EVEN THOUGH THE TWO TEAMS have met in the PBA finals just twice in the last 25 seasons, and playoff encounters between them have been few and far between, the Ginebra-Purefoods rivalry has remained the most heated in the league. It has been one of Philippine sports’ most underrated phenomena, because media has rarely hyped up the matchup through the years. But there’s something special every time Ginebra and Purefoods play each other.
The large fanbases of the the two teams help. Ginebra is, of course, the league’s crowd darling, with its popularity stemming from the legend of Robert Jaworski, whose torch has been passed through the years to Gin Kings superstar Mark Caguioa. When it comes to fans, Purefoods is no slouch either; the franchise’s signature star, Alvin Patrimonio, remains the face of the team, and his quiet charisma has rubbed off on B-MEG franchise player James Yap.
But if the rivalry were just about a popularity contest between the two teams, it wouldn’t have endured for so long. When the two teams play each other, the fans seem to put a little more into it: their cheers are a little louder, their steps to the arena much quicker, the electricity in the air more palpable.
The Ginebra-Purefoods rivalry has been the Manila equivalent of the Clasico: It speaks to the relationship of their fans to the two teams, who are mere avatars for how they want to see themselves — their values, their priorities, their essence. To understand the rivalry, one has to understand first the unique relationship of the Filipino fan to the game of basketball.
SINCE HE LEFT THE PBA in 1998, Robert Jaworski has been canonized for his contributions to the sport. It is well-deserved, given the impact of his playing career on the sport closest the the hearts of Filipinos.On the court, he was perpetually unafraid to barrel against bigger men in the lane, on many occasions seemingly willing his team to victory with his huge fighting heart. Off the court, his demeanor toward his fans might be even more remarkable. He was known to always give the time of day to any of his supporters, signing autographs till his hand hurt, smiling and posing for hundreds of pictures, and even joking around with them. It is no accident that Jaworski is the most popular player in PBA history; long before he became an actual politician, he was shaking hands and kissing babies already.
Jaworski’s post-playing career has been a lovefest. For fans today, whether or not they are for Ginebra, Jaworski has been some sort of a revered statesman for the game, never mind his record as a senator of the republic.
It wasn’t always this way. When Jaworski was at the helm of Ginebra, he was easily the most polarizing player in the league. While millions of people worshipped him as a basketball god, just as many people hated him because of his and his team’s dirty play. While he was a hero for others, for them, he was a thug.
When Purefoods entered the PBA in 1988, the Hotdogs were natural foils for Ginebra. Purefoods had bought the Tanduay franchise, whose best player Ramon Fernandez, had a long history with Jaworski. The two were teammates for the old Toyota franchise who had since had a falling out, and their cold war cast a shadow on the whole league.But that served as just a starting point for the enmity. Purefoods was trotting out a talented bunch of rookies led by Jojo Lastimosa, Jerry Codiñera, and later, Alvin Patrimonio. Suddenly, all the Jaworski haters now had a group of talented, fresh-faced, young players, for whom they could cheer against the “evil” Ginebra. In 1988, thousands of fathers across the country would sit across the television at dinnertime lecturing their children about Jaworski’s and his goons, and holding up Patrimonio, Lastimosa, and Codiñera as a sort of holy trinity. For those children, it was their first real-world exposure to good and evil; Ginebra versus Purefoods wasn’t just a basketball game, it was a morality play.
THE STORY WAS DIFFERENT on the other side of the fence. Purefoods was positioned as the league’s glamour team, in stark contrast to Ginebra’s darling of the masses. It was a literal battle between the masa and the sosyal.
In 1988, the PBA meant a little more to Filipinos. For most fans, it was their only escape; the economy was in the tank, and quality of life had been steadily worsening over the past two decades. The basketball arena was the one place they could let out all the pent up anger they had, and for the typical masa fan, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the sosyal get their comeuppance — if only on the basketball court. For them, every Ginebra victory over Purefoods went beyond just a victory over another PBA team. It was a small measure of revenge for every injustice they’ve had to face in their life.
The way Purefoods played, and the way they carried themselves on the floor, only fed fuel to the fire. For Ginebra fans, Lastimosa was a bratty punk who needed to be taught a lesson by Jaworski and company. Alvin Patrimonio was an overpaid whiner who argued with referees like a crybaby every time he didn’t get a call. Ginebra fans perceived a sense of entitlement from these Purefoods players, and it stuck at their craw.
Jaworski and Ginebra, after all, won with ragtag teams of castoffs; what were these pretty boys crying about?
IN 2008, THE SOCIAL WEATHER STATIONS released the results of survey for the most popular teams in the PBA. Surprisingly, they said that Ginebra and Purefoods were tied as the most popular teams in the league. Ginebra remained king in NCR and Luzon, but Purefoods ruled the Visayas and Mindanao.
On its face, the survey made sense. Three of the most popular Purefoods players, James Yap, Roger Yap, and Peter June Simon, trace their roots to the south, which could have contributed to the team’s following. Ginebra wasn’t as well represented.
The reaction from the Ginebra faithful about the survey was fast and furious. Fans wrote letters and text messages to sports columnists and called in to sports radio programs to argue that Ginebra was still No. 1. The arguments were often passionate, a tribute to the typical kabaranggay.
One has to wonder, though, whether the resentment about the survey is merely about not being solo at the top. Perhaps some Ginebra fans could live with the idea that their team could share top billing with another franchise. But sharing it with Purefoods, of all teams? It’s a fate worse than death.
NOT COINCIDENTALLY, THE TWO most popular players in the league today double as the franchise players of Ginebra and Purefoods. The Mark Caguioa-James Yap matchup adds a little extra thrill to the Ginebra-Purefoods matchup because they play the same position.
The two are also polar opposites in their demeanor: Caguioa is brash and emotional, while Yap is quiet and icy. The paths they took to the PBA also couldn’t be more different. The Filipino-American Caguioa was a virtual unknown when he was drafted by Ginebra in 2001, when he burst on to the scene to win the Rookie of the Year award. Yap, on the other hand, was a basketball star long before he first played in the PBA, winning the Junior PBL Most Valuable Player award as a high-schooler and having a decorated local college career.
Caguioa and Yap have also been lightning rods for hatred for fans of the opposing team. No other group are as quick as Ginebra fans to question Yap’s two MVP awards (Caguioa has none), dismissing him as a player overrated because of his showbiz connections. Purefoods fans, on the other hand, are still waiting for Caguioa to come through on his boast back in the 2006 to streak naked if Ginebra didn’t win the Philippine Cup championship, which Purefoods did.
TODAY, THE RIVALRY LIVES ON, fueled by stars like Yap and Caguioa. The fanbases of the two teams have changed over the years , becoming more homogeneous. There are many sosyal Ginebra fans just as there are many masa Purefoods fans.
But fandom here is less about what people really are, but how they seem themselves to be. The PBA may be different to a Filipino in 2012 as it was in 1988, but the essence is the same. Which is why the Ginebra-Purefoods rivalry endures to this day.
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