By Ged Austria 

This is it. End of an Era.

There was already murmuring as days went by, but after Game 5, right after Mark Barroca hit a buzzer beating game-winner, a lot of people were already counting the San Miguel Beermen out.

They are too old.

They are tired of winning.

Pagod na sila. Wala nang gana.

Basang-basa na yung gagawin nila, si June Mar lang naman pupuntahan.

After a bounce-back Game 6 where the Beermen hit the Hotshots with haymakers enough to put the game away as early as the second half, they were back in square one once more. In the first half of Game 7, they had one of the worst halves and quarters in franchise history. During the second quarter, they had more turnovers (11 TOs) than points (5 points). While walking around the Araneta Coliseum, you could decipher who the San Miguel fan was from the Magnolia fan. The fans of the Hotshots looked calm and composed. Beermen fans, on the other hand, looked frustrated, anxious, and demoralized. During the early goings of the third quarter, the Hotshots jumped out to a 17 point lead. Right there and then, it would have been easy to mutter those words.

This is it. End of an Era.

However, throwing in the towel wasn’t a sure thing yet at that moment. As a basketball fan, if you knew there was a group who could turn things around even in a short amount of time, it had to be San Miguel. It had to be the Death Five. Pair that core group with Christian Standhardinger and Terrence Romeo, and you had reason to believe.

San Miguel slowly chipped from the lead of the Hotshots and the excitement from the Beermen gallery was growing with every moment. Terrence playing the best defense of his life during the second half. Marcio Lassiter being more involved in ball-screen actions. June Mar Fajardo unleashing the Kraken against Ian Sangalang on the defensive end. Then just like that, there were only five minutes left. The Drive for Five was at stake. Marcio Lassiter entered the game, and the vaunted Death Five was on the floor for San Miguel. Fajardo. Santos. Cabagnot. Ross. Lassiter. The five core players that Coach Leo Austria built his team around, together at that moment to defend their crown.

Was this going to be it? The End of an Era? Or could this supposedly old group of players pull off another trick up their sleeve?

“They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us”

The more they win, the more they gained fans. At the same time, as their success grew, so did the amount of haters. People see what they want to see and choose to see. Since when did San Miguel Beer get this much hate? Nobody even knows the exact timeframe. What’s evident is, every time they started winning games, people also started to discredit those wins.

Puro superstar lang naman kasi.

Photo Credit: ESPN5

The most common comment of the casual fan. Back in the Petronovela days half a decade ago, they were always known as a powerhouse team who failed to get championships. Since they started winning championships, people started to discredit their rings and began to ride with the narrative that they only won because of star power.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day”, as they say. People act like every so-called “superstar” in the SMB roster were just plugged into a machine and this robot called San Miguel started winning. But let me entertain you with this thought: Were they really superstars or did people just start calling them that when they started winning?

Not too long ago, people identified Chris Ross as an erratic guard who couldn’t shoot. Then he improved his shooting, learning when and when not to shoot. He played with the role that was given to him, which is to run the offense of the team. Who in their right minds would have thought he would get a Best Player of the Conference award, Defensive Player of the Year, a Finals MVP, then proceed to lead the league in three-point shooting percentage?

After he got traded to Globalport, people thought Alex Cabagnot was on the way down with no hopes of getting another ring. Right after the trade deadline during the 2015 Philippine Cup, he went back to the Beermen just in time for the playoffs. Suddenly the narrative shifted. Crunchman. Big shot Cabagnot. Clutch.

Marcio Lassiter, as assumed by many, had a “reduced” role of being just a catch and shoot player. He was the odd man out of this vaunted Death Five. During the 2017 season, this was especially evident as his four other teammates made it to the Mythical First Team. Marcio failed to even make the second team. Despite that, he continued to be a silent assassin. Only a few people noticed but he embraced the role that he had for the team. He’s one of the most unselfish players, and arguably the best 2-way player in the league when healthy while casually dropping 20 or 30 points on you in some nights.

