Marcial spearheads an improbable feat for the PBA, and is plotting the moves to pull the next one off | Inquirer Sports

Marcial spearheads an improbable feat for the PBA, and is plotting the moves to pull the next one off

05:10 AM January 02, 2021

How the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) was able to successfully mount a conference while the country continues to reel from the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic perplexed even the league’s chieftain, Willie Marcial.“Can you imagine, we actually did it,” Marcial told the Inquirer recently as the new year has come and a bigger challenge has emerged on the horizon: How will the league do it again?

Holding the Philippine Cup for its 45th Season despite the entire country practically grinding to a halt was an achievement in itself. And to do it without any incident was sweet icing on the cake as Marcial will go down in league history as the commissioner who pulled out the perfect tournament in environments so imperfect that no other man would have thought of taking a crack at it.


“I have the team owners to thank,” Marcial said over the phone as he, like everyone else in the world, hopes for 2021 to be a better year. “If they had said no (to the bubble), then I couldn’t have done anything.

“The owners paid the salaries of their players for more than seven months (since the March lockdown) and got an exposure of 2-1/2 months at the most (from the bubble tournament). They played a huge role, that’s why we were able to pull it off,” he added.


Time to plan

COVID-19 swept the world early last year, and by the time it hit Philippine shores in March, all of sports in the country ground to a halt, the PBA not being an exception.

The league froze its season owing to the growing concern over the virus’ spread and the enforcement of the national government’s lockdown measures across the country. It took over six months before the PBA found an opportune window to begin plotting the conference to salvage its season.

A formal decision and plan came on Sept. 17—and it did so with considerable apprehension. Several league fans and basketball aficionados wondered on social media why the league is so hell-bent on staging a tournament right smack in the middle of a global health crisis. Some players even voiced out their opinions.

“This is good for us, it’s good for the people, it’s good for the economy, it will open up your television for content that will be important to us—those who love basketball,” Ricky Vargas, the league’s Chair, said.

Teams, each bringing a traveling party of no more than 25 people, arrived in waves at Quest Hotel in Clark Freeport on Sept. 28 and 29. Having logged less than a month of conditioning and prep time in the weeks before, the chorus among players and coaches was to work on their fitness levels as their respective teams compile wins for records befitting a playoff spot.

Players went all out

“I was really very nervous until we had the first jumpball,” Marcial said. “I was nervous for the players, most especially, because a lot of them were still out of shape having been confined to their homes for the last six months.”

But the players persevered and gave this country a show like none other, as people Marcial doesn’t know have kept reminding him over the past few weeks.


“There’s this lawyer, whom I don’t know, who came up to me and thanked me for holding the bubble,” Marcial said. “He wasn’t a true-blue fan, but he said that the PBA had him glued to his television set all day, everyday, and gave him something to look forward to.”

The commissioner was quick to deflect the credit again.

The next task

“It’s the fans that we would like to thank, because they stuck with us despite the difficult times. I think COVID was sort of a blessing in disguise for the PBA, because we earned new fans like that lawyer,” he said.The high of having pulled off the bubble has left Marcial even before the holidays came.

He knows that he has a tough task ahead of him as he tries to plan how Season 46 will play out. At least he has the first component he needs to do it again: the full support of the team owners.

“Definitely, we will be having a season this year,” he explained. “How we will do that will depend largely on how the vaccine arrives in the country. We will have a feeling out period for that, in February and March, and from there, we will decide.”

Marcial said the league forked out at least P70 million to operate the bubble in Clark, and this was aside from losing “hundreds of millions” in ticket sales after they played in a fanless Angeles University Foundation gym.

As much as possible, the PBA would want to do away with another bubble-type tournament, “masyadong mahal,” and would opt for a closed circuit environment. “I would like to push for a closed-circuit setting and seek government approval for that,” he said. “It would be all up to the government.”

Mental strain

The mental strain that the bubble gave everyone in the tournament is also a great concern.“We have players who missed baptismals of their kids, birthdays of their wives and even the funeral of a grandmother,” Marcial said.

Scottie Thompson of PH Cup champion Barangay Ginebra lost his grandmother before the Final Four, and it was a tough decision for the Gin Kings guard not to have been able to pay his final respects to the woman who raised him.

The vaccine is crucial for the PBA, Marcial said, for not only will it help the league come close to staging a season near normalcy but it will also afford them to help the country.

“If a vaccine comes, we would like to know how many we can buy, because it is not only the league we will help, but our underprivileged countrymen who wouldn’t have the means to buy,” Marcial said. “The PBA would want to do its share to donate, help the country in that respect.”

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