The Journey of the Underdogs

August 22, 2011

If, at the start of the PBA conference, someone came to me and challenged me to make a bet as to what team will be crowned as the PBA Governors’ Cup champs, I’ll bet that my Petron Blaze Boosters won’t be that team. I’ll make a two-months worth of my salary as my wager, without batting an eyelash.

The team, which was then named as San Miguel Beermen, was coming off a rare last place finish in the last confy after winning only two games – probably the worst finish of the San Miguel/Petron franchise ever. The players looked disgruntled after the blockbuster trade that sent Danny Seigle, Dondon Hontiveros, Dorian Pena, and Paul Artadi to then Air21 Express in exchange of untested rookies Rabeh Al-Husseini, Noy Baclao, and Rey Guevarra. They played very lethargic on both offense and defense. The coaching staff looked helpless. To sum it up, nothing seemed to work right.

Ginebra's import Nate Brumfield challenges three Beermen defenders

During the off season, the management renamed the team to Petron Blaze Boosters. It signaled a fresh new start. As I said in my last sports-related post, the future looks bright for the team and that there’s no other way to go but up. All I was actually hoping for is a respectable showing considering that somehow they are still on the rebuilding stage.

Petron lost its first game when they paraded a lemon import in Ricky Harris. The management replaced Harris with Jeremy Wise who turned out to be a gem as he led the team to a second place finish after the elims. It was a delight to see the team play great on both ends of the floor. Finally, the winning tradition was back.

But it was not a smooth sailing ride for the Boosters. Jay Washington, the main man of the team, went down with a foot injury that would take him months to recuperate. Lordy Tugade and Joseph Yeo were injured as well. Rabeh, who was later cited as the Rookie of the Year, suffered an ACL injury and will be out for the rest of the season. And the worst part of it all? JWise, the best import at that time, was forced to pack his things and go back to the States as he himself had a bad knee injury.

And so I thought, that would be the end of the road for the Boosters. But it’s still okay. The team was already overachieving. Who would have thought they would finish at the upper tier of the standings?

But then here came the Boosters showing life and form despite being undermanned. Arwind Santos, since the start of the conference, was consistent in putting up MVP-like numbers. Alex Cabagnot manned the point very well. The scrappy players – Jojo Duncil, Paolo Hubalde, Sunday Salvacion, and Denok Miranda, to name a few – were always there to provide energy.

BMeg's PJ Simon tries to scoop in a layup against the outstretched arms of Arwind Santos and Mick Penissi

Arwind Santos takes it strong to the hole

After JWise got injured, Petron was left with no other choice but to replace him. Anthony Grundy then came into the team. I thought whoever the replacement import was would surely be a downgrade because JWise was just so good. But Grundy proved me wrong. He is not as explosive and flashy as JWise but he gets the job done. He can score at will but he is also a team player. He makes his teammates look good with perfect assists, grabs rebounds, and plays hard-nosed defense as well. He does not look maangas but he won’t back down from anyone. Like JWise, he is a great – if not perfect – fit for the team. At that point, I was hoping that Petron would overachieve… a bit more.

Anthony Grundy attempts to steal the ball from TNT's Scottie Reynolds

Anthony Grundy dives for a loose ball

With JWash, Lordy, Yeo, and Rabeh out, the Boosters still managed to put up a gallant fight and finish strong. But with the quotient system implemented this conference, they found themselves in a place where their fate was not in their hands. To be able to get into the finals, they had to beat Talk ‘N Text (who was already in the Finals that time), then Ginebra had to win over Rain Or Shine. And that was exactly what happened. Not taking anything away from the Boosters but there seemed to be a deliberate effort from TNT to lose that game so they could face the weakest contending team on paper in the Finals, which is no other than the Boosters.

Anyway, my team took the last seat to the Finals. They were facing the grandslam-seeking TNT squad.

If you were going to compare the lineup of the two teams, it looked like TNT would just bulldoze its way onto the coveted grandslam. Petron’s lineup is soooo depleted while theirs is oozing with firepower. Though I wanted my team to win the series, my logic said TNT would take it in 6 games.

Anthony Grundy, Arwind Santos, Jimmy Alapag, and Scottie Reynolds

First game of the series. Petron stole the game away from TNT via a come-from-behind win, thanks to Danny I’s buzzer-beating jumper over Ali Peek. Many people were surprised, including me. While lots of spectators branded the win as a fluke, some realized that TNT was really beatable after all. As Quinito Henson put it, “we have a series!”

The next two games, however, showed why TNT is the best offensive team in the league today as they beat the hell out of the Boosters by big margins. Big, as in 20+ point lead in both games. Jason Castro and Larry Fonacier were just unstoppable. Many doubted if Petron could still put up a challenge after being blown out.

