By Doc Mico Mesina
(Last of two parts)
Who is Marlou Aquino? They say that lightning does not strike twice, but it did for Ginebra in the PBA draft.
In 1994, they had the rights to the 1st overall pick, and had their sights set on the 6’9” beanpole from Sta. Barbara, Pangasinan.
He was hailed by pundits as a surefire franchise cornerstone and potential superstar, and teams salivated at the opportunity to draft him.
And why not? He served as the fulcrum of some National teams as well as the go to guy of the PBL teams that he played for.
However, due to some academic concerns in Adamson University, he was deemed ineligible for the draft.
With that, the Gin Kings settled for a burly and offensive-minded power forward from De La SalleUniversity, Noli Locsin.
Despite his sterling performance in his 1st two seasons, it was not enough to bring Ginebra into title contention. But as the saying goes, “one step backward, two steps forward”.
It so happened that for the 1996 PBA Draft, Ginebra again had the number 1 overall pick and finally, Aquino was deemed eligible to be drafted. When the pick was eventually made, not only did he have the labels “franchise player” and “rookie phenomenon” add to it the tag of “savior”.
The components for a championship team was slowly taking shape. They had Vince Hizon (whom they acquired from Purefoods), a shooter as well as a deft slasher into the basket, 1995 draft snub Bal David (whom they picked up as a free agent), old reliables like Pido Jarencio, Jayvee Gayoso and Macky De Joya, as well as defensive stalwarts Wilmer Ong and Benny Cheng, just to name some of the cast.
To add, the only remnant from the 1991 championship is their playing coach himself, Robert Jaworski Sr. For 1996, they might not have a conference championship, but you can see definite signs of improvement.
They ended the year locking horns with the Alaska Milkmen in the Governor’s Cup Finals, and even though Alaska had a date with destiny that time to seal their Grand Slam campaign, it is evident to everyone that there might be something special coming up from the Ginebra camp in the very near future.
1997 Commissioner’s Cup
Since the start of the year, the team has been christened the “Gordon’s Gin Boars” with the hopes of infusing loftier goals for the team. In addition, there is a feeling of a nearing finality for the Jaworski era, since he was being eyed as a senatoriable by the Nationalist People’s Coalition to the run in the 1998 national elections.
With that, many felt that this may be his last year at the helm of the Ginebra franchise. This has to be THE YEAR. To start, they fine tuned their roster, unloading EJ Feihl, acquiring Chris “Jumbo” Bolado, and starting Aquino full time at the center position.
This worked wonders for the team, speeding up their tempo as well as their rate of getting wins. They were bounced off by Purefoods in the all-Filipino finals but there is a growing feeling that this coming conference will be their championship, no, our championship.
They racked of the best elimination round record in the Commissioner’s cup, but struggled a bit in the semifinal round. With high stakes at the table, Gordon’s Gin gambled to replace its current import, the high-flying Tyrone Hopkins, with a savvy NBA veteran, Chris King from Wake Forest University.
Although King started slow, he finally found his groove, forcing the Boars into a three-way tie for 1st place.
After applying the quotient system to break the tie, Alaska was awarded the 1st Finals berth while sister teams and bitter rivals San Miguel Beermen and the Gordon’s Gin Boars were left to settle the last spot with a do-or-die game.
August 24, 1997
The Boars and Beermen met to settle the score on who gets a chance to face the Milkmen. Led by its MVP candidate Nelson Asaytono, the Beermen also had a load of talent surrounding its main star, including the GOAT shooter Allan Caidic, high flyers Samboy Lim and Bong Alvarez, spitfire point guard Olsen Racela, as well as their bullstrong and hardworking import, Jeff Ward. When I watched this game, I saw it as a war of attrition, a “matira ang matibay” sort of affair.
We sunk in our seats whenever the Beermen made a basket and jumped up with glee when the Boars countered with one of their own. In retrospect, the replacement of Hopkins with King turned out to be a Godsend, providing clutch basket after clutch basket and providing much-needed leadership to the young core. It needed regulation and 2 overtime, but Gordon’s Gin finally edged out San Miguel, 106-100.
With a sigh of relief (a very heavy one) I now looked forward to the Finals series, which I know will be one for the books.
September 7, 1997
Game 6. It’S only the end of the 3rd quarter, but with the seemingly insurmountable lead, that everyone has accepted reality: Gordon’s Gin will finally win the CommisSioner’s Cup title.
As the coaches slowly replaced their starters, I thought that there’s poetic justice in this historic championship for the Boars. This finally gave a respite for the fans waiting for another championship win since 1991.
This finally shut up the critics that this particular team cannot go all the way, and is just good for the elimination round (“ningas kugon”). And also, to win against the “Team of the 90s” Alaska makes it so much sweeter.
When the final buzzer sounded, and the players put up coach Jaworski for the victory ride, you can see the joy and relief in his eyes. And little did we notice, but some tears were starting to well up in our eyes as well. If he was going away from playing and coaching for good, this is the way to do it.
After the game has died but and me and my friends were outside talking about the championship and what the team went through, I looked at the stars and said a very short prayer: “Thank you Lord. Finally.”
The 1997 Commissioner’s Cup title proved to be Jaworski’s last championship before he left the team to go into politics, eventually winning a senatorial seat in the republic. The team in his exit gradually let go of its stars to rebuild and make way for a new generation of players to continue the “Never Say Die” spirit.
True, the Ginebra franchise has won titles before and since, but for me as well as a generation of fans, this is the quintessential Ginebra championship. The culmination of up and downs for half a decade. Coach Jaworski’s “huling tagay”.