The Flawed Yet Irresistible Rivalry of Manila Clasico

Is Ginebra-Magnolia really a rivalry? I guess, is the question that should be asked first.

They are two sister teams on different paths. One, vibing to its return to elite status, riding the championship-level wave thanks to a championship-level head coach. The other, evolving into a new entity, discovering a new identity in the post-James Yap era.

Both have hardcore, Since Day One fans, much like La Salle-Ateneo, but minus the animosity. No petty wars. No beef. Except for the 2016 not-so-friendly chitchat between Alvin Patrimonio, team manager of then-Star Hotshots, and Japeth Aguilar’s dad Peter, there’s not much extra-curricular activity to speak of.

On court, their styles are not obscenely kontra pelo. Ginebra has its shooters, so does Magnolia. Ginebra has its bigs, so does Magnolia. Ginebra has a clutch, ice in his veins savior in LA Tenorio. Magnolia has a clutch, ice in his veins savior in Paul Lee. Ginebra has Scottie Thompson. Magnolia has Jio Jalalon. They’re similar but when you zoom in, hmmm… not really. They’re different but not too much.

A Manila Clasico typically and predictably goes like this: Magnolia (or Purefoods or Star or B-Meg or San Mig Coffee or whatever brand is in season) gets the headstart on Ginebra (or Añejo Rum or Gordon’s Gin or whatever intoxicating beverage). Magnolia is masterful in its sets; suffocating on defense, calculated on offense. They build a lead.

Then Ginebra, gritty and pesky, claws back. The crowd wields its magic. The trademark run either falls short and Magnolia escapes with the win or its succeeds via a last-second heave by LA Tenorio (Manila Clasico 2015 Christmas Day Edition).

Or, there are Manila Clasicos where the roles are reversed and it’s Ginebra dominating from the start, and Magnolia attempting its own version of a never-say-die comeback. We never know what kind of game we’ll get, but what we do know is that we’ll get two elite teams, two fighters refusing to take a dive.

We get Mark Barroca blocking a Sol Mercado three-pointer with 12 seconds left, Ginebra up three. We get Jalalon splashing a game-tying three over Japeth Aguilar to force overtime. We get Ginebra taking control in the extra five minutes, pounding unrelentlessly on a tired opponent. That’s what we got last night, an effective reminder of why Manila Clasico is still a thing in 2019.

Past iterations of Manila Clasico aren’t always like this. Some nights end without incident (Manila Clasico October 28, 2018: Ginebra 93 – Magnolia 86). Nothing controversial (Manila Clasico August 28, 2016: Ginebra 116 – Magnolia 103). Just two popular teams playing really great basketball. But some nights, on special nights like last night, we get two popular teams playing really, really great basketball.

Manila Clasico is not a perfect rivalry. Yet #ManilaClasico, the hashtag, is always trending. The hype before each meeting is still (always) palpable. The aftermath is still (always) breathtaking.

What makes Ginebra-Magnolia awesome? I guess, is the question we should keep on asking because the answer keeps on evolving.

There’s the thing about nostalgia, a key ingredient that is irresistible. It doesn’t go away. Continuing what Robert Jaworski for Añejo and Ramon Fernandez for Purefoods started in the late 80s is the fire that heats up the rivalry. Thousands of fans from both teams fill up the arena because every Manila Clasico feels like a piece of history.

Old school never goes out of style. It’s why a Richard Gomez-Dawn Zulueta reunion will always click. It’s why Ian Veneracion is still getting quality minutes. It’s why Eat Bulaga is mythical. It’s why the Eraserheads are OPM demigods.

There’s the never-ending passing of the torch, from era to era, from Jawo to Caguioa to Tenorio, Patrimonio to Yap to Lee. There’s always something new to get excited about. Scottie got next. Jio got next.

Last night’s Manila Clasico had Ginebra’s Tenorio playing his 597th consecutive game, surpassing the previous record set by Purefoods’ Patrimonio. It also had Thompson breaking through for a 27-point career night, plus 11 rebounds (one of which was grabbed kalawit-style) and four assists. It had Jalalon with another compelling case as next in line for Magnolia’s big shot taker.

Through generations and name changes, Manila Clasico stays. It evolves. When you have two popular teams playing great basketball, it’s a lifelong commitment.