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  1. With These Beermen, No Contest

    Sam Miguel usually handles the PBA, but this time he let me have a go at it.

    It was over one of our regular dinners with Mr Libog that the subject of comparing the great San Miguel Beer teams came up.

    Coincidentally I just had an interesting exchange with the great Bill "William the Conqueror" Velasco the afternoon earlier about this same topic.

    Here's the deal: Which of the three great San Miguel Beer teams is the best, the 1989 Grand Slam team, the 2-Danny's team of the late 1990's to early 2000's, or the current 2017 team of June Mar Fajardo.

    Of course the discussions we had were much too free-flowing, so maybe let us set some "parameters" if we can.

    First off, it is easy to be tempted to look at individual players and their stats and just say this guy scored more, rebounded more, passed more, etc etc, and therefore he is clearly better than the other guy. We can't really do that. Remember, those stats were not made against each other, these teams never played against each other, so those stats were only for a particular point in the fabric of the basketball time-space continuum. They might be useful but they cannot be the be-all and end-all of this discussion. The same thing holds true for individual awards like the MVP trophy. You all know how I (and Sam) feel about the very concept of an MVP in the first place.

    Secondly, we have to look at them as teams, and from the particular eras in which they dominated. This must hold especially true for the 1989 team because of the presence there of Ramon Fernandez, the man widely recognized as the best Filipino basketball player ever. (More on this particular point later.) In 1989 Fernandez was a year removed from the last of his four MVP awards, and was no longer the stud he was from say the late 1970's to maybe the earlier half of the 1980's. He still had great game of course, but he was no longer at the peak of his powers here. This will be very important to keep in mind.

    Third, since this is 2017, we will compare these three great teams through the prism of current PBA officiating, so in terms of officiating we will look at this in terms of what is allowed, and no longer allowed by current PBA rules, such as the Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 distinctions.

    Fourth, and I cannot stress this enough, if you do not believe that both the game and the players have somehow or other evolved, at least from 1989-onward, then we can end this discussion right here.

    Fifth and last, let us pretend that all three teams could be put in a mini-tournament, triple round robin eliminations, so each team gets six elimination games each, with the top two teams facing off in a best of seven Finals.

    Bearing all of these in mind, let me get straight to the conclusion Mr Libog and I agreed on: the Finals would be between the 2-Danny's team and June Mar's team; the Grand Slam team would get its licks in but in the end would not have enough size and talent to knock off either of the later-generation teams.

    Let's get the admitted facts out of the way first.

    Mr Libog and I agreed that Allan Caidic, hands down, is the only one from the 1989 team who could still play the game as it is being played in 2017. Caidic is without a doubt the best damn shooter ever that this country has produced. Ever. Take all of the best shooters across all the generations and Caidic would be the best among that esteemed lot.

    June Mar Fajardo will go down in history as the best player ever, regardless of position. At his young age he will probably win at least a dozen more PBA championships, and maybe at least a half dozen more MVP awards. He has truly changed the game just by being here. You're talking about a 6-10, 260- to 270-pound player who has touch, good footwork, agility, and mobility, and can even run in transition. Yes, Fernandez displayed far more skill, coming close one season to averaging a near-triple double for an entire year. But Fernandez never changed the game the way Fajardo did, simply because for all his wondrous talent, Fernandez was a normal-sized Filipino big man, in that 6-5 to 6-5 range. Had Fernandez been at least 6-8, then maybe we'd have a different opinion. But Fajardo is completely different owing precisely to his sheer size, and he isn't the barely-skilled lumbering lummox that say Bonel Balingit, or Chris Bolado, or EJ Feihl, or Dong Polisitico were. Fajardo, far more certainly, is better than fellow skilled skyscraper types such as Marlou Aquino and Yancy De Ocampo. And let us not forget, he is not only tall and long, he is thick-bodied and massive. It is that complete package that has allowed him to amass the titles and accolades he has, and he isn't even 30 years old.

