In the Philippines, if you ask around basketball fans who their favorite PBA team is, chances are half of them would answer Alaska, TNT, or San Miguel. The other half? They’d confidently tell you, “Ginebra Ako!”. It has long been a long-standing tradition and fact in the country that Ginebra is the most popular basketball team.
Now ask them again WHY they are a Ginebra fan. Some would probably say that it runs in the family. Others may say that because it’s the most popular team so might as well ride the wagon. But for many, it boils down to three words— Never. Say. Die.
But what is Never Say Die? It is a battle cry that pushes us to never give up despite the overwhelming odds. A mantra that inspires us to continue fighting until the battle is over. Simply put, NSD is a battle cry for the underdogs; those who are willing to go through insurmountable hurdles in order to succeed. That is why Never Say Die is quick to capture the hearts of many hoops fans. Filipinos love underdog stories.
For many, watching Ginebra meant constantly watching underdog.
Believe it or not, Ginebra was a winning franchise in the 2000s. In ’04-’05, they won an uncanny back-to-back championships in a two-conference format season. In ’07, they won another Philippine Cup title against SMB.
As a Ginebra fan at the time, they didn’t feel like underdogs. Ginebra was very much a powerhouse. They were winning multiple championships and were composed of three MVPs in Caguioa, Helterbrand, and Eric Menk.
At the start of the 2008 Fiesta Conference, things quickly went south for the Gin Kings. They started the conference with a record of 0-5. In those five games, Ginebra already had two imports who could not mesh with the team. Hopes for a quest for another title became bleak for the Kings. Many considered this to be a period when the PBA was at its most competitive with teams equally balanced in terms of firepower and talent.
The odds were stacked against them. Going winless after playing nearly half of their games put them in a desperate hole. If they wanted to keep their championship bid alive, they would have to win all their remaining games while hoping for a few key losses from lower-ranked teams, a Herculean task; one that would have seen lesser teams just roll over and die. But this was Ginebra. They Never Say Die.
Ginebra acquired the services of Chris Alexander and the team was given a jolt of life. Alongside the stellar play of Jayjay Helterbrand, Alexander led Ginebra to finish the regular season on a six-game winning streak, allowing them to buck off the terrible start and barely make the playoffs.
In the playoffs, they steamrolled through the Sta. Lucia Realtors in the quarterfinals and swept the Red Bull Barako in the semis to enter the Finals. Alexander was named the Best Import of the Conference while Helterbrand was awarded the Best Player of the Conference.
Their finals matchup was against the top-seeded Air21 Express. While Ginebra was hitting its stride as a team, the Express presented a mighty challenge for the Gin Kings.
Air21 was composed of three Hall of Fame-caliber players. They had 2013 PBA MVP Arwind Santos, Gilas Pilipinas hero Ranidel De Ocampo and El Granada Gary David. While the three of them were still not at the peak of their careers, their pure basketball talent could not be denied.
Their foreign reinforcement was Steve Thomas, a 6-foot-8 bruiser who commanded the paint like an angry general always ready to go to war. Their roster was as deep as it got with savvy veterans such as Wynne Arboleda, Egay Billiones, and young upstarts in KG Cañaleta, JC Intal, and Gabby Espinas.
Heading into the Finals, most considered the Gin Kings as the favorites to win the title. After all, the Express were neophytes at this big of a stage. But as the series progressed, the tides shifted.
In Game 2, Helterbrand hurt his hamstring and was deemed out for the rest of the series. Caguioa (knee tendonitis) and Junthy Valenzuela (knee), the team’s primary shot creators at the guard position, and Paul Artadi (hamstring) were all injured throughout the series.
This left Ginebra with Menk as the only local capable of creating his own shot and a bunch of role players in Ronald Tubid, Sunday Salvacion, Alex Crisano, Rafi Reavis, and Chris Pacana as part of the rotation of head coach Jong Uichico.
From that point on, I, an avid Ginebra fan, had lost all hope for Ginebra. Their two best local players were injured, one was even out for the series. And the team was facing the daunting task of beating a very talented Air21 team that was finding its groove at the right time.
Over the course of the series, Ginebra found unusual heroes with the likes of Pacana and Crisano who suddenly blossomed. Tubid and Menk stepped up big time and were able to hold the fort for the locals. The injured trio of Caguioa, Valenzuela, and Artadi all bit the bullet and played through pain.
Everything, however, was anchored by Alexander. In Game 6, with the Gin Kings down 3-2 in the series, he led the team to a furious comeback win after being down by double digits in the fourth quarter and finished with 37 points and 24 rebounds to force a pivotal Game 7.
With the team literally limping its way to a championship, it all just came down to what every underdog relies on in these types of situations: grit and heart. It was perfectly Ginebra: Never Say Die.
I could still remember how nervous I was heading into Game 7. It was surreal because as a 12-year-old kid, it was the very first time that I was able to witness a do-or-die game in a championship series.
I was nervous because I was very pessimistic about the odds of Ginebra to win that game. After all, Caguioa, Valenzuela, and Artadi all just willed their body into playing despite their injuries. How much more can their body take? Chris Alexander literally had to carry the whole team in Game 6 just to escape with a win. What if he couldn’t deliver the same type of performance to bail out Ginebra one more time?
But what ensued in Game 7 was nothing short of an unforgettable experience as a young Ginebra fan. The surreal feeling was turned into a magical bliss as it was everything a do-or-die game should be. Both teams exchanged huge runs and fought tooth and nail.
The pessimist in me transformed into an absolute fanatic, silently shouting “GI-NE-BRA!” as my favorite team, against all odds, captured the title.
Sure, as many of us look back on the best underdog moments in basketball, perhaps, this would have been dead last or not even on anyone’s list. After all, this is not the most dramatic of all underdog stories.
But as I look back on this moment all I remember was how Caguioa grabbed crucial rebounds with a banged-up knee; how Artadi pressed every guard in Air21 full-court despite a tight hamstring; how Tubid became a co-Finals MVP showing that he is “the Fearless” for a reason; how “Major Pain” Eric Menk went on a post-up clinic in the 3rd quarter; how coach Jong raised his hands as time was winding down in pure jubilation and relief knowing how tough their journey was; and how Ginebra, rallied by a bunch of role players, was able to win a championship despite all the injuries against a formidable team.
They could have called it quits when they started the season 0-5.
They could have called it quits when Helterbrand went down in Game 1.
They could have called it quits when they were down double-digits in the last quarter of Game 6. Three times when they could have given up. But they didn’t.
That’s what underdog teams do. They fight and claw their way to victory. And amidst deadly adversity, they never backed down and chose to Never Say Die.