Throwback Thursday: Back to the Beermen

This article was originally published in SLAM #185

When Alex Cabagnot played for GlobalPort, he was trying to lead the Batang Pier to better times. Now that he’s back with San Miguel, Cabagnot understands that his role has changed.

By Carlo Pamintuan

A day before he was traded back to the San Miguel Beermen, Alex Cabagnot was still trying to be the leader GlobalPort Batang Pier needed him to be.

It was December 9, 2014. The young franchise was reeling off a loss to the Meralco Bolts. A win could have earned them a twice-to-beat advantage in the 2014 PBA Philippine Cup quarterfinals phase 1. Instead, GlobalPort now needed to beat the Ginebra Kings twice to qualify for phase 2.

It was a daunting task but Cabagnot believed it could be done so he gathered his teammates for dinner and a reminder that they’ve done it before, they could do it again.

“I told them na kailangan namin yung Ginebra game,” he recalled. “We missed out on the twice-to-beat advantage pero hindi pa naman tapos. We beat Ginebra in the eliminations and I thought we could do it again. Of course, beating them back-to-back would be difficult pero I thought we had a good chance kahit isa lang.”

Cabagnot went to practice the next day at the Moro Lorenzo Gym inside the Ateneo campus where they celebrated Mark Isip’s birthday. They even posed for team pictures.

After practice, he was pulled aside. “They just said they were going to push through with the rumors we’ve been hearing about,” Cabagnot said. “I’ve heard about it after the first conference I was gone [from SMB] but I really didn’t think about it too much.”

“I got mixed emotions about it kasi gusto kong tapusin yung nasimulan namin. There were a lot of rumors but I wouldn’t search for it. You never want to look for those things because you want to focus on your team. I wanted to give everything I had to GlobalPort, the team that I was on.”

On one side, Cabagnot was happy to reunite with his old teammates and be in a better spot. On the other, he felt for his Batang Pier teammates because he’d have to leave them right before one of their biggest games in franchise history.

“When I was in GlobalPort when we were crappy. We won two out of 18 games,” Cabagnot said. “But we worked hard and I thought we were going somewhere. I really didn’t want to be labeled as a quitter. I really wanted to stay until the end because I was still trying to lead them. I was still trying to lead by example.”

From the eighth spot, Cabagnot was plucked and reinserted to the team that was tied for first. From a 5-6 win-loss record and fighting for survival, Cabagnot suddenly found himself safe in the semifinals. It was the exact opposite of what he went through ten months earlier.

Back in February 18, 2014, Cabagnot was shocked to see four missed calls from Petron Blaze coach Gee Abanilla.

“I just got back from Boracay with my girlfriend. Kakatalo lang namin sa Rain or Shine [in the Philippine Cup semis]. When I got back, I came from a workout and saw that I had four missed calls from coach Gee and I knew it was different because coach Gee never calls me,” Cabagnot said. “He calls me like once or twice in three weeks. Then all of a sudden ang dami niyang missed calls.
The point guard knew it was big news but he didn’t expect it to be that big.

“He goes ‘Lex, it was great working with you but I think that we’re going to part ways,’” he said. “I had questions about the trade. Napunit yung plantar fascia ko pero naglaro pa rin ako sa Game 7 sa San Mig Coffee [Governors’ Cup]. I thought maganda naman yung performance ko versus Rain or Shine [Philippine Cup]. But even if I had questions I had nothing but great things to say about the management because they gave me an opportunity naman talaga.”

From a perennial title contender, Cabagnot found himself with a team struggling to put wins together. From a stacked lineup, Cabagnot was suddenly surrounded by players who have seen either too many playoff games or too few.

“Nabigla ako. It was a very tough season for me but I would not trade it for anything in the world,” he explained.

“The stint with GlobalPort expanded my view on things. It humbled me. I was in a good team with great players. When you have that kind of talent around you, yun mga drills na ginagawa mo, sakto lang. Kasi you have a shooter na, you have a big man na, may dalawang MVP ka pa. You thought you were pushing yourself but when I got to GlobalPort I realized that I could do more.”

Coach Pido Jarencio needed Cabagnot to be a leader, a distributor, a playmaker, a slasher, and a shooter all in one. The coach needed him to start games, finish games, and hold the rest of his teammates’ hands when the youngsters bumped into unfamiliar territory.

“It took me a while to adjust to them and it took them a while to adjust to me,” said Cabagnot. “They had good players on that team but back then Terrence [Romeo] was still 25 points overweight. If you compare it to San Miguel, walang tao dun talaga.”

With the heavy responsibility on his shoulders, Cabagnot knew that ‘sakto lang’ was not going to work. Because he needed to do more for GlobalPort, he also needed to work more.

“Coach Pido gave me so much responsibility. I had to readjust how I did drills, how I came to practice. Maybe nung sa San Miguel, mayroon akong nakakalimutang gawin but with GlobalPort I had to relearn everything,” Cabagnot admitted.