    "Dynamite" Danny Seigle will go down in PBA history as the best player never to win an MVP award. This is a very ...
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  2. Two Game 7's Dream Come True for PBA

    For the fans, whether casual or diehard, having both the San Miguel-Talk N Text Series, and the Ginebra-Star Series go the full seven games, is a dream come true.

    After all, Game 7's are the ultimate thrill for any fan. It pits two teams so evenly matched that they need to go the full route of seven games to decide the winner.

    There is after all no more tomorrow for the losing team, and no team ever wants to be the losing team, especially if it has gone the distance as these two series have.

    Only coaches and players want best-of-7-series to end in sweeps, and understandably so, no sense in prolonging a series when you can end it quickly, as the San Antonio Spurs have done, twice at that, in two of the NBA Finals they've won in the last decade or so.

    Of course it is not just the fans that are happy with a Game 7.

    The league itself, in this case the venerable PBA, Asia's pioneering play-for-pay basketball league, is indubitably happy that both semifinal series of the ongoing Philippine Cup conference have gone on to the seven-game ultimate do-or-die. Allow me to explain, Praxedes.

    Every game in a semifinal series promises to be a quality game. And for San Miguel-TNT, and Ginebra-Star, that has been the norm indeed. There haven't been any 30-point blowouts, or any other indications that either series is a monumental mismatch not worth the basketball public's time and ticket money.

    The notable exception was last night's (as of this writing) Game 6 between Ginebra and Star. Ginebra pulled away in the third quarter and just plain went nuts in the payoff period to win pulling away 91-67. Joe Devance, Sol Mercado, and Jervy Cruz took turns in putting some distance between their Gin Kings and the Star Hotshots, and it all rubbed off on the end-of-bench players as even the seldom used 6-4 forward Jam Jamito scored on a short jumper in garbage time.

    Where were we, Praxedes? Oh yes, the league.

    The PBA is an organization that thrives of PR and media values. The more people watch the games, preferably in the venues, but on TV and online streaming is fine too, the more they keep their member-teams, and their sponsors and advertisers happy.

    Let's put it another way: a 30-second commercial on prime time TV can cost a company a few millions. Now imagine if that company had a PBA team, and that team was in this semifinals. Their brand will get at least two hours worth of direct mentions on prime time, with millions of eyeballs watching live, or on TV, or via online streaming. How many 30-second commercials' worth is two to two and a half hours of prime time mentions? And then how many millions are those two to two and a half hours worth?

    Granted the four protagonists in these semifinals are among the top brands and companies in the country already, still, there is nothing like brand equity coming from live, prime time exposure, and in a critical sports setting at that.

    Those with a dirty mind (such as Praxedes) might of course be thinking that the PBA had somehow orchestrated this whole shebang, that these teams are not really all that evenly matched, but that is mere conjecture and ultimately nearly impossible to prove with actual and real evidence.

    Sure, there have been some disappearing acts from key players, such as Marcio Lassiter and Paul Lee at crucial junctures of the middle games of their respective series.

    Sure, some of the whistles and non-whistles have been of the hair-tearing variety, and on either side at that.

    Sure, the Ginebra-Star series has features some of the most woefully low-scoring games in a long while in PBA playoffs history.

    But then again, don't we get those anyway regardless of stage of conference or season? All of the bad things we see we tend to turn into bogeymen just because they seem to fit a notion we have one way or another.

    In the end we the fans are getting a rare treat indeed, and we can choose to enjoy the game we all love, at its most enjoyable, or we can choose to create conspiracies where there might be none.

    As for the games themselves, it says here we get a San Miguel-Ginebra Finals.
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  3. Gang of 4 (2)

    (Continued)

    Ginebra San Miguel ___

    Conference Record: 6-5

    How Did They Get Here: Ginebra had to beat the Alaska Aces, a team they've always had difficulty with, and this time with the added handicap of Alaska having a twice-to-beat advantage, and they had to do it with Joe Devance out with an injury in the do-or-die game.

