Christmas in the PBA

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by Henry L. Liao

Johnny Abarrientos: From Alaska to Coca-Cola.
Johnny Abarrientos: From Alaska to Coca-Cola.

Another exciting Yuletide treat is in store for fully-vaccinated Filipino hoop fans when the Philippine Basketball Association schedules Christmas Day games for the first time in four years and 15th time overall.

A doubleheader at the Smart Araneta Coliseum it will be on December 25 – the first holiday games since a twinbill in 2017. In elimination-round games in the imports-laced Governors’ Cup (second conference), NLEX (4-0) takes on Phoenix Super LPG (2-2) in the appetizer at 4 p.m. and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel (3-0) battles Magnolia Pambansang Manok (2-0) in another so-called “Manila Clasico” showdown at 6:45 p.m.

If my memory serves me right, these will the 25th and 26th Christmas Day games in PBA annals.

Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and Magnolia have faced each other on Christmas on numerous occasions in the past.

Jeffrey Cariaso
Jeffrey Cariaso

The teams slugged it out for the first time in 2015, with the Gin Kings beating the Purefoods Star Hotshots (as the Magnolia club was known at the time), 92-89, before 21,808 fans watching the playoff game at the Mall of Asia Arena (then a MOA record crowd). Down by as much as 18 points in the fourth frame, Ginebra engineered a furious rally that forced a five-minute extension. LA Tenorio buried a buzzer-beating trifecta to hand the Gin Kings’ an improbable 92-89 win.

The last time the two franchises battled each other on Christmas Day was in 2017 with Ginebra trouncing Magnolia, 89-78, at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan.

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The first-ever Christmas game in Asia’s first pro league came in 2002. The game featured the Coca-Cola Tigers vs. the Alaska Aces in the series-deciding Game Four of the best-of-five Finals in the All-Filipino (Philippine) Cup, which was the third and last of a three-conference dish.

From 1993-2001, the All-Filipino Cup came in the first but it was reformatted that year – Governors Cup became the initial conference and the Commissioner’s Cup was the second – to accommodate the participation of its players for the forthcoming 2002 Asian Games (September 29-October 14) in Busan, South Korea.

The PH candidates’ pool was divided into two teams – Selecta-PH and Hapee-PH – for the Governors Cup before they were merged to form the final composition of the Philippine national team, known as Selecta-PH – for the Commissioner’s Cup.

Rudy Hatfield: 2002 PBA All- Filipino Cup Finals MVP.
Rudy Hatfield: 2002 PBA All- Filipino Cup Finals MVP.

And so the league took a prolonged sabbatical to give way for the Nats’ appearance in the Busan Asiad (sadly, our boys settled for fourth place, losing to Kazakhstan in the bronze-medal encounter after a sorry one-point loss to eventual gold medalist and host Koreans in the semifinals following a game-beating triple by an SK player).

The PBA’s 28th season commenced on February 10, 2002 and joyfully concluded on December 25 in what was the dubbed as the longest season in PBA history (at least in non-pandemic times).

On Christmas Day, Coca-Cola (which prior to the season became the fourth San Miguel Corporation-owned franchise) and Alaska faced each other in the fourth games of the best-of-five All-Filipino championship series.

It was Chot Reyes, the Tigers’ news head coach, vs. the cerebral veteran Tim Cone, the Aces’ bench strategist that Reyes once worked for as his assistant with the Uytengsu-owned club.

It was a Finals that was closer than the final outcome indicated.

The Tigers made history by becoming the first local team ever to capture a conference crown in its maiden season (excluding Season One in 1975) with a 3-1 decision over the Aces.

The first three games were decided by three points or less. Alaska grabbed the series opener, 70-67, on December 18. Coca-Cola evened the count at 1-1 with a 72-69 overtime verdict and surged ahead, 2-1, with heart-stopping 62-60 win in another five-minute extension.

Jeffrey Cariaso plucks down a rebound as Tigers mate Rudy Hatfield looks on.
Jeffrey Cariaso plucks down a rebound as Tigers mate Rudy Hatfield looks on.

Then came Game Four on Christmas Day. Coca-Cola raced out of the gates and never let up. The Tigers, with ex-Alaska stars Johnny Abarrientos, Cris Bolado, Jeffrey Cariaso and Edward Juinio having switched sides, roared to a 59-47 advantage heading into the fourth quarter, thanks to three triples from Rafi Reavis. In the final 12 minutes, Renato (Ato) Morano got hot and so did Rudy Hatfield, who finished with 20 points and was voted the Finals’ MVP.

It certainly was a Cinderella-like campaign for Coca-Cola, which wound up just third among the 10 participants in the elimination phase of the All-Filipino festivities at 6-3. Alaska was only fifth-seed at 5-4. The topnotchers like the Batang Red Bull Thunder (8-1) and the San Miguel Beermen (6-3) fell by the wayside during the six-team playoffs.

In the one-game quarterfinals, Alaska ousted fourth-seed Talk ‘N Text and Coca-Cola sent sixth-seeded Sta. Lucia home early. In the best-of-three semifinals, the Aces beat top-seeded Red Bull, 2-1, and the Tigers defeated second-seeded San Miguel by an identical score.

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Thanks to the numerous games (11 games, 10-1 record, only loss came in 2006 vs. Talk ‘N Text, 115-104) played by his team, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, on Christmas Day, Mark Caguioa, the only PBA player ever to secure the MVP hardware without his team reaching the finals in any of the three conferences during the 2011-12 season, owns the most Christmas points in league history with 122.

“The Ninja” Joseph Yeo is the only player ever to register a triple-double game on Christmas.

It was a Yuletide gift in the form of a PBA conference title for Chot Reyes and Coca-Cola on December 25, 2002.
It was a Yuletide gift in the form of a PBA conference title for Chot Reyes and Coca-Cola on December 25, 2002.
Henry Liao
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