Arwind Santos is one of the most hated PBA players, especially in social media. After his MVP in 2013, people thought he was on the decline. He was getting old. Things wouldn’t be the same anymore. Yet here we are with Arwind cementing himself as arguably the ultimate stretch 4 in the PBA. His blend of rebounding, three-point shooting, and defense is unheard of. Also, if you didn’t know, he’s pretty damn clutch as well.

June Mar Fajardo, despite arguably being the most humble athlete we’ve ever seen, still has critics who say that he’s just big. “Hanggang PBA lang naman yan eh!” has been shouted as often as “Laban Pilipinas!” during FIBA tournament season. But sneakily, the Kraken has gotten better. MVPs continue to pile up. He learns new tricks every day. Even scarier: he’s just entering his prime years as an athlete.

Let’s go back to that thought I asked earlier. Were they really superstars or did people just start calling them that when they started winning? All of them have talent, but in terms of calling someone a superstar, it’s only June Mar who looks clear cut. He’s clearly the anchor and franchise player of the team. But it must be remembered that he would never be a five-time MVP if it weren’t for his teammates either. It’s never failed. Every time he gets an award, he always calls for his teammates to join him on stage. It’s things like those which show this team is filled with unselfishness. One’s success is everyone’s gain. Call them the Death Five. But those five became who they are because they embraced their roles while becoming elite at their jobs. All of that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the guidance of one man.

Kaya lang naman nagcchampion yan kasi malakas yung players.

Photo Credit: PBA Images

Coach Leo Austria, even after winning his 7th Championship, still has a lot of doubters. You can’t blame them though, it’s true that the team has talent. But what many people don’t realize is how hard it is to prevent talent to bang heads with each other so they can work as a unit. Loaded teams with talent don’t always result to success. Talent matters. But to win and execute as a unit is another topic altogether.

Limang player lang alam niyan.

Walo lang ginagamit buong laro.

It’s funny how people have a lot to say whenever they lose but you won’t hear any doubters when they win. The short rotations are only on the spotlight just because of the talent that they have and in the playoffs if they lose. Every championship coach shortens their rotation when it’s winning time. Even coach Chito Victolero shortened his rotations compared to the eliminations and earlier rounds. Even multiple championship coaches, Tim Cone and Norman Black have done that. You can even take a look at the NBA with Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and Phil Jackson doing that. It’s only natural that you live and die with your best players available and stick to what has proven to give you championships before. Question them all you want, but you can’t argue that it gave them multiple championships. You can’t argue against winning.

Allow me to get sentimental for a minute. As a family, we’ve lived with the load of championship expectations. Every night papa spends time writing down practice and game plans for the upcoming opponent. He would still go to the venue alone just to scout the opponents. Others can think, “Puwede naman manood na lang siya sa TV!” But he chooses to watch the games live.

Photo courtesy of author

Film work is also time-consuming. People think the life of a coach is so easy. Coach your players, get money, go to games, get more money. But that isn’t the case. After every game, he would review the tapes after getting home. It’s much harder during the playoffs because of a tight schedule where the games are usually every other day. Sometimes he’d get home midnight, and finish about 2am or 3am, with little sleep, while having to go to their 10 am practice. After practice, he’ll get home in the afternoon to nap. Afterward, rinse and repeat. If there’s wear and tear in an athlete’s body, there is also for the coaches. And it’s much harder when it’s the mental and emotional part of wear and tear. Papa is one of the most hardworking and dedicated people you’d ever meet. However, he doesn’t see it as work because it has been his passion ever since. It doesn’t feel like work at all.  That’s what keeps him going.

And we find ourselves here. Five minutes left into Game 7, and the Death Five on the floor for San Miguel. You have to play the best set of cards that was dealt to you, and Coach Leo went to his proven cards once more. This was the same group of guys who won their 1st AFC back in 2015. The one who came back from 0-3 in 2016 and the group that won a Perpetual Trophy as well as a Four-Peat. Arguably the best starting five in PBA History.

