You don’t have to be a fight expert to recall what happened inside the AUF Sports Arena that wild Wednesday evening Barangay Ginebra fought for the title.
Fans, and we mean online fans, are probably still talking about how the Gin Kings earned the bragging rights of being the ‘bubble’ champions in the PBA Philippine Cup. But odds are you’d never remember the hitches that they had to endure prior to the start of the bubble tournament.
Prior to the tournament, Ginebra coach Tim Cone admitted having a lot of misgivings, as they were going to play in a tournament where the situation was much different from past conferences.
They—as well as the 11 other participating teams in the pro league—were competing in a tournament held inside a bubble in Angeles City where health was the utmost concern, much more than winning the games, because of the dreaded corona virus.
“I was talking to coach Kirk (Collier) just a few minutes ago, and we were saying to each other and laughing and saying we had no idea we were going to be in this situation,” said Cone during a lengthy press conference that followed the Gin Kings’ title-clinching 82-78 win over Talk ‘N Text in Game 5 of their best-of-7 series for the PBA Philippine Cup.
The situation was simply awful because they were herded inside a confinement where nobody would be allowed to go hither-and-thither, as part of the health protocols required by the higher authorities, notably the Department of Health and other government agencies tasked to implement health policies meant to prevent the spread of the virus.
More than the health concern, Cone was especially wary of their chances in the tournament, because he did not Greg Slaughter and two of his starters – Japeth Aguilar and L.A. Tenorio – were still doubtful because of injuries.
“I remember coming into the bubble looking, we didn’t have Greg (Slaughter), we didn’t have Japeth (Aguilar), we didn’t have LA (Tenorio), and I was saying to myself,‘Can we even make the playoffs? Can we prevent ourselves from being eliminated?’” said Cone.
To his surprise, his Gin Kings got off to a rousing start, winning their first four outings in the bubble behind the great games of Prince Caperal, Stanley Pringle and Scottie Thompson.
“Prince Caperal stepped up and played great. Stanley carried us. Scottie played well. We had our rookie, Arvin Tolentino, who was carrying us as well,” continued Cone. “Those first four games I think kind of jettisoned us to where we are now.”
Those were the first things that Cone earnestly cited moments after their victory. “And to look back on it and to go through what did to get to where we are, yes, you’re right, it made it so much sweeter.”
“And I think when we get back to Manila and we look back on this, we’ll be amazed at what we went through to win this. I think there’ll be great pride in winning,” added the jubilant Cone.
Their victory was especially sweet because it was actually a second straight title, counting their victory in the season-ending 2019 Governors’ Cup.
“It’s back-to-back. We went back-to-back. Of course, the back-to-back are separated by six months, but still, it’s a back-to-back championship and then the first All-Filipino in a long time,” added Cone.
Knowing full well their place in history was assured, the Gin Kings gave their all like life depended on it in Game 5 that was close all the way, with Aguilar, Pringle and Tenorio shining on offense to provide Ginebra the needed spark against a Talk ‘N Text team trying to stall their ascent to glory.
Aguilar finished with 32 points, Pringle added 13 and Tenorio 10. However, it was Tenorio’s playmaking skills that also gave Ginebra a big lift in the series, as the fleet-footed shooting guard got the better end of his duel with TNT’s equally-talented counterpart in Jayson Castro.
The victory wrapped up the best-of-7 series, 4-1, for the Gin Kings who thus ended their 13-year drought – the second longest (next to Alaska) — in the prestigious tournament. Prior to this, Ginebra’s last All-Filipino win came in 2007.
It was the 13th title overall for the Ginebra franchise and 23rd in all for Cone. It was also the first All-Filipino victory by Ginebra under Cone.
As much as there’ll be great pride in winning, Cone was magnanimous at the same time, acknowledging the fact that there were injured players on TNT side.
“I know that a lot of people are gonna look at Talk ‘N Text and say they had injuries, which is absolutely true. It is really hard to coach and win without your best players on the floor, especially with no time to really adjust and change your system or whatever needs to be done,” said Cone.
“But I thought our guys did a really good job of staying healthy, working hard to stay healthy. I thought we had a good balance of work and rest, and that led us all the way to the finals,” the most decorated coach stated.
“We always say in our team that our health is our weapon. We feel if we’re healthy, we always have a chance to win, we have a chance to compete for championships,” he added.
TNT had a good showing in the tournament it had won five times in the past. However, the team’s take-charge guys like Castro and RayRay Parks just could not give their 100 percent play because of recurring injuries.
And Cone acknowledged all that.
“There’s a lot that goes into winning the championship, and one of them is health, and we were fortunate that we kept our health and we were fortunate that Talk ‘N Text did not keep their health. But that’s basketball, that’s the way it goes,” he said.
The Gin Kings have now entered their names in history for being champion in the bubble tournament – so-called as all the 12 teams were herded inside one venue, with not a single, coach, official, and referee from the PBA entourage allowed to get out of the venue in the duration of the tournament.
When one got out, he or she cannot re-enter anymore in the bubble. Teams got out of the bubble once eliminated to decrease the number of people inside, and therefore ensure greater safety in times of pandemic.
With the bubble over and done with, a long vacation is now in full swing for most of the players. They will be back sometime in March or April for another episode of the All-Filipino tournament, the crown jewel every season in the pro league.