Cone soaks in ‘brand new feeling’ as Ginebra chants echo throughout Araneta again
The crowd darlings of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) finally took their turn to bask in the cheers of spectators returning to live venues.
And Barangay Ginebra did not fail its faithful fans Friday night.
The Gin Kings shredded undermanned NorthPort, 108-82, to the delight of several ticket-holders who had waited a long time to finally catch a glimpse of the PBA’s most popular ball club.
“It was fun,” Edwin Moreto told the Inquirer in Filipino after watching the game from the lower box section of the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in the presence of fellow Gin Kings fans, so it’s really a special experience,” added the 44-year-old fan from Caloocan City.
It was special, too, for coach Tim Cone. One of the rewarding things about assuming the head coaching job for the Kings was that he was finally on the loud side of the crowd after spending decades as Public Enemy No. 1 of Ginebra fans while coaching the highly successful Alaska and Magnolia (then San Mig Coffee) squads.
“I remember … making our first basket,” Cone said. “And there was a roar, And I go, Whoa! Wow! I’ve never heard that. It was like a brand new feeling all over again. And then coming from the timeouts, a few, “Gi-neb-ra! Gi-neb-ra!” it was really … I don’t know what the word is. But it was just so satisfying hearing that again and being a part of it.”
Adding to the nostalgic emotion was the fact that it was Smart Araneta Coliseum that hosted fans’ return to the stands.
For several PBA personalities, the Big Dome holds a special place in the history of the league. And even of Philippine sports.
“I watched the (Muhammad) Ali fight held here,” said PBA commissioner Willie Marcial.
“But on TV, of course. I was still young then,” he said with a chuckle on Saturday, the league’s first weekend with fans back at the stands.
“But seriously, there’s a homecoming feel to us returning here and playing before fans,” he added. “It’s like going to work overseas and then coming back after a long while, then finally seeing your family and friends once again.”
To escape the pandemic, the PBA returned to action in bio-locked environments in Pampanga and also holding matches at Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City. The return to the Big Dome brought back memories for a lot of people.
“This is where I played my first year against Crispa and Toyota,” said Norman Black, the Meralco coach who was also twice the league’s Best Import awardee. “This is also where I scored 71 points one time. I mean, there are so many memories for me inside this arena. So I’m happy to be back here.”
“In my first year here coaching at the Big Dome, I was coaching against Sonny Jaworski. I used to tremble whenever he’s on the other side of the court. I was a young coach and he was already a legend,” said NLEX coach Yeng Guiao.
And having fans back heightened the positive vibes.
“It just triggers to me that we’re almost back to normal when you’re hearing that kind of stuff,” said Cone. “I just hope that we can grow it, it can go from 50-percent to 70 to 85 and get back to where we’re having big Ginebra crowds.”
“I think we’re playing a Manila Clasico (Ginebra vs Magnolia) on Christmas Day, and I hope that we’re at capacity at that point—at least whatever the capacity is, it would be nice to have a capacity game,” he said.
“I think we are on our way,” said Guiao. “The league has done a good job just preparing us for this stage of our struggle during the pandemic. I hope in a week so, we can increase our capacity rate.”
For now, capacity at the Big Dome has been pegged at 4,000. It is not just to ensure distanced seating, part of the health protocols that apply in Quezon City. The low number also allows for better crowd management.
That number includes teams playing for the day, league staff and journalists.
To enter the arena, proof of vaccination, a government-issued ID and registration to Quezon City’s digital contact tracing portal are required. Masks are also mandatory, while snacks are only allowed in designated areas.
Those protocols may seem like a hassle, but fans don’t mind. And Moreto’s wife, Ethel, also hopes that Ginebra’s fabled cheering section can grow larger as the country fights its way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The [fans in the] games are still limited. But it would nice to see more fans here with us,” said Ethel, who inherited a loyalty to Ginebra from her dad. “And of course, I hope the pandemic ends soon so we could get to the point when we could bring our kids.”
“That would be really nice,” said Ethel.