PJ Simon burst into a smile of relief as he watched a challenger’s final shot rim out. Beau Belga also broke out a grin that showed just how close he came to losing his crown. Rey Guevarra won with plenty to spare—his final dunk a mere ceremonial display that showcased more style than athleticism.
In a league getting younger with every season, the veterans showed up to compete during the skills challenge of the PBA All-Star Weekend at Calasiao Sports Complex in Pangasinan.
Guevarra became just the league’s second 5-time dunk champ. Simon ruled the three-point shootout. Belga retained his obstacle challenge crown.
The night was supposed to be a showcase of youth, with the league unearthing an old format from three decades back and rehashing it into a Rookie-Sophomore versus Juniors showdown.
The young stars thrilled fans in a battle to the finish, with Rain or Shine freshman Javee Mocon tipping in a shot at the buzzer to power the Rookies-Sophomores past their immediate seniors, 141-140.
“We just wanted to thrill the fans in the first three quarters but in the fourth both teams wanted to win it,” Columbia’s CJ Perez, the game’s MVP, said in a TV interview.
But while the young stars shone, the skills challenge was a domain of winners who, combined, the three have logged 35 years in the PBA.
“It’s an honor to win something like this at the twilight of my career,” Simon, the Magnolia guard, said on TV in Filipino.
The 38-year-old veteran had only five points going into his last two racks in the final but missed just once from thereon to finish with 17 points.
NorthPort rookie Robert Bolick gave chase in his final rack, coming to within a moneyball of the title. But his final attempt rimmed out and he settled for 16.
Bolick and the other finalist, Philip Paniamogan of NLEX (14 in the final) have spent just a third of the time Simon, a 15-year veteran, has played in the PBA.
Belga, an 11-year pro, won by a fraction of a second in the obstacle final, beating third-year big man Russel Escoto of Columbian.
Guevarra’s three final foes have a combined five years of PBA experience—almost half the time the ex-Letran star has been in the league—and it showed.
The Phoenix guard exerted just enough to get to the final round—and still got there on top of the heap with 95 points. He pressured top rival Renz Palma of Blackwater by popping a 50 in his first dunk in the final.
Palma, who entered the final tied with Columbian rookie Perez at 86 points, responded with a 50 of his own, jumping over two rows of three crouched players each. But his second dunk, an ambitious attempt at a one-hander off a long Belga pass from the stands, flunked several times and he couldn’t get a safety dunk in.
He finished with a 30, leaving Guevarra needing just the simplest of slams to retain his crown. His Phoenix teammates lined up in two rows from underneath the basket to close to the three-point line. As Guevarra sprinted toward the basket, the rows parted, allowing the champ to soar for an easy one-hander.
And it looks like the dunk contest could just get a little older next year. A TV report said KG Canaleta, the other 5-time champion, told Guevarra before the contest that should he win this edition, the 37-year-old Meralco forward and 14-year league veteran would challenge him next year.
“Maybe he was just joking,” Guevarra told a TV interviewer, before doing a mock call-out: “KG!” —FRANCIS T.J. OCHOA