This was the scene moments after the final buzzer of Game 7 of the PBA Fiesta Conference eight years ago. One by one, the long faces of Air21 Express then re-emerged from the dugout, dragging their aching feet to receive the 1st runner-up trophy.
Air21 nearly had Ginebra beat. Entering the fourth quarter of the deciding game, Air21 found themselves in a nine-point hole. But they slowly chipped away at the lead as Ginebra became reckless with the basketball. At the 4:27 mark, an Arwind Santos putback gave Air21 a taste of the lead after being down by as much as 13 points. Momentum was on their side. But then they suddenly forgot how to the put ball into the basket. The Arwind putback was the last time Air21 scored that game. Ginebra, hobbling to the finish line like a three-legged horse, scored 14 straight points to claim the crown.
Ginebra started the conference with five straight loses, prompting an import change mid-season. With 7-footer Chris Alexander’s towering presence in the paint, the Gin Kings turned around, put their collective heads down, and made a mad dash to the finals. In Game 2, they lost Jayjay Helterbrand to a hamstring injury. They lost Junthy Valenzuela in Game 7. But they had Eric Menk. They had Artadi’s quickness. Pacana and Alex Crisano showed up. Vic Pablo was on the bench. Mark Caguioa and Tubid played hurt.
In the biggest stage of his then relatively young career, Tubid was perfect from the line (11 of 11) to finish with 22 points. He was named co-Finals MVP with Menk. With the net and sampaguita draped around his neck, Tubid told the Ginebra faithful at the arena: “Barangay Ginebra, para sa inyo, maraming salamat!” He then collapsed to a sitting position at the center of the stage, his knees finally surrendering to pure basketball bliss. In clear view of his teammates, thousands of fans, and a couple of haters, Tubid wept. When he came to his senses, Tubid stood up beside Caguioa and Helterbrand, the only two remaining Kings of today’s Ginebra. They both looked happy then.
Caguioa and Helterbrand never won a chip again after that, but now they have a chance to get one–possibly their last one–against the Meralco Bolts. The tandem dubbed the “Fast and Furious” is now a step slower and playing less minutes, but Caguioa still has his eyes on the prize: “For us we were just thinking about the fans. They deserve this. More than us…They’ve been there through thick and thin. I almost cried.” After an eight-year wait, Caguioa is almost there.
THE ROSTER: Eric Menk, Ronald Tubid, Mark Caguioa, Junthy Valenzuela, Jayjay Helterbrand, Paul Artadi, Chris Alexander, Billy Mamaril, Rafi Reavis, Sunday Salvacion, Macky Escalona, Rodney Santos, Chris Pacana, Willy Wilson, Victor Pablo, Alex Crisano