Year in Review 2016: We were all witnesses to San Miguel’s ‘Beeracle’

December 23, 2016

by: Noel Zarate

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(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!)

Christmas is always synonymous with miracles.

The birth of Jesus Christ is perhaps the greatest miracle ever as the Son of God became flesh and went on to save mankind—past, present and future—from eternal damnation through His death later on.

Quite recently, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) also witnessed its own version of a Christmas Miracle when on Christmas Day 2015 Barangay Ginebra overcame what seemed to be an insurmountable double digit spread with under two minutes remaining in regulation to force overtime and had the whole saga climaxed by an LA Tenorio game-winning triple against the Star Hotshots.

While that match up is upon us anew as the “Manila Clasico” unfolds in a few days at the Philippine Arena, the miracle pulled off by the reigning Philippine Cup titlists San Miguel Beermen is one of the headliners in a wicked year that was in this country’s sports history.

It all began innocently enough when the Beermen booked a return trip to the Finals against the Alaska Aces to whet everyone’s appetite for what was to be a grudge series in a rivalry that dates back decades.

Alaska had just thwarted surprise semifinalists GlobalPort Batang Pier in five games of that best-of-seven series and awaited the victor of the battle between San Miguel and perennial contenders the Rain or Shine Elastopainters.

As fate would have it, the Beermen managed to vanquish their foes, but at great cost: they lost their centerpiece June Mar Fajardo to a knee injury in that series. It would be the third time in four conferences these two storied franchises would lock horns for a championship—with the Beermen winning the two previous encounters.

So as San Miguel limped into the titular series, they had to contend against a fully healthy Aces squad that had revenge as their mandate—minus Fajardo.

The original prognosis was grim. Fajardo, then the reigning two-time PBA MVP, was lost for the series due to that ailment and experts immediately installed Alaska as a cinch to finally reward Alex Compton with his first ever championship as its head coach.

And right off the tip it was apparent that without its prized pagoda, San Miguel would be no match for the full firepower of the Aces as “Muscleman” Vic Manuel began a torrid barrage that had the proud Uytengsu franchise taking the first three games quite handily. In each of the Alaska triumphs, Manuel put on a dominating performance, taking full advantage of his match-up against a dwarfed Beermen frontline.

Prior to Game 3, however, the official timeline for Fajardo’s return was made clear: he would be able to suit up for Game 5, albeit not fully healed.

This now put the pressure squarely on Compton and his wards to sweep San Miguel to avoid any complications.

“The three-hour bus ride (from Lucena City; site of Game 3) felt like nine hours because we knew we had to make history to overcome this (situation),” Beermen guard Chris Ross later recounted. “Chris (Lutz) and I watched the game over and over and we knew we had to play a perfect Game 4 to buy enough time for June Mar to come back.”

They didn’t.

San Miguel was behind by double figures in the waning moments of regulation when something “miraculous” began unravelling.

With Fajardo in street clothes and cheering helplessly (and obviously praying fervently) from the sidelines, Ross, former PBA MVP Arwind Santos and former Alaska forward Gabby Espinas (who did an admirable job filling in for Fajardo), led an unlikely comeback to forge ahead by three points with 4.5 ticks left on the fourth quarter clock.

However, veteran Alaska swing wing Cyrus Baguio had a miracle of his own when he was able to launch a desperation triple with no remaining to force an extra session.

By that basket, the Aces were looking like the anointed ones and were given an extra five minutes to finish the job to allow the newly attached balloons and confetti in the rafters of the PhilSports Arena to drop to punctuated their dethroning of San Miguel.

The Beermen gave Alaska no such chance. The Aces—with their balloons and confetti—had to travel to the Smart Araneta Coliseum  for Game 5 and face an inspired San Miguel contingent now parading a gimpy but game Fajardo.

During the ceasefire leading up to Game 5, some fans in social media began speculating about the Beermen’s chances of resurrecting to defend their championship and an unnamed San Miguel fan couldn’t have use one word to put things in perspective: “Beeracle”.

The media began feasting on this new description of what needed to happen and when it was confirmed that Fajardo would finally see action in Game 5, “Beeracle” turned into a trending hashtag practically overnight.

Fajardo’s mere appearance in the pregame shootaround in uniform already got the Beermen faithful pumped, but he wasn’t in the starting line-up and many fans began thinking that coach Leo Austria was just putting his prized big man in his jersey as a psychological leverage against his foes.

That all changed at the 1:12 mark of the opening period when Fajardo made his first stint in the series and he promptly knocked down his first shot attempt to help San Miguel claim their first lead at the end of a quarter in the Finals since halftime of Game 3.

But once again, the Aces had numerous opportunities to claim the title in the fourth canto, highlighted by what could have been the clinching shot by Calvin Abueva at the end of regulation. However, it missed and Alaska would need another overtime to try and this time survive the confident Fajardo-led Beermen.

San Miguel put the hammer down and obliterated the Aces, 86-73 in what would be the largest margin of victory in the series.

With Fajardo steadily growing healthier, San Miguel also kept the Aces from getting it going in Game 6 and when the smoke cleared, it was down to one tiff to decide the outcome—as it was the season prior.

No team in PBA history had ever come back from a 0-3 hole in any Best-Of-Seven series—let alone the championship—but the Beermen were a win away from completing their “Beeracle”.

Then came the most bizarre moment in PBA Finals history.

I was broadcasting that do-or-die contest with now Rain or Shine assistant coach Jolly Escobar for radio at the Mall of Asia Arena and while it appeared to me that the Aces were a bit more upbeat than normal, I chalked it up to them psyching themselves up to deliver the long overdue knockout blow—even if it was apparent that losing three straight clinchers put them against the proverbial ropes.

The eventual announcement of seldom-used slotman Sam Eman as a starter startled Escobar and myself, but who were we to second guess Compton. In fact, Eman was used at times to try and diffuse Fajardo in the games preceding the decider.

Then, it happened.

Right after the opening tip—which Alaska had won due to a violation—Compton called a timeout.

You can imagine how us broadcasters did our best to inject our two-cents worth on why this was happening, but then came a second timeout requested by the Aces. We began going aghast. Alaska players were doing calisthenics, stretching and smiling in full view of their team owner Wilfred Uytengsu—who didn’t flinch one bit—while over at the other side, Austria and the Beermen didn’t know how to react but still did their best to stay focused despite the unheard of tactics by their opponents.

Then came a third timeout.

At this point, Escobar and myself began going philosophical; even referring to Robert Greene’s “33 Strategies of War”—a book neither of us had ever read in its entirety—in trying to define the preposterousness of what were taking in.

Then came a four-man substitution that just capped what Tim Cone (who was doing TV commentary) alluded to as “something out of the box”.

The result? On the very first play of Game 7’s resumption, Alaska turned the ball over.

San Miguel went on to crush the Aces 96-89 and do what no other team in league history had ever done:  win four consecutive Finals games after losing three consecutive Finals games.

Some claim that there were inner workings that made this a reality, while others questioned the Alaska resolve. In the end, the “Beeracle” happened.

The Aces would go on to another titular showdown the following conference only to be swept by the Elastopainters while San Miguel never even came close to challenging for a crown after that amazing feat.

“You know what’s even better than a ‘Beeracle’,” one sports scribe quipped. “A ‘Beeracle’ on ice.”

Merry Christmas, everyone.

MORE YEARENDER CONTENT:

Year in Review: The Philippines hosts two international volleyball tournaments

Year in Review: Brownlee’s buzzer-beater makes Ginebra a champion once again

Year in Review: It was the end of innocence for the Golden State Warriors

Year in Review: The NCAA championship returns to the Red Lions’ den

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