    Ginebra somehow pulled through, even coming back from 17 points down in the first game, before completing the fight back in the second game.

    Why They Will Make the Finals: Lets face it, nobody does box office better than Ginebra, and nobody does blockbuster better than Ginebra in the Finals.

    But an imbalanced roster might make that dream difficult to realize. Ginebra has one of the top big men in 6-foot-9 jumping jack Japheth Aguilar. Aguilar is probably the best in-game dunker now in the PBA, and he has a soft shooting touch for a guy his size, able to hit even all the way out to three-point range. But he is also one of those guys who lets bad calls and wily opponents get under his skin to the detriment of his overall game, and he certainly not one of those big men who can work the low blocks automatically. Still, his ability to keep things honest inside, and to be a rim protector, will be the key factors up front for the Gin Kings.

    Aguilar better step up though since Devance will likely be out for at least another week, maybe two, with that plantar injury. That means the likes of David Marcelo, Kevin Ferrer, Aljon Mariano, and Jervy Cruz will form the front line for Ginebra, not exactly an awe-inspiring prospect.

    This is where the crafty backcourt of LA Tenorio, Scottie Thompson, Sol Mercado, Chris Ellis, and the venerable Mark Caguioa need to fill in the gaps. Aguilar is basically tending the front court by himself until Devance returns, so the Ginebra backcourt needs to produce and produce big, especially from the perimeter. Ginebra is the worst three-point shooting team in the league, so there really is nowhere to go but up.

    Why They Might Not Make the Finals: Back-read to the previous section.

    Why they will make it is exactly the same set of reasons they might not make it.

    This is a team that lives on its never-say-die spirit, and that can only take you so far in what is expected to be a grueling Manila Classico semifinal. Ginebra has had to rely a lot (some observers and analysts say rely too much even) on one of their stars catching fire every game to win and keep winning.

    This wasn't much of a problem last conference thanks to their gunner of an import Justin Brownlee. But now that its just the local crew, and undermanned at that, things might get a little too dicey for the league's most popular ball club. They can't even fall back on Coach Time Cone's Triangle, since that system has basically been obliterated by the much faster running and gunning of the modern game.

    The public - and the PBA itself if we are to be honest - wants to see Ginebra at least make the Finals. But as things stand, that looks like a 50-50 proposition at best.

    Purefoods Star ___

    Conference Record: 7-4

    How Did They Get Here: It was a slow start for the Star Hotshots but they peaked at just the right time and seem to be thriving under new head coach Chito Victolero. They are no worse than the second best team in both offense and defense, and newcomer Paul Lee seems to have found an even better set of teammates to maximize his low key but high level talent.

    Why They Will Make the Finals: Paul Lee seems to have rejuvenated the franchise. This is a team that, kind of like Talk N Text, really still is your daddy's Purefoods. Marc Pingris, Rafi Reavis, Peter June Simon, Alein Maliksi, and Aldrech Ramos all have some miles on their legs. Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon, and Ian Sangalang are the youngsters of note. Bringing in Lee for the deathless James Yap was a brilliant stroke, as Lee's passing game and ability to create have brought out the best in all of his teammates.

    Matching up against this group isn't the easiest thing in the world, as almost all of them have the ability to manufacture baskets on their own, even lunch bucket types like Pingris and Reavis. Maliksi in particular is benefiting a lot from Lee's play making, since he no longer has to contend with Yap and even Simon getting their touches; Lee finds a way to keep all of them in the loop.

    Why They Might Not Make the Finals: As good as the Star Hotshots are, they aren't exactly shoe-ins to barge into the Finals. Not only is the league's most popular team standing in their way, but they might have already peaked in their quarterfinals against the Phoenix Fuel masters.

    Lee always brings his "A" game even this deep into the season, but its been a while since his ...
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  4. Gang of 4

    We are down to the top four teams in the ongoing PBA Philippine Cup, and quite frankly, this should be every fan's dream come true.

