(Editor’s note: Sports5.ph looks back at the top sports moments of 2016 with our Year in Review yearender series. The good, the bad, the ugly – it’s all here. Thanks for reading us and we hope you enjoyed our 2016 editorial content. Here’s to an exciting 2017!)
He wasn’t even part of the plan. The team had chosen someone else, an “old reliable” who had shown success and had PBA know-how on his résumé. Well, things have a way of falling into place and one import’s unfortunate injury had Justin Brownlee suddenly joining the PBA, as the import of the acknowledged most popular team in the league, the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings, for the last conference of the 41st season, the Governors’ Cup. He barely had any idea of where his fortunes had taken him. Yes, he had heard of the PBA from friends, and he was told Ginebra was the fan favorite and they would treat him like royalty (fitting for a Gin King). He was also told that his team had not won a championship in eight years and was starving for what had been an elusive shot at former glory.
With the usual optimism and hope of a successful conference, Ginebra fans watched intently as Brownlee slowly, but surely, established himself as a formidable reinforcement. The thing with Brownlee was that he never hogged the spotlight. He seemed to fit right in and, in fact, at times, was observed as too unselfish. Unlike other imports before him, he oftentimes played off the ball, deferring to his popular cast of teammates composed of household names like Mark Caguioa, LA Tenorio, and Japeth Aguilar. His numbers were impressive (28.64ppg, 11.27rpg, 3.77apg, 1.68spg), but not spectacular, his character was even-keel, he was by no means brash or arrogant, but he exhibited confidence and a willingness to do whatever it took to win games.
By mid-conference, it was clear that this version of the Kings was formidable. Even without injured center Greg Slaughter, they were rebounding by committee, switching on defense and generous with the help, the guards pressured the ball, and Aguilar patrolled the middle, blocking shots and intimidating as he never had in the past. Role players such as Dave Marcelo, Aljon Mariano (a rookie), Jervy Cruz, and one-time MVP Jayjay Helterbrand would come in and provide just the right amount of support.
In retrospect, the Governors’ Cup 2016 was really a story of emergence for Ginebra. They started the season with high anticipation, having hired the winningest coach in PBA history, Tim Cone, to try and extricate them from the doldrums of unrealized promise. It was not an easy journey. Failure definitely came before success, but now, the pieces had been expertly put into place.
Joe Devance, a Cone disciple, followed his mentor once again (Alaska, to Purefoods/San Mig/Star, then to Ginebra), and became an integral piece of the Ginebra puzzle. JDV is an orchestrator, a playmaker, a many-pronged weapon. With Ginebra, he emerged as a leader on the floor who would bark out instructions, direct sets, and encourage others.
Japeth had been put in a tough situation without Greg. Known as a wing player, a slasher, Japeth now had to be a constant inside presence on both ends. It was not enough for him to use his incredible leaping ability and athleticism just for dunks and outside jumpers. He had to grab rebounds, intimidate (a word hardly used to describe him in the past), and dominate. By the end of the tournament, he had shown he could do all three.
Caguioa and Helterbrand enjoy a glorious past. From time to time, they are able to resurrect their success to remind us all just how exhilarating it was when they ran fast and became furious. Their numbers were nothing to crow about overall, but they emerged nonetheless as valuable contributors. In this late stage of their careers, they dove for loose balls, played nose-to-nose defense against guards a decade (or more) younger, and, under the brightest of lights, showed everyone else how anyone, even those said to be past their prime, can still shine whether, in the case of Helterbrand, it’s their birthday or not.
Tenorio has been the “lead guard” for Ginebra for quite some time now. That he was named Finals MVP only serves as icing on a cake that has been battered, beaten, eaten, and built-up again, in a career that has seen a little of everything. Fans love him today, despise him tomorrow, call for him to be traded, and even ask that he retire. This treatment has only fuelled LA to keep on going and, in the end, they love him once again. He was the biggest little man in many tough situations throughout the conference, when Ginebra was down big, in the fourth, in an almost certain loss. He found ways.
