the entire San Miguel Beermen crew stormed center court on Sunday night, Chris Ross and Alex Cabagnot — the Beermen’s two superstar guards — were already celebrating on their own.
With Game 6 inside the Smart-Araneta Coliseum already settled save for the final score and the partisan crowd backing San Miguel beginning to roar in the fourth quarter, Ross and Cabagnot grinned from ear to ear. One low-fived the other while the latter brought the ball down. Even when TNT scored in their possessions, it didn’t matter. The score was too lopsided already that both men could only think of fast-forwarding the game to the end so they could bask in the glory of another championship. Moments later, they wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders. If you were seated courtside, you would have seen how equally pumped up the two were for that moment, anticipating the inevitable end scene.
“We really have a great relationship. When I was first drafted, he was my veteran. He kind of took me under his wings and we never looked back,” Ross said.
San Miguel blitzed TNT from the get-go, in spite of foul troubles to June Mar Fajardo and Arwind Santos early in the first quarter. The Beermen are insurmountable when they play near-perfect. By the halftime break, the bubble was 20 points. TNT tried their best to fight back, going on fullcourt traps in the third frame. Instead, the Beermen, as if mutants, didn’t tire out, continued to run and punish TNT, and extended the lead. The Beermen toppled TNT, 115-91 to hand Leo Austria his fifth title as franchise head coach.
When Cabagnot was announced Finals MVP, it was Ross who looked even more excited for his comrade’s latest achievement, hugging him tightly to a point it looked like he was already choke holding his backcourt sidekick.
It was friendship goals personified. And why not? Ross and Cabagnot go a long way back. When Ross was drafted third overall by the Coca-cola Tigers back in 2008, Cabagnot was the team’s main playmaker.
“We were teammates at Coke,” Cabagnot said. “If we had stayed a little bit longer together, I think would have (succeeded). We were feeling it out there.”
Cabagnot was a well-deserved recipient of the award. He dropped 20 points a night in the championship series, and capped it with a scintillating triple-double of 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, becoming the first local player since Willie Miller back in 2005 to log a triple-double in the PBA Finals.
Just a conference ago when this San Miguel team cemented its place in history by winning the Philippine Cup for the third straight time — a feat called being the PBA perpetual champions — Cabagnot shared an undulterated moment with Ross, telling the eventual Philippine Cup MVP of how proud he was of him while teary-eyed.
The two went different directions when Cabagnot was traded to San Miguel early in the 2010s. As one of the budding point guards in the league, Cabagnot showed he can belong to the ranks of premier backcourt players in the PBA — from Jimmy Alapag to Jayjay Helterbrand to James Yap to Mark Caguioa.
While he was doing that, Ross was also trying to carve his own niche under Meralco. Ross, like Cabagnot, was unproven before. He couldn’t hit jumpers. He was often overlooked, and considered just a back-up point guard at best.
“When he got traded, we still maintained the friendship, but really, when we became teammates again in San Miguel, it was a blessing, because we complement each other so well, and we both want each other to do great and do amazing things,” Ross said.
Little did both men knew their paths would cross again, when Ross was traded from Meralco to Globalport and then to San Miguel.
“When we came back together, we already knew how each other plays, the differences. It’s like night and day. I think we’re yin and yang in those ways,” Cabagnot said.
Both have grown tremendously under the Beermen. Cabagnot is no “crunchman” by accident; he would deliver big buckets consistently when needed. It took a while for Ross to mesh under a stacked San Miguel squad, but when other backcourt players were unloaded by the Beermen, Ross found his role and he made sure to shine.
Cabagnot couldn’t be prouder of his once back-up point guard turned into Best Player of the Conference.
“Definitely happy. I am one of the biggest Chris Ross fans,” he shared. “Not just because of what you guys see on the court. You probably just see 48 minutes of him. Me, I see a lot of him, and I know the transition he’s made, the work he’s put in. Especially I am one of those guys who want to see guys work hard and reap the benefits.”
The feeling is mutual for Ross.
“We do so much together. We eat out after practice together, we workout together. It’s always a blessing to see someone who puts so much work because he puts in so much work in his body in games, it’s gratifying for me that he’s finally getting recognized. He has been an amazing player in this league for a long time and he is only getting better,” Ross said.
The Beermen have made it clear at the start of the Austria era that they were ready to sacrifice personal goals and individual awards for team success. The franchise has always preached sacrifice, and everyone from the players to the coaches to the staff make sure to keep their fellow comrades in mind.
In the process, this Beermen squad hasn’t just won five titles under Austria; their members have forged meaningful relationships with one another.
“It’s always about sacrificing for the guy next to you. We all sacrifice certain parts of our game for the betterment of the team. Just like Arwind (Santos), he is an MVP and he is coming off the bench now. Alex used to play on the ball a lot but now he is going to more of a scoring role,” Ross said.
“We’ve really built a great relationship, not just me and Alex, but all the other guys. Winning helps a lot, but we genuinely like each other.”
Not only do Ross and Cabagnot like each other; they have exemplified the what sacrifice meant on the court. While roles keep changing for them from time to time, the focus remained on what they can do for the people around them to be successful, above anything personal.
“There is no bad blood, everyone wants to go to practice because we want to see each other. We play music every practice. We just try to make the atmosphere fun,” Ross said.
Ross and Cabagnot haven’t even played that long together compared to pairs who have spent almost their entire careers playing for the same team. But they have shown the importance of relationships in a team.
“The brotherhood, you are happy for anyone who plays well. Yun naman ugali ko talaga, to be happy, especially for him, because I know how hard he worked for (this),” Cabagnot said.
If one can only be jovial at the accomplishment of the other, and vice versa, good luck topping that. Their brotherhood is what the Beermen’s culture of selflessness is all about, and you can expect them — and the rest of the Beermen — to continue having each other’s backs as they shoot for more championships.