    Ginebra San Miguel, San Miguel Beer, Talk N Text, and Purefoods Star are arguably the most talented and popular teams in the league today, each with huge and faithful followings. To say that the semifinals will be a sure box office heaven for the PBA is an understatement.

    That said, let us take a look at the prospects of each team in these semis:

    San Miguel Beer ___

    Conference Record: 10-1

    How Did They Get Here: They were, quite simply, the top team throughout the conference. That they might not have played at 100% throughout the conference is understandable, given their superiority in talent and depth over every other team, but make no mistake, when the Beermen turn it on, it's usually curtains for their opponent.

    Why They Will Make the Finals: Are you kidding me? Seriously. They have arguably the best player ever in the history of Philippine basketball in June Mar Fajardo, the strong and agile 6-foot-10 Cebuano center who is on his way to his third straight MVP award, and perhaps also yet another championship for his Beermen.

    As mentioned they not only have talent and depth, but they have it at every position. Fajardo, dominant as he already is, also enjoys the luxury of having the likes of Alex Cabagnot, Arwind Santos, and Marcio Lassiter for teammates. They are so deep and talented they could afford to waive the injured but equally talented Chris Lutz. The likes of Gaby Espinas, Ronald Tubid, and Chris Ross are their rotation guys for cryin' out loud.

    Their record speaks for itself, and right now the only ones who can beat them are they themselves.

    Why They Might Not Make the Finals: Only an Act of God could prevent the Beermen from taking the Philippine Cup Title. Or overconfidence of the killing kind.

    If there is one thing that kills done-deal championships, it is always good old fashioned hubris. Maybe Coach Leo Isaac decides to start newcomer RR Garcia and keeps him on the floor longer than he ought to. Maybe Santos and Lassiter decide to take more three-pointer attmepts than they should. Maybe Tubid decides to sashay and do his shimmy one too many times.

    Talk N Text ___

    Conference Record: 6-5

    How Did They Get Here: Barely. They are only one game above the .500 mark, and at one time it looked like they might miss the playoffs. But they caught just enough breaks to make it this far, including drawing GlobalPort in the playoffs, a team they could handle at this critical stage of the conference. TNT however will need to pull out a few more rabbits out of the hat to return to the Finals.

    Why They Will Make the Finals: Like San Miguel they have some talent and depth on their roster. They still have the best pointguard in Asia. That's right, Asia, not just this country, but the entire continent. Jayson Castro may be in the twilight of his career, but the man they call the Blue can still play the game at the highest levels. Just look at the weekly highlight reels and he is still there.

    Aside from the Blur TNT still has a few dependable stalwarts led by the mutli-talented Ranidel De Ocampo. "Hodor" as he is affectionately called by some teammates and fans (after his hilarious role in one of their company's TV commercials) remains one of the top inside-outside players in the league, and is arguably the second best stretch 4 after Reynel Hugnatan.

    Others who can answer the call include Ryan Reyes, Kelly Williams, Larry Fonacier, and all-purpose 6-foot-7 youngsters Troy Rosario and Moalla Tautuaa.

    Rosario and Tautuaa need to grow up plenty fast though, and De Ocampo and Williams better help them along, because they will be needed up front in their semis.

    Why They Might Not Make the Finals: Let's face it, this really is you daddy's Talk N Text, and they sometimes show it at the most inopportune times. Imagine the average age of the core players of Coach Nash Racela, and they are essentially the same crew that was winning under Chot Reyes some five or six years ago.

    In the end their series will be determined 90% by how Castro plays. Even if all the other key players show up, as long as Castro isn't up to his usual high par, TNT will have a very short series.

    (To be continued)
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  5. What A Difference A Year or Two (or Three) Makes, Part 2

    (Continued from the previous)

    "May mga cases kasi talaga na ang galing-galing nung high school player pero it turns out he's just older than the kids he plays against, at nabibisto din naman siya pagdating pa lang niya ng Seniors," Mr Libog exclaimed.