Jason Castro drives past Jojo Duncil

At the end of Game 3, Coach Ato pulled off a ploy. He engaged TNT Coach Chot into a psy war by challenging him into a fistfight. Chot declined then Coach Ato called him “bakla” (gay). During the presscon after the game, Chot went to the media as if making sumbong. Chot just made himself look pathetic.

Then came games 4 and 5. The Boosters came out smoking. all guns blazing. They shot the ball well and also controlled the tempo of the game. Most importantly, they held TNT below 80 points. Defense. They played solid, physical basketball while the Texters looked sort of scared. One of the keys to winning both of these games: Ato’s brilliant and “we-are-no-pushovers” attitude which rubbed off to his players.

Opposing coaches: Petron's Ato Agustin and TNT's Chot Reyes

Game 6 is a déjà vu of games 2 and 3 as Petron came out flat footed. Grundy only managed to score 5 points. Nobody came to play except for Arwind. Despite being injured, TNT’s true MVP Jason Castro carried his team on his back by doing what he does best – penetrate, create plays for his teammates, and convert his shots. After a poor performance of Reynolds, TNT chose to replace him with Mo Baker – the team’s original import who played for them in the elims but was replaced by Reynolds. After being bumped off in the lineup, Baker opted to become a practice import. So there, TNT had the luxury of having two imports practicing with them.

It was a heartbreaking loss. I was there. I watched it live hoping that the Boosters would end the series right then and there. But what I witnessed was a murder. TNT forced a winner-take-all Game 7.

Jason Castro played through his MCL injury to provide spark off the bench and lead TNT to a win in Game 6

Petron's Anthony Grundy, Alex Cabagnot, Denok Miranda, Coach Ato Agustin and TNT's Jimmy Alapag and Mo Baker

Coming into the final game of the series, it appeared that almost all odds were stacked against the Boosters. With the momentum going back to their side, the Texters’ looked poised to win the  Governors’ Cup crown and consequently, win the grand slam.

But here was the ever so resilient Petron team that refused to be pushed away. They played superb basketball in the first canto and that pretty much took away the fight from TNT. The Texters’ managed to come close – and even take the lead at some point – but timely baskets from Grundy, Denok, and Danny I were enough to lift Petron.

And Arwind, wow. Proving that he’s not a choker anymore, he played a monster game for the Boosters. His stats: 16 points, 16 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks. In a freaking Game 7.

For the longest time in his career, Arwind was always #2. He had a couple of chances to win an MVP award but he ended up as a bridesmaid. Also, Arwind had always been the second fiddle, particularly to Kelly Williams. He had 3 or 4 trips to the Finals but was always denied.

Not this time. Now, he’s the #1. Champion + Finals MVP.

Sa wakas, the curse is gone.

Arwind Santos puts a poetic exclamation mark in the tightly fought series. Photo by InterAKTV/Markku Seguerra

Same with Alex, who before played terribly during the games which mattered most. Stat line: 12 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 0 turnovers. All these in a freaking Game 7. Choker what?

The beauty of that game lies on how Petron was able to limit TNT’s production to just 73 points, their lowest output in the series. The Boosters played suffocating defense and dictated the tempo of the game all throughout. Ever wonder why basketball experts always say that defense wins championships? Really great coaching by Coach Ato.

Rookie coach Ato celebrates as he wins his first championship in the PBA

After five long years in the league, Finals MVP Arwind Santos finally gets a taste of a PBA championship crown.

It was a classic championship series that saw David battling it out against Goliath. Battle-scarred and everything, David ended up as the winner. This championship perhaps is one of the sweetest victories of the franchise to date and I am very fortunate to have witnessed it. I have been a fan of the league since 1995 and I have never seen a team pull off a huge upset such as this.

But more importantly, Petron did it not with a loaded talent, but with a mix of vets and role players who are willing to play all out just to win. (Shout out to SMC: Championship teams are made, not bought.)

The Petron Blaze Boosters are the 2011 PBA Governors' Cup champions

To TNT, adversities such as injuries are part of the game; you have to play through it and not make it as an excuse. ‘Pag talo, talo. And oh, a grand slam team doesn’t whine too much. Take that, Coach Chot. Hehe.

Seriously, you gave a good fight but sorry, we slammed your grand slam aspirations. You broke our hearts by denying Olsen his last championship before he retired. Now it was our time to break yours.

Buti na lang walang nakipagpustahan sakin. I would have lost. More than anything, it was a shame that I did not believe in my team enough, and I am really happy to be proven wrong.

Congrats, Petron Blaze Boosters!

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