The way the score switched from one point lead to a one-point deficit for numerous times, you could see that everybody wanted it and both teams deserved the win. But there’s something in this unit, the Death Five that doesn’t even need detailed instructions. “You can bring the horse to the river, but you can’t force it to drink.” They already knew what to do, where the ball will go, and each and everyone’s tendencies, after all the years of being together. Was it talent? Was it individual superstars joining forces? No. It was their championship composure, the experience, the camaraderie, that’s what prevailed. They finished their business and went on to win their 5th straight Philippine Cup title.

All of the doubt and the hate fueled them to outlast Magnolia in Game 7 for their 5th straight AFC Title. Only a few people may have realized, but every one of them knew what the doubters were saying in social media. The more they see some doubt, the more they get motivated. You hate how Ross plays and complains to the officials? Fans see it as passion and grit. Haters say Alex is selfish and a ball hog, but fans love how he wants to take and make the big shots. You call Arwind “hambog” and “bagyo”, and can only hate on his “spiderman dunk.” But you’ll definitely love him if he plays for your favorite team. You call their system “boring” and “predictable” just because they always go to June Mar, but fans love how the coach simplifies the game and sticks to what is proven to win championships. Hate them or love them all you want, but they are hated and loved for the exact same reasons. It’s just a matter of perspective.

“Samahang Walang Katulad”

It makes us wonder, how do they even keep up this kind of consistency in winning championships and always contending for titles. It’s more than just talent. It’s attitude, and how the players, coaches, and staff value the team as a family that keeps this winning tradition. Over the years, each player from the Death Five have mentioned in numerous interviews that they don’t let their heads get into their winning habits.

Walang inggitan dito. Iba ang samahan. There is no room for selfishness, everyone just has one goal and that is to win.

We can safely assume, that even if SMB is still winning in the present, they are also already preparing for the future. Everybody knows that nothing can stay at the top forever. What’s evident in this San Miguel franchise is, they don’t rebuild, they reload. They know it’s much harder to stay at the top than just trying to win one. Aside from the Death Five, they have their 2nd stringers over the past two seasons. They have young quality players in Terrence Romeo, Christian Standhardinger, Von Pessumal, and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser; each and everyone of them, are either at their mid to late 20’s. They are quite “new” in terms of their years with the Beermen, but this is where the “samahan” gets tons of credit. Every veteran accepted and welcomed the newcomers and took them under their wings.

Even Terrence Romeo, who many people labeled as “selfish” a “cancer” or “malas” and bounced around teams, won his 1st championship in just his 1st conference with SMB. You can even see a change in attitude and how he’s enjoying shooting contests with teammates in social media; stuff that you didn’t see in him before. He felt really welcome with the team, and that’s how a winning culture changes you. Without a doubt, he’s been learning from the winning habits of his brothers in SMB and it won’t be stopping anytime soon. It’s safe to assume, he’s happy here and he’d rather win championships than win scoring titles. That’s maturity.

Everybody in the Death Five are above 30’s except for June Mar. Alex and Arwind are at 36 and 37 years old respectively. We can’t ever lie, these players aren’t getting any younger, and Father Time will always be undefeated. That’s why they are making the most out of it, while they are still effective and can still play at a high level before the fire burns out. Everyone is wondering how SMB will transition from the Death Five era to their new age and how the younger core guys will blossom in the future. Only time will tell. People can’t help but ask “When will this run end?” But as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones said, “Not today!”

Photo Credit: PBA Images

Post Script: 

To Papa, 

My idol since day 1! If only people knew all the hard times you’ve been through and all the sacrifices you’ve made. God has guided you to where you are right now. No matter how many people try to discredit you, REAL ONES KNOW the journey you’ve gone through. You can’t cheat the grind. It knows how much you’ve sacrificed and invested. It won’t give you anything you haven’t worked hard for. You deserve all the blessings. You earned it. You taught me how to always be thankful for each and every blessing. Taught me how to always stay humble. You taught me how to play basketball, not knowing I fell in love with the process, and learning each and every value can be applied in life. One of the most hardworking yet humble people I know. The level of success is usually predetermined by the level of effort and attitude. Great Father, Great Husband, Great Coach, Great Role Model. What more could I ask? Never change, please. I will always be grateful and proud of you, Papa! I love you!