    I then recalled that a coach from a well-known high school basketball program actually admitted to me something that has long been making the rounds in local high school basketball: Yes, he admitted, when a recruit comes to their program, and that recruit is either just the right age or a little younger for his curriculum year, they make him repeat a curriculum year and max out his age eligibility for junior division play.

    He went on to explain that this wasn't done willy-nilly, that there were practical reasons for doing so: First, their program wanted to maximize the recruit's available playing years, especially if he is a transfer who has to sit out a year to establish residency anyway. Let's say a recruit already finished Grade 8 in his previous school, and he was only say 13 years old, or a little young for a Grade 8 student. When he goes to their program, they talk the recruit into repeating Grade 8, and make that repeat year his residency year. That way they will still have the recruit for four playing years, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. By the time he is in his last year of junior ball he will already be 18, in this given case. There were even times they made recruits repeat two years if they were really young.

    Second, they recognized early on that a player who is older than average in junior ball can more easily take on younger players, even if those younger players are objectively more athletic and more talented than he is. Forget about the difference between a 17-year old and an 18-year old; imagine instead the difference between a 15-year old and a 17-year old. Only in the rarest of cases can a younger player whip an older player at the high school level.

    Third, there is of course that adjustment period needed for a player to get used to more organized, more regimented basketball, especially if he came from an unstructured or barely structured background, like say if he came from the countryside and there really wasn't a regular varsity tournament where he comes from. It'll take at least a year even for the most talented and smartest high school player to get used to a more rigorous system than the one he was used to.

    The bottom line, the coach therefore emphasized, is that it makes sense to use older players in high school basketball, just so long as you do not break the rules. If the rules of your tournament allow you to play high school ball up to age 19, then the perfect team, as far as this coach goes, is one where all of the players are 19, or at least half of them are 19 and the other half are 17 to 18. Pit them even against a team of sky walking, slam dunking, running and gunning younger players, and he will put even money on his older team every time.

    "Diyan na lumalabas nga 'yung big question: Kapag nakakaita ka ng player sa Juniors na obvious naman sa itsura pa lang na mas matanda kesa sa mga kalaban niya, at nilalamon niya mga kalaban niya, hindi ba dapat lang naman ganun ang mangyari? So maybe what we are looking at is not an elite player who will be a sure PBA star in the future. Maybe what we are really looking at is nothing more than an older kid beating the shit out of younger kids, in a manner of speaking of course," expounded Mr Libog.

    "Bigyan kita ng example. You remember when we went to watch Rey Nambatac mga six or seven years ago sa Buddha Care? Sino 'yung nakaagaw sa pansin natin? Kilala mo 'yon," he inquired.

    It took me a few seconds. "Si (Koko) Pingoy?" I asked-answered.

    "Correct. Si Nambatac ang pinuntahan natin, pero nakaagaw ng pansin natin si Pingoy. Guess who's older sa kanilang dalawa?" he asked.

    "Si Pingoy?" I asked-answered again.

    "Si Nambatac, by about a year. Pareho silang born 1994, pero Nambatac was January, Pingoy was December, pero parehong 1994," he said.

    "So magkaedad lang pala sila technically speaking, mas matanda pa nga si Rey," I said.

    "Correct. Coincidence kaya na silang dalawa 'yung pinakamagaling sa respective teams nila at that time? At that time they were both around 18, or sa case ni Pingoy pushing 18 na din siya," he said.

    "So nung nag-champion ang Letran under Ayo, legit 21 na si Rey. Nung time naman na nag-champion sa Fr Martin ang Team B ng Ateneo, 'yung first championship nila dun sa Trinity, turning 20 na din si Pingoy, and take note may mga imports siya that time," he added.

    I pointed out that Joma Adornado was on that title team too, as was Mikey Cabahug and a then under-residency Ponso Gotladera.

    "Yes they were. And how old were all of those ...
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