This article originally appeared on SLAM 204
Barangay Ginebra waited eight long years for this one moment. They anguished over 21 ring-less conferences. They survived a multitude of trades and coaching change after coaching change until their moment finally came.
By Carlo Pamintuan
With 5.5 seconds left in Game 6, the barangay could already taste it. Allen Durham somehow missed what looked like a easy reverse layup on the other end so the Kings found themselves tied with the Meralco Bolts at 88. It was a free shot. Make it and win a championship. Miss and get another chance in overtime.
But you can’t tell Ginebra fans that. They’ve waited eight years for this moment. They’ve been waiting for this day to come since August 20, 2008 when the Kings last won a championship. They did not want to wait for five more minutes. They wanted the championship here and now.
Outside the Smart-Araneta Coliseum, hundreds of Ginebra fans watched the game on a giant screen. Some of them were there since early afternoon. They knew tickets were sold out but they went there anyway.
Never-say-die nga e. Bahala na kahit walang ticket. Bahala na kahit walang mauupuan.
The ones at home could also feel that their moment was about to come. They pressed record on their phones and faced the camera to them as they watched the game. If this was it, they didn’t just want to remember the moment, they wanted to see it over and over again.
Barangay Ginebra fans were done with being mere spectators. They wanted to be a part of the moment. The frustrations, losses, heartaches, and sleepless nights they endured in the past eight years made them as much a part of the team as the players, coaches, and staff of the Kings.
One by one, cellphone lights started glimmering inside the coliseum, painting a picture never before seen in Philippine basketball. Ginebra fans illuminated the floor and asked the basketball gods to take notice.
What would happen next would be the most replayed 5 seconds in PBA history. Brownlee got the ball, dribbled until he got to the top of the key, and let loose. The explosion of emotions was indescribable, the noise unfathomable.
Tears fell, high fives and hugs exchanged between family, friends, even complete strangers.
Sulit ang gastos sa ticket at biyahe. Sulit ang sick leave o half-day. Hindi naman kasi nabibili ang ganitong klaseng tuwa.
It had an effect even to those who were not cheering for Ginebra. Writers jumped, photographers smiled. PBA head coaches Alex Compton and Yeng Guiao, analysts for Game 6 on TV5, were reduced to mere spectators after what they witnessed. Two of the sharpest basketball minds in the country could only shout “Wow!” over and over again.
“I still can’t believe what happened,” said Jayjay Helterbrand, who came alive in the series after mostly spending his time on the bench this conference. “You could not have written a better ending for us. Justin hitting that three at the buzzer. It was unbelievable.”
Helterbrand cut down the net where Justin Brownlee swished the championship-winning three. There was really no other choice. Even if LA Tenorio was the Finals MVP, even if Scottie Thompson was a revelation, even if Brownlee closed out the game.
“It’s got to be best championship we’ve ever won,” Helterbrand said. “This was amazing. Oh my gosh. I really don’t know what to say. This is just all God. It was miracle after miracle in the series. I just wanted to go in there to contribute, somehow, someway. It’s God’s blessing that my shots were able to fall, my legs felt good, I had energy. I’m happy my performance rubbed off on the rest of the guys.”
For the barangay, Helterbrand was the biggest miracle of this series.
The Kings were dead in water in Game 4 after a sizzling third quarter for Meralco. They were minutes away from being down 1-3 in the seven-game-series. Running low on ideas, head coach Tim Cone threw his hands up in the air and called on Helterbrand’s number.
After winning the Fiesta Conference title in 2008, Helterbrand won PBA Most Valuable Player award the next year. However, his career suffered a steep decline immediately. From averaging 18 points per game for his MVP season, it was now down to less than 2 points per game.
Helterbrand accepted that he could not be the Jayjay Helterbrand of old anymore. He was now up against faster, stronger competitors so he accepted his new role. He stayed with the team and focused on helping others. He was there as a reminder of the Kings’ old glory. He was there to make sure the fans stuck it out with the team until they find new heroes to cheer for.
On a few occasions in the elimination round, Ginebra fans would chant his name late in the game and most of the time Cone gave them exactly what they wanted. The fans knew that it was now the time of LA Tenorio, Sol Mercado, and Scottie Thompson but they always clamored to see Helterbrand on the floor so they showered him with their love.