“It was back to scratch for me. I didn’t have two MVPs beside me anymore. I didn’t have [Chris] Lutz or [Marcio] Lassiter beside me. I had to expand my game and do different things. To achieve what you’ve never achieved, you have to do things you’ve never done. I put in different work in GlobalPort. I had to do everything in GlobalPort. Dati sa San Miguel, spot-up, spot-up lang. Laro-laro lang. Sa GlobalPort hindi na pwede yun.”

It was almost too much to handle for Cabagnot. Many times he felt like he was about to break.

“When I got transferred, it was my ninth year na. I’m not a spring chicken anymore but coach Pido wanted me to do things like how I did earlier in my career,” he said. “I really had to face the mirror and ask myself ‘Kaya pa ba?’”

Facing a crossroad, Cabagnot leaned on his girlfriend Ginger and their relationship and their spirituality to get him through.

“I can’t thank my girlfriend enough for helping me get through this. She kept me stable. She’s very spiritual. She said ‘Don’t try to force your will because it’s not working.’” Cabagnot said. “It taught me a lot about my faith in God. Pwede na akong bumitaw at any moment then. I questioned him, his will. But at that moment in time, I just had to accept that it was God’s will for me so I had to embrace it. It was hard but God said just believe in him and his plan.”

Slowly, things started to fall into place for Cabagnot and GlobalPort. They were no San Miguel Beer but they were definitely getting better. With a leaner Romeo and a franchise-changing pick in Stanley Pringle, Batang Pier looked like they were only a few pieces away from being a semifinal team.

In the 2014 PBA Philippine Cup elimination round, Cabagnot posted numbers that could contest for the Best Player of the Conference award. He normed 15.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, leading GlobalPort in all those categories. And then it was time to say goodbye.

It was a Monday afternoon, Cabagnot was inside the Acropolis Gym in Libis with the Beermen who were practicing before Game 4 of the Philippine Cup Finals versus the Alaska Aces.

Because he spent many years practicing here before moving to the neighboring Ateneo campus, it felt like a homecoming for Cabagnot. Only, it was not.

“I’m coming back to a team that I spent four years in. I’m not saying I’m coming home,” Cabagnot said. “I feel my home is the PBA because I’ve been here for 10 years and I could go to any team and know somebody there so I could feel at home.”

Still, it felt familiar. And familiar is always good.

“I don’t think the situation is much different from the time when I was first traded to San Miguel in 2009,” he said. “Back then I had Olsen [Racela], DI [Danny Ildefonso], DS [Danny Seigle], Dorian [Pena], Jay [Washington] and Arwind [Santos] beside me and we had to win it all. As boss Robert Non said: ‘We don’t celebrate the semifinals. We don’t celebrate reaching the finals. We only celebrate championships.’ This is still the situation we’re in right now. Nothing else matters. It’s not what you did in the eliminations. It’s championship of bust. Some teams say they want to win the championship, but SMB really means it. They’re going to support us all the way but they expect us to produce the results that we want.”

The reunion felt so good for Cabagnot and the Beermen in the semifinals when they swept the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters as the guard averaged a steady 15 points and five rebounds per game.

However, it has not been smooth sailing in the finals. Cabagnot’s numbers were cut in half. The honeymoon stage of the reunion was over. The hard part was staring both player and team in the eyes.

In Game 1, Cabagnot missed a go-ahead triple. As soon as Alaska caught the rebound, tweets of ‘hero ball’ were already circulating. In Game 3, Cabagnot played the point as the Aces, buoyed by the raging Calvin Abueva, climbed back from a 21-point deficit to win and steal the game.

“It comes with the territory. They love you when you hit the game winner, but they could turn when you miss it,” Cabagnot said. “I don’t know how hero ball came about. My girlfriend always tells me I have the most haters. Di naman daw ako mayabang, di naman ako nag-ce-celebrate pero ang dami ko pa ring haters. I think I’ve made enough big shots naman in my career pero that always seems to follow me around.”

San Miguel Beer has the most championships in PBA history. Wearing the Beermen’s black, white, yellow, and red comes with generations and generations of tradition and racks and racks of championship trophies. The pressure to win will always be there. It’s especially hard now because the Beermen were one of the favorites from the start. It’s particularly difficult for Alex Cabagnot because the trade for him was supposed to make the path to the championship easier for the Beermen.
With GlobalPort, Cabagnot only concentrated about getting better. With San Miguel Beer, he needs to help his team win it all. The point guard rediscovered his old self with the Batang Pier. He put in the work and assumed the underdog mentality. Now, he needs to retain that same fire, merge it with San Miguel Beer’s poise and pride, and hope that it equates to a championship. If not, Cabagnot already knows he’ll share most of the blame.

“The pressure doesn’t bother me at all,” Cabagnot confessed. “I can’t not take that shot. It would not be fair to me and to the team. The reason why they pay me is because they know I’ve done it time and time again. I’ve made big shots before. We’ve won a championship and made five finals appearances. I’m not afraid of taking big shots. If it goes in it goes in. If it misses, it misses.”

“All you could do is be loyal to the work you put in inside the court. If you could look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you’re happy with the work that you put in, then you should be fine.”