Close your eyes and just listen. Imagine this scene playing out inside a basketball court.
The crowd roars. It’s distinct. Only a few players in the league can evoke this rumble. As the player walks to the other side of the court declaring, “Can’t stop me!” you then conclude. It’s Calvin Abueva in all of his glory, unleashed.
Pumping him up is RJ Jazul. Typical Jazul. Silent but deadly. He spots up and breaks down defenses whenever necessary. Most importantly, however, is how his pesky defense forces teams to cough up the ball whenever he presses the ballhandler.
On the sidelines are coaches Louie Alas and Topex Robinson, barking out orders.
Keep your eyes shut. You probably thought I was describing the Alaska Aces.
Open your eyes. Instead of seeing red and white, you see a black jerseys with splashes of orange. These aren’t the Aces. Abueva, Jazul, Alas, and Robinson, all known for their stints with Alaska are there. But instead, they’re now riding with another team. Their kits read: “Phoenix.”
The Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters have been on the rise ever since the 2018 PBA Governors Cup, with some even comparing the group to the Alaska Aces of 2015-2016. The similarities are all over the place. Aside from the presence of Abueva, Jazul, Alas and Robinson, the principles and system of the Fuel Masters are all patterned after the championship contending Aces of a few years back.
Defense has been the center piece of the team, with a blitzing press as their staple weapon. Despite lacking in length, Phoenix makes up for it with toughness down low, as Rookie of the Year Jason Perkins, Dave Marcelo and Doug Kramer fight for rebounds with absolute gusto. Finally, there’s the depth. The team doesn’t have a star in the caliber of a June Mar Fajardo. But with how they play, it wouldn’t be surprising if their mantra was just like Alaska’s #WeNotMe. They make the most of the entire roster, getting production from almost everyone who steps onto the court.
Alas has done an admirable job of laying down the groundwork. From finishing 8-3 during the Governors Cup, they followed it up by grabbing the first seed during the 2019 Philippine Cup. Despite losing in five games to the San Miguel Beermen, Phoenix was rising. They had a solid system where everyone was buying in. They made up for their weaknesses by consistently playing hard. What could possibly go wrong?
With seven minutes remaining in a June 2, 2019 clash between Phoenix and the TNT KaTropa, everything suddenly went wrong.
It wasn’t that Phoenix was down 21 to the KaTropa. It wasn’t even the low blow that Terrence Jones gave Abueva ending in a mocking dance from the former Houston Rocket. It was what happened afterwards, with Jones chasing down a loose ball off a missed shot from Abueva.
The Beast could have simply just ran back to the other side of the court. But he wasn’t intent on doing any of that. Instead, he chased Jones — not the ball, but Jones — and did his best JBL impression with a clothesline to TNT’s import. Afterwards, he walked back to their side of the bench, jumped up the scorers table, and danced on it.
It turns out Phoenix did have a “transcendent” star. So transcendent his antics went beyond local media and was picked up by the likes of Deadspin and Ball is Life. He even got the attention of Andrew Bogut and Isaiah Thomas.
Just like that, it felt like Phoenix’s rise has been suddenly halted.
Yesterday, June 4, 2019, PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial handed out a number of penalties in relation to the incidents from that game. The most grave was on Abueva. Not only would he have to cough up 70,000 pesos to the league. He was also suspended indefinitely, making Phoenix lose arguably their most impactful two-way player.
Whether we like it or not, Abueva’s impact on the Fuel Masters was immense. He provided versatility that no one on the roster could offer. His blend of speed, strength, and length allowed him to play any of the wing positions, even power forward at times. He was a nightmare to deal with as a ball handler. He gave Phoenix’s offense some unpredictability because of his relatively diverse skillset.
Now, Phoenix loses a player as skilled as Abueva.
It would be easy to say that everything is lost for the Fuel Masters. They lost, arguably, their most valuable player while their head coach is suspended for two games. Most importantly, their squad faces negative backlash after slowly building up a positive reputation.
But giving up just because you lost certain individuals would be disrespect to the roots of key members of this squad. Despite no longer being associated with the Aces, #WeNotMe continues to run in the veins of those left on the team. Players like Jazul and coaches like Robinson have been able to ingrain that type of personality into the team. It started with them but has since then spilled over to the rest of Fuel Masters.
One key difference between Phoenix and those old Alaska teams: the presence of another superstar-level player.
Matthew Wright has been another player on the rise ever since Abueva’s inclusion to the squad. He’s a natural first option, a scorer and playmaker who’s more than comfortable operating in the pick and roll and off the catch. The load just got heavier for Wright with Abueva’s suspension. If there’s a time for Matthew to live up — or even exceed — to the Marcio Lassiter comparisons, this is it. Wright’s mere presence raises Phoenix’s floor already.
The rest of the roster is also brimming with value as well. The team will continue to run on grit and defense, but they’ll likely have to change things up with Abueva’s departure. When attacking the half court, expect less drive and kicks. Drop passes, post-ups, and a lot of pick and fades are likely as Perkins, Kramer, and Marcelo have shown the ability to hit shots from the mid-range.
Losing The Beast is big, there’s zero doubt about that. But the Fuel Masters can’t wallow in that incident. They have to move forward.
It’s never been about the individuals for this group. What matters the most is the team. As long as the rest of the team bands together in the wake of Abueva’s suspension, then Phoenix can continue to rise.