In the Ish: Bad Things, It’s a Lot of Bad Things

This article appears in SLAM 215, out now in all Titan outlets and major bookstores.

For a diehard Magnolia fan, playing against the San Miguel Beermen became an experience that tested his faith. There are a million reasons why he loved his Hotshots. But there were just more reasons to Fear the Beer.

By Aljo Dolores

This is not a story written by the victors. No, I’m not going to talk about how it felt to be on the winning side of a dominant team. Instead, this is the story of the other guys who fought their way to be one step away from having it all, only to fall as just another statistic to the San Miguel Beermen’s dominance.

It started in the Magnolia-NLEX semifinals matchup. When Mark Barroca hugged the ball tightly as the game clock ran out, I realized that it wasn’t just a typical win for Magnolia. They prevailed over the Road Warriors after six hard-fought games to clinch a finals berth.

It was a long wait, to say the least. Four years after claiming the league’s fifth grand slam, The Purefoods franchise were finally able to return to the PBA finals. For a team that’s so used to winning, four years must have felt like a lifetime.

It was all about winning when Coach Tim Cone was still in the fold. From 2011 to 2014, The team won five titles, including a four-peat and a Grand Slam, under the names B-Meg and San Mig Coffee. It’s been a sharp turn ever since. The team failed to defend any of its titles in 2015. Coach Tim left after that title-less season, and things were never the same.

It took a bold move to change the course of this team. The Star Hotshots traded away James Yap – the face of the franchise for over a decade – for Paul Lee, a superstar point guard who’s just entering his prime. Coach Chito Victolero was also assigned to take over the coaching job.

It was a brave but painful move. Letting James Yap go signaled a huge change in the Purefoods franchise, one that could define the team for the rest of the decade.

That’s why when Mark Barroca just stood at midcourt, hugging the ball as he waited for the clock to expire, I could honestly say that I felt all of his emotions at that particular moment. The joy, the relief, the excitement of being back to the finals. The sacrifices paid off. After four long years, Mark and the rest of the Magnolia Hotshots claimed another shot to be back at the top of the PBA.

But one more roadblock stood their way to the title, and was the biggest of them all. The San Miguel Beermen, fresh from their dominant showing against Ginebra, was chasing history as the first team to ever win the Philippine Cup title four straight times.

This dynasty of San Miguel was different in many ways from the one that B-Meg/San Mig Coffee built. The Mixers thrived by finding ways to maximize the talent available to them, and there was no one player who dominated the floor on a nightly basis. At one point in San Mig Coffee’s Grand Slam year, the only player who was in the MVP race in statistical points was Marc Pingris, and he was well outside the top five.

On the other hand, the Beermen were overflowing with talent. Four-time MVP June Mar Fajardo was the man in the middle. Included in the starting lineup were Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross and Arwind Santos—all Mythical Five members. The only starter that was not included in the selection was Marcio Lassiter, a former Gilas Pilipinas star. They also boasted a bench that, albeit seldomly used, featured names like Yancy de Ocampo, Matt Ganuelas-Rosser, Gabby Espinas and Brian Heruela—players that could pass as starters for other teams.

For Magnolia to get their first title in four years, they had to shoot for the stars—or against them. And they had to do it without their best defender in Marc Pingris.

But the Hotshots’ biggest problem might not be the fact that San Miguel was such a complete team on paper. Instead, it might be that the best player in the Beermen’s roster, and probably in the league today, had all the motivation to crush Magnolia in the finals series.

Ninety-nine problems; an angry Kraken is one

The year was 2013. SMB carried the name of Petron and all the drama that came with it. Magnolia was still a year away from winning its only Grand Slam as San Mig Coffee. A rookie June Mar Fajardo had his chance to claim his first ever PBA championship in the Governor’s Cup, and put an end to the enigma that was ‘Petronovela’.

But the Mixers had other plans. Led by Marqus Blakely, San Mig Coffee defeated Petron in seven games, which gave them their first of four straight titles.

As for June Mar, he missed his only chance to win a title under Petron. He would only clinch his first championship in 2015 under SMB, after San Mig Coffee’s dominance had met its end. Five years after losing on that final series, he said the scariest sentence I’ve ever heard or read in my history of following the PBA finals.

‘Pinaiyak nila ako, binasag ko ang PC ko.’

That was the first time I ever witnessed someone use that sentence in the context of basketball. It was a statement meant to be heard in the confines of computer shops, when someone lost a close CS:GO match, or was disconnected from an ongoing DotA game. Normally, I would just laugh the statement off, and probably mock the guy who said it. But it wasn’t just anybody who blurted those words out. It was a four-time PBA MVP, and one of the most dominant players in the 43-year history of the league.

June Mar’s love for computer games is one of the worst-kept secrets in the PBA today. That’s why I was legitimately scared of Magnolia’s chances of winning when he revealed that this team caused him his first heartbreak, so intense that he broke his own computer. It might be a joke, but it didn’t feel like it for me.

June Mar’s heartbreak was like a Pandora’s box that opened a ton of scary scenarios for the Hotshots. Who could blame me for feeling this way? Revenge could be a formidable weapon, even in basketball. It could make anyone want to run faster, jump higher, defend better, finish stronger. And revenge was exactly what June Mar had in his mind. Playing against him on a normal day was already too much to handle. But unleashing an mad, seven-foot gamer seeking to avenge his broken computer might be the end of the Hotshots’ quest to return to the top of the PBA before it even began.

But what’s done was done. June Mar’s PC was already broken, and he was already well on his way to seek retribution. With every point, every rebound, every block, everything he would do was to make amends for the heartbreak he felt years ago.

That in itself was a scary thought.