For two conferences earlier in the season, he showed flashes in the PBA of the well-known talent he showed every game in the NCAA. It would not be sacrilege to say that, without him, Ginebra might not yet have broken its drought. Earl Scottie Thompson finally got his break during the Governors’ Cup, and he surely did not disappoint. There are only two or three players in the league who find a way to get the ball no matter who is beside him, in front of him, around him, and Scottie is surely one of them. His rebounding skills are, to understate the matter, tremendous, and his basketball IQ is out of this world. He played heavier minutes as the third conference progressed, and his leadership at such a young age was key. This is one player the squad would do well to sign long-term because the future is oh so bright for this outstanding talent.
He had never won a PBA championship in the past, but Sol Mercado had shown time and again his ability to take over games. He led the league in one conference in both scoring and assists, yet his team then did not make it far. You talk about sacrificing one’s body, Sol did that time and again as he railroaded his way to the hoop for timely baskets in transition, and guarded the other team’s best players, including imports much taller and bigger. He worked painstakingly on his once-iffy jumpshot and developed it into an almost automatic weapon, which he loved to hit especially in the fourth quarter of games during the Governors’ Cup. He had been called many things in the past, but now we can all call him a champion.
You put all those pieces together, mix in a few more, and you have a team that, as one, made it happen. The glue-guy in the midst of all of that, the man Ginebra looked to during the most crucial points from game to game, was Brownlee. He became the barometer. If he played well, Ginebra always had a chance to win. An outstanding elimination round (8-3, third seed) led to a quarterfinal matchup against the Alaska Aces, which Ginebra finished in just one game. Tenorio led the team in scoring, but Brownlee grabbed twelve rebounds.
In the semis, Ginebra faced the defending champion San Miguel Beermen, and ousted SMB in five tough games, winning the series 3-2. Brownlee led the team in scoring in all three victories.
There was probably no one who predicted that the Ginebra-Meralco Bolts best-of-seven finals would be as entertaining as it turned out to be. Each of the six championship games were well-played as fans grew more and more enamored as the series extended. In fact, with Ginebra up three games to two before Game 6, fans who were not Ginebra diehards were praying for a seventh and deciding game, if only to see the teams go the full distance.
I had the honor and privilege of anchoring the TV5 coverage of Game 6, with Coaches Alex Compton and Yeng Guiao by my side as analysts. The game was tight. It was physical. There were great plays from both sides. There were 5.5 seconds left on the game clock. Ginebra took a timeout, and had to inbound from the other side across their bench. The possibility of overtime was indeed in the air. But, Justin Brownlee had other plans. Already with 28 points on fifty percent shooting, with the score even at 88, he decided he did not want to play any longer. He wanted to wrap up the Governors’ Cup and deliver it as a present to Ginebra management two months before Christmas. The Ginebra fans, for some reason, had brought out their cellphones, turned them on, and were waving them in the air in a festival of light, anticipating what perhaps would be a glorious moment.
Mercado would inbound. And then, “Brownlee ang tumanggap.” (Brownlee received it.) Brownlee dribbled three times as he made his way to the top of the key, above the arc. He had a little space. “He lets fly.” Game over. Championship in the bag. Ginebra had ended the drought. Brownlee had made the shot heard ‘round the Philippine basketball world, which goes beyond our borders, mind you. Wow. Wow! Wow!!
Brownlee, from Georgia in the US, had played university ball for a high profile program, the St. John’s University Red Storm, cracked the NBA D-League a couple of times, landed in Mexico, Italy, and just before coming over, France, to play basketball. He found probably his most magnificent basketball glory to date in the Philippines, playing for Ginebra, winning a championship, on his last second game-winning three-pointer, in world-renowned Araneta Coliseum.
Brownlee did not start the tournament with the team, but he sure as heck ended it. His name will go down in PBA and Ginebra history and he and his shot will be talked about for a long, long time. The Ginebra 2016 Governors’ Cup championship team will be remembered for finally being a cohesive unit, one with the perfect pieces for a championship, with a coach who had the right touch and players who decided to do whatever it took to win it all. They also had a better than average import who usually quietly did his thing, but saved the loudest for last. He did good.
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