They waved electronic gadgets that flickered like a thousand fireflies in the dim background. Fans wearing red shirts, their faces painted with the letters “NSD,” cheered themselves hoarse the whole night.
Robert Jaworski was at ringside, looking dapper in a white, long-sleeved polo shirt and not part of the gung-ho action on the floor that depicted the way the Big J’s boys played three decades ago. This team showed the same reckless attitude that made them the darlings of this basketball nation.
The former senator was part of a crowd of 22,528 that was so diverse one would believe that basketball—or the PBA’s Barangay Ginebra for that matter—is the one, true unifying force in this country.
Welcome to the reinvented “Never-Say-Die” world of the Gin Kings, where movie actors, entertainers, politicians, the young, the old, the privileged, the poor and even a tough-looking yet affable PNP Director General called “Bato” are part of an army of supporters of the team that figured in a classic championship series with the Meralco Bolts for the Governors’ Cup.
Ginebra returned as kings of the PBA again on Wednesday night, and the way the Gin Kings made it happen will be remembered forever—much in the same way as when Rudy Distrito, the brash, hard-nosed guard, made that fallaway jumper against Shell Rimula-X in the 1991 Reinforced Conference Finals. That miracle of a shot had Jaworski and his gang completing the first-ever comeback from 1-3 down to win the best-of-seven title series.
There is no doubt that Jaworski made this Ginebra team what it is now and that his unshakeable resolve of never giving up rubbed off on the members of today’s team. “Jawo” shaped Ginebra’s fighting attitude in the 1986 Open Conference when he won the team’s first title with Billy Ray Bates and the enigmatic Michael Hackett.
Wednesday night will be remembered for a lot of things. Two of the biggest reasons: The Gin Kings snapped an eight-year title drought, and Justin Brownlee, a replacement import, drained the triple at the horn that finally short-circuited the Bolts, 91-88.
It was as if the Smart Araneta Coliseum shook in its very foundations when the collective roar of the capacity crowd came. “The Shot” triggered a celebration literally all over the country and brought some Meralco players to their knees crying.
There was this clever fan who waved a sign all night that read: “Kahit wala ng liwanag ang Barangay, tuloy pa din ang tagay ng Ginebra (Even if the Barangay is already in darkness, we will still drink Ginebra)”—a jab at Meralco’s “Liwanag ng Buhay” business slogan.
There were so many gestures of sportsmanship after the game, the most touching being Mark Caguioa giving Meralco guard and newly minted Rookie of the Year Chris Newsome his game jersey for a job well done.
Yeng Guiao, who annotated the game for television, couldn’t contain himself on the way back to his car. He was amazed that more than an hour after Ginebra had clinched the title, the celebration still refused to die down.
“This [game] will go down in history as one of the best-ever played,” Guiao said with the genuine joy of a basketball fan first and a coach second. “Did you see how those players [from both teams] let it all hang out in the final minutes?
“That shot by Brownlee will be remembered forever, not only because it won Ginebra the title, but because of how hard he had to work inside [the last] 5.5 seconds to get it off,” added the multititled coach, who will start calling the shots for NLEX when the new season gets off the ground on Nov. 20.
“I thought there’s no way he could get that shot off, with (Allen) Durham all over him. That was a shot for the ages.”
The press room also wasn’t spared from the euphoria, with so many new faces committing a journalistic no-no by cheering for every shot made by the Kings.
“Wow, what an ending,” said Ginebra’s Tim Cone as he paid tribute to all his players for not giving up and living up to the NSD spirit.
The Kings trailed by as large as 15 early in Game 6 and looked listless when they went to the locker room for the halftime break. That was until Jaworski himself did some talking inside and ignited the fire in this batch of Ginebra players.
“I don’t know how he did it. He was so calm and friendly. I was surprised,” Cone said, immortalizing Jaworski’s imprint on this title conquest. “It was as if the whole tenseness in the room went out the window. It gave me goose bumps.”
Allan Caidic, who wound up his glory years with a brief stint with Ginebra before taking a stab at coaching the Kings, also celebrated with the crowd. Together with his wife, Milotte, Caidic hugged and congratulated each member of the team.
“It’s just great to see your former team win, and with a three-point shot at that,” said the left-handed Caidic, who held the PBA record for the most number of three-point shot conversions (1,242) until Meralco’s Jimmy Alapag surpassed it in Game 2. “I’m so proud of them. I’m like a child fan again.”
Ginebra has never been a dominant PBA team, not for long stretches anyway. In fact, its championships since 1979, when it joined the league, came few and far between. Four of its nine titles came with Jaworski as playing coach.
The Kings have no Grand Slams to speak of; they haven’t even come close to bagging one, actually. But the feeling is special every time they come out victorious. They, and only they—no offense to the other squads in the league—could come up with a victory parade in any town or city and bring the place to a standstill.
So who would have thought that this team would go on to become this country’s most enduring love on the hardcourt?
The late sportscaster Pinggoy Pengson paid the ultimate tribute to Ginebra’s fighting spirit during the telecast of the squad’s title-clinching game in the 1988 All-Filipino Conference against Purefoods: “This team is built around spit, guts and Jaworski pride.”
And with Cone promising the Barangay “more titles to come,” this nation’s love for Ginebra will never wane, no matter how the Never-Say-Die spirit reinvents itself again.
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