In the finals, the cheers Heltebrand got were not brought about by nostalgia. The applause was not for what he achieved before. They needed him to be effective in the handful of minutes given to him and that was exactly what Helterbrand gave them.
“It’s one of the best feelings, to win one with a guy who was with me throughout my entire career. We were able to cap it with another championship,” Helterbrand said as he walked towards the other end of the floor to find Mark Caguioa who also had a net around his neck.
After the buzzer, Cone quickly walked to the other side of the floor to shake hands with Meralco head coach Norman Black and the rest of the team.
“In that situation, you feel really bad walking to the other side of the court and shaking the hand of the other coach because there’s just nothing he could have done about that,” he said. “They (Bolts) played it perfectly. They denied (Brownlee), they got the ball far, you know, just a great shot, nothing he could have done and you feel a little bad. It’s not, like, ‘I beat you,’ I just got lucky.
Cone was transferred to Ginebra from Purefoods for the sole purpose of ending their championship drought. However, the winningest coach in PBA history underplayed his role. This was not him. This was Ginebra.
“Sometimes players overcome bad coaching. I wasn’t a great coach tonight. Mark and Jay saved the whole series for us,” Cone said during the post-game press conference. “I shouldn’t be doing this interview. They should be the ones up here. They played with so much desire and hunger.”
“I wanted to win it for Mark and Jay because they were so hungry to win,” Cone continued. “They were amazing. At a time when they (rest of the team) were ready to give up, they (Caguioa and Helterbrand) absolutely did not allow us to do so.”
It was only fitting that Helterbrand and Caguioa, the only two remaining members of the last champion Ginebra team figured prominently at the end of their team’s misery. Only the two suffered through each and every single day of that drought with their fans and as the rain finally came, Helterbrand and Caguioa danced under it.
In the process, they also killed all the jokes and the memes sent their way during their drought. “Maraming maraming salamat sa mga naghintay, sa mga umiiyak pagkatapos ng laro,” said Caguioa. “Pero ngayon tayo naman ang manloloko. Sinong kangkong ngayon?” Forgive Caguioa for being sparky. He took it all for a very long time and now he can finally throw it back to their detractors.
Cone, on the other hand, went to Boracay after winning the championship, ending jeers directed towards Ginebra as the champions of the Bora Cup due to their early exits.
“It’s just special to win this with Jayjay and Mark,” said Joe Devance who won his seventh PBA title. “They help the team so much even if the fans don’t really see it. They help give us confidence in the tough times and it really helped, specially with the younger guys.
“Even when I was playing and coaching against them, mataas talaga yung respeto ko sa kanila,” said Ginebra assistant coach Olsen Racela. “I’m thankful they welcomed me into the team and I’m happy we won this together. Para sa kanilang dalawa talaga ito and all of the Ginebra fans who never lost faith.
“I’m still speechless,” Racela’s fellow assistant coach Richard Del Rosario. “Parang pelikula yung nangyari. This is definitely up there. One of my favorite moments as a coach.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m trying to hold in my emotions right now but all glory to God,” said Sol Mercado who won his first championship in the PBA after being drafted way back in 2009. “Everything was all worth it. All the work, all the frustrations, all the trades, this moment made everything worth it.”
“Naramdaman na namin yung feeling na pumunta sa championship,” said Finals MVP Tenorio. “Hopefully this will be the first sa dynasty na bubuin namin. Sana hindi ito ang una’t huling championship ko sa Ginebra.”
This was what San Miguel Corporation boss Ramon S. Ang envisioned he decided to make Cone in charge of these Kings. The mandate was clear. Cone needed to end the drought and win a title for Ginebra. But winning can be addicting as shown by Helterbrand’s decision to shelf retirement and sign a new one-year contract.
Ginebra proved they could win with an outstanding import. Now it’s time to show they can win without one.
Because of the Kings’ appearance in the Governors’ Cup, there were a lot of dormant Ginebra fans who decided this was the perfect time to be active again. There were a number of people who have not watched a live PBA game in years but lined up for a shot at watching the Kings perform. The drought maybe over for the Kings but the thirst of their fans has by no means quenched already. They’re expecting a new golden age. They’re raring to be back in the same situation not eight years from now, not even eight months from now. They had the sweet taste of success and they’ll wanted another bite in the Philippine Cup.
Two-time defending champions San Miguel Beer might be the clear-cut favorites but no one can doubt the Kings anymore. After a long journey, they have arrived and they are not going anywhere.