Not-so-invincible

What was the lead again? Fifteen? Sixteen? I stopped computing how many points San Miguel was ahead in game one. But I was sure as hell I was ready to throw the white towel and start shouting, “Stop it! He’s already dead!” when the Beermen looked like they imposed their will at the end of the first half. To be honest, this was what I expected to happen. Should the Beermen decide to take the game, they would take it as if they grabbed a kid’s trick-or-treat loot bag on Halloween night.

But expecting it was one thing, watching it unfold right before my eyes was another story. It was painful to see Magnolia as it gave all that it could possibly offer, only to fall short against the mighty Beermen. I thought that this was the reality in the PBA. As June Mar continued to be better, San Miguel looked more and more like the most dominant team in the league today—probably in its entire history. And with Christian Standhardinger on his way to this team, the Beermen might be destined to be unbeatable. Hide from it, run away from it, but SMB would soon be known as the most dominant team to ever play in the PBA.

Still without Christian, I thought that this was the last conference in the next few years that San Miguel could be possibly defeated. That first half either made me look like a fool or a blaspheme for saying such words, or made San Miguel look like as if they deleted ‘defeat’ and all the words related to it in its dictionary.

But Magnolia had other plans in mind. Down by 14 entering the fourth, they leaned on stingy defense and team offense to claw their way back into the game. They cut the lead to four at the eight-minute mark, and tied the game with more than three minutes left in the clock.

San Miguel refused to go down. The final three minutes was a back-and-forth affair. With game tied at 103, Ian Sangalang, who was playing a career game, trooped to the free throw line to shoot two freebies. I always thought of him as a shaky free throw shooter. But at that time, he made his shots with ease to put Magnolia up by two.

Magnolia had the chance to seal the game after a missed shot by Cabagnot, followed by two free throws from Jio Jalalon. But the young gun missed both free throws, which left the door open for San Miguel to tie or steal the game.

On the final play, San Miguel tried to pass the ball to June Mar, but was tipped away. The ball ended up with Arwind, who tried to take the jumpshot. Rafi Reavis, with his arms outstretched, blocked the attempt to complete the comeback for the Hotshots.

And at that moment, I realized that there was some truth to what I said that San Miguel might still be beatable. Magnolia made me believe that they had what was needed to bring down the greatness of SMB.

CHICKEN BBQ

How I wish we could end the story and the Finals after game one. But the series was far from over. After Magnolia drew the first blood, San Miguel made sure that everyone would remember who the best All-Filipino team was. With the help of their bench, the Beermen crushed the Hotshots by putting up double digit leads in the next two games. The usual guys went to work on game four to win a close game and put the Beermen up 3-1—a win away from claiming the unprecedented four-peat.

The stage was set for the Beermen to define history. A win in game five would put them on the history books as the first, and so far the only, PBA team to win four straight All-Filipino crowns. But on the other side, a Magnolia team was still determined to defy all odds and spoil SMB’s title chase.

The Hotshots kept a slim lead to start the game, before they finally broke out to claim a 16-point lead at the half. They maintained a double-digit lead to enter the fourth, and were supposed to win the game.

But with over six minutes left in the game, Arwind Santos blocked Jio’s layup off the drive. I knew right there and then that it swung the momentum to the Beermen’s side. True enough, that sparked a run that brought them to as close as three points. Reavis and Sangalang kept the Hotshots afloat, up by five with 1:05 remaining.

It should have been a win by Magnolia, right? They did everything correctly, and looked like they weathered the storm at the perfect time. Again, I wished the story ended at this part, but that’s not how it works.

Off a timeout, Ross drove to the basket to break the defense. He found June Mar free at the paint, which cut the lead to three. Magnolia turned the ball over on the next possession, which set up the biggest shot of the series.

Arwind Santos let a three fly and hit nothing but nylon. This was the same guy who got blocked back in game one when he tried to send the game into overtime. He wasn’t denied that time. I was stunned. It felt like my trick-or-treat bag full of sweets was grabbed away from my six-year-old self, and I didn’t even celebrate Halloween as a kid. That’s how heavy I felt when the ball found its way to the rim. I swear I wished that the universe didn’t let that shot go in.

But it happened. It’s a nightmare so bad that no amount of pinching could make me escape it. The game went to overtime. The Hotshots still took their ground as they took the lead in most parts of the extra time. But I knew it was SMB’s game by that time. The Beermen had answers to everything Magnolia threw, and five extra minutes weren’t enough to end the game.

By the start of the second overtime, Magnolia looked tired, dragged and exhausted. It’s totally over. They gave everything they had at that game to extend the series, only to fail in the final moments of regulation and in overtime. The Beermen were better not just on paper, but on the series as well.

San Miguel went on to claim history. June Mar Fajardo turned into the Kraken that he was, as he finished with 42 points and 20 rebounds in the title-clinching game. He finally got the revenge that he sought all these years.

Magnolia finished the conference without their first title after the Grand Slam. It was a sad ending, especially for a team that was so used to winning just a few years ago. But hey, it wasn’t that bad at all. Overall, the Hotshots did a fantastic job throughout the conference. Ian finally showed what he can do as the main man in the paint. Mark proved that he’s still an integral part of the rotation. Youngsters Jio and Robbie showed a lot of promise. Paul Lee proved that trading for him was the right decision as the Hotshots move forward. Everyone in this roster showed that they’re ready to play once they’re called to go on the court.

With this lineup, Magnolia still has better years ahead of them, and has a chance to succeed in the near future. And as a fan, I have a ton of reasons to be excited about in the next few seasons.

I just hope that Magnolia’s success doesn’t mean they’ll be perennial bridesmaids to San Miguel’s ongoing dynasty.

And I hope they never cause Junemar any further IT inconveniences.

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