It was the Finals of the 2015-16 Philippine Cup. The San Miguel Beermen had lost the first three games of the series. The Alaska Aces were a win away from avenging their Finals loss to SMB in the previous year.
History said there was no chance that the Beermen could come back. The injury report agreed. San Miguel’s then two-time MVP, June Mar Fajardo, had missed all three games as he nursed a knee injury. Coach Leo Austria was running out of options. But he had to find other ways to win and stay alive.
On the far end of the SMB bench, Chris Ross clenched his fist and grinded his teeth. He was never one to get ahead of his coach. But deep inside, he felt that he could be that other way to win or, at the very least, help his team find it.
“If you remember, that Finals, I wasn’t getting heavy minutes in the first few games that we lost. And I was so eager to get out there and help my team. I told myself that if I get my chance, I would leave it all out there,” Ross said.
He eventually got that in game four. Getting more minutes than usual, the San Miguel guard stepped up and posted a near triple-double of 11 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. His contributions helped stave off Alaska’s efforts towards clinching the title and sweeping San Miguel.
Ross served as the Beermen’s unsung hero in game four. And that performance would eventually change two things – the story of the series and the course of Ross’ PBA career.
June Mar was able to return to action in game five, and as expected, his presence was a huge boost for the team. But it was still Chris who would do damage the rest of the way. Through his emergence, SMB was able to force a sudden death game seven. And in that final battle, it was him again who led San Miguel to a historic win.
Behind another all-around showcase of 21 points, five rebounds and five assists, Chris powered San Miguel to become the first team in league history to come back from a 0-3 deficit.
Chris had always been one of the better players in the PBA. That was proven during the years that he ran the show for the Meralco Bolts. But that Finals series against Alaska was a reintroduction. Chris was done with being part of the ‘better’. He showed us all that he was one of the best.
“I’ve put in a lot of work on my game over the years,” he said. “It’s more about having the confidence in yourself that you can do these things.”
Players always have interesting stories on how they made it to the PBA – all the sacrifices, the hard work and the unseen hours. But while Chris has his own share of those, the story he preaches is how it’s just as difficult to stay in the league and remain relevant.
“The hard work actually starts when you get drafted or signed up by a team,” the eight-year veteran shared. “There are so many guys that want a spot on one of the rosters. So you really have to put the work in as if it’s a full time job. You have to put the hours in – whether it’s doing court drills, hitting the weights room or just staying mentally strong. Then, when you reach a certain level of play, you’ll have a target on your back and you’re getting the best from your opponent every night out. So you really have to work everyday and get better.”
That, in a gist, is the story of Chris Ross. It’s a tale of a never-ending quest to improve and get better.
Chris first made his mark in the PBA as a defensive specialist. He has always been a nightmare for the opposing team’s best scorer. On top of that, he also established himself as one of the top facilitators in the league. In the three seasons that he played with Meralco, Chris normed 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
At that time, many people were saying that there was just one thing missing in Chris’ game. They said that if he could blossom into a scoring threat, then he’d have the complete package.
Four years since then, Chris has erased all doubts on his scoring ability. This season, he’s averaging a career-best 11.3 points per game. He has surprised a lot of people by dropping 20-point games on a regular basis. And if you think that that took away his focus on defense and facilitating, you’re wrong. Because the guy is also norming career-highs of 7.3 assists and 2.8 steals a night.
The thing is, Chris always had offense in him. It just has never been his priority.
“Growing up, I was a scorer and a shooter but my passion is sharing the ball and getting my teammates involved,” the Filipino-American guard explained. “I’m a pass-first point guard so that’s what I focus on the most. Scoring has just never really got my juices flowing.”
If Chris had it his way, he would have his teammates score all the points and let them take all the credit. Those don’t really matter to him. What he deems important are the number of wins and chips that his team racks up. That’s the main reason why he’s stepped up offensively.
Playing with the Beermen, Chris is surrounded with some of the best offensive talents the league has to offer. It’s more than a pass-first point guard like him can ask for. Wherever he looks, there’s someone to set up – June Mar down low, Arwind Santos on the elbow, Alex Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter on the wings.
But for San Miguel to reach its full offensive potential, Chris had to assert himself a bit more. And so, he spent extra hours in the gym, working on his outside shot. “With the type of team that we have, with June Mar, I knew I had to work on my three even more. I had to have confidence in it because I knew that I would have a lot of open opportunities with June Mar attracting so much attention.”
In his first seven years in the league, Chris only made 66 out of his 373 attempts from downtown. That’s a lowly 17.7 percent. During his sophomore year in 2010-11, he even went 0-for-14 for an entire season.
But this year, those numbers have seen an incredible jump. With a few more games left in SMB’s elimination round, and probably more in the playoffs, Chris has already knocked down 61 triples. Out of 192 attempts. That’s 31.8 percent.
By the time this season is done, Chris would most likely have made more threes than his first seven seasons combined. How about that for some offense? How about that for improving and getting better?
There’s no question now that Chris is indeed a complete package. There’s also no question that he is one of the better players in the league today.
In the first two conferences of this year, he added two more trophies to his cabinet – another Finals MVP and a Best Player of the Conference award. Those add more lines to his already-impressive résumé that boasts of three All-Star selections, a Defensive Player of the Year award and five PBA championships.
There also a chance that he gets to add more to that by the end of this year. With the fantastic play that he has shown throughout the season, Chris has become one of the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player of the season.
That’s the dream, right? Any player would tell you that the dream is to be named the best hooper in town. Problem is, Chris Ross isn’t just any player.
“I don’t ever think about winning MVP,” he said. “Individual awards are always last to me. I want the team to win a championship first. Then I want my teammates to win as many awards as possible. I’m a behind-the-scenes kid of a dude.”
Crazy as it sounds, that’s the kind of guy Chris is. He’s never about shining the brightest and getting all the praises. That’s not to say though that he doesn’t have personal goals. Unselfish as he is, there is one thing that Ross has his eyes on.
“Defensive Player of the Year would be cool though,” Chris said. “Scoring is nice but assists and defense are what I love about the game.”