FROM BEHIND THE PETRON BLAZE BOOSTERS BENCH, guard Joseph Yeo battles his frustrations when cheering his embattled teammates on.
“Syempre nakakinis,” he shares. “First time ko na-sideline sa buong buhay ko from elementary. Nakakainggit, lalo na ngayon na finals.”
Yeo has been hobbled by plantar fasciitis, a common foot injury, since an elimination round out-of-town game against the Rain or Shine Elastopainters.
The high-flying guard known as “the Ninja” is just one member of the Boosters’ star-studded injury list. Heading into the finals, few teams gave Petron Blaze a chance, as they were missing Yeo, Jay Washington, Lordy Tugade, and Rabeh Al-Hussaini.
The conference has been full of ups and downs for the Boosters. Apart from the injuries, there was also the revolving door of imports.
“May isang time pumasok kami, hindi pa namin kilala yung import. Nagpakita na lang siya sa dugout.” That was import Jeremy Wise, who dropped 33 points alongside six rebounds and six assists against the Air21 Express that night. Wise would average 21.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.4 steals in five games before succumbing to the injury bug himself.
“Sa amin, sa totoo lang, nothing to lose eh,” he added. “Management nga, hindi kami in-expect pumasok sa Finals.”
Truth is, very few people did. Though Petron Blaze, then named the San Miguel Beermen, made it to the finals in the Philippine Cup, the franchise had done a complete 180 just a few months past.
IN MARCH, THE BEERMEN COMPLETED A TRADE that sent longtime franchise star Danny Seigle, veteran SMART-Gilas reinforcement Dondon Hontiveros, big man Dorian Pena and Paul Artadi to the Air 21 Express for the top three picks in the previous draft. Surprise top pick Nonoy Baclao, Rabeh Al-Hussaini and Rey Guevarra were all traded to San Miguel to infuse some youth in what was an aging roster that was seeing its window for a title get smaller as time went by.
The initial results were a disaster.
The Beermen stumbled to a 2-7 record and lost the quotient tiebreak to the Powerade Tigers to finish dead-last in the standings. Al-Hussaini, who was thought to be a shoo-in for the first pick in the draft, was the supposed prize in the blockbuster deal and became an easy target for disgruntled fans to blame.
“Lahat naman yun ang sinasabi, diba,” said Al-Hussaini of whether he felt responsible for the team’s performance. “Yun lang,” he would add, refusing to say anything more about the obvious sore topic.
Yeo feels that it wasn’t his teammate Rabeh that was the problem but everybody else, including himself.
“Down talaga yung team after the trade went down,” Yeo shared. “Feeling nung players walang security. Anytime pala kahit gaano ka kagaling, or gaano ka katagal, you could get traded.” That fear got players playing for themselves and not for each other.
“Everyone,” said Yeo. “Pinoprotektahan sarili nila.”
Al-Hussaini actually played well enough to win Rookie of the Year at the Leo Awards held before Game 4 of this title series. And with him playing for most of the conference, he helped lead the team to within one win of the PBA Finals before suffering the basketball player’s worst nightmare: the dreaded ACL injury.
“B-MEG game, semifinals,” recalled Al-Hussaini.
The Boosters would win that game, despite Al-Hussaini being limited to four points and three rebounds in just 12 minutes before the injury. That game set up one of the controversial moments of the conference.
WITH A COMPLICATED SYSTEM for a six-team semifinal that carried over elimination round records, three teams found itself with a chance to challenge the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, who had earlier claimed the first finals slot, depending on how the games on the final day went.
Petron Blaze and Talk ‘N Text were scheduled to play first, followed by the Brgy Ginebra Gin Kings and Rain or Shine. A Petron Blaze win, considered by many to be highly unlikely because of all the redshirting, would eliminate a healthy Ginebra squad that many thought to be the toughest potential opponent for Talk ‘N Text. The idle Alaska Aces, meanwhile, were hoping for losses to both squads for them to go through.
In a game where the key Talk ‘N Text players were given the night off in the second half, the Boosters took the win and advanced to the best-of-seven series against the same team they just defeated.
Unhappy Ginebra fans, though, took the Internet to accuse the Texters of dishonorably taking a dive. It’s a sentiment now shared by more than a few people, the belief that Petron Blaze was handpicked by their rivals.
Yeo believes it as well.
“Ako alam ko eh,” said Yeo. “May tulog sila doon sa Ginebra kasi.”
THAT LITTLE WRINKLE ADDED a new layer to what was already a burgeoning rivalry between the two franchises. When they met in the first conference, injured Boosters forward Jay Washington, who is in the US as he has been declared out for the series, had strong words to say about the team he had started his career with.
“I’ve been waiting quite some time to meet Talk ‘N Text in the finals,” Washington was earlier quoted. “I still kind of hold animosity towards them.”
“Malaki talaga pag kalaban ang Talk ‘N Text,” said Yeo. “Meron talagang rivalry. Hindi lang sa basketball, diba, yung MVP group tsaka San Miguel group. Tapos kami pa yung former San Miguel, yung first priority na team.”
Yeo follows the series closely and joins the team whenever he can. “Tingin ko entertaining yung series para sa mga fans,” he said. “Yung physicality, wala naman yun basta wala naman talagang masaktan or wala namang intention.”
“Dapat nga ganoon yung PBA ngayon eh,” added Yeo. “Hindi yung konting ano, flagrant kaagad.”
Yeo attends the practices, even if he’s forced to sit on the sidelines and watch. Al-Hussaini, meanwhile, takes a different approach. “Siyempre, nakakinggit panoorin,” said Al-Hussaini. “Pero hindi ko na iniisip yun. Kasi pag inisip ko pa, baka maka-hinder pa sa recovery ko.”
The rookie big man feels that getting back on the floor as soon as possible is the best way to help the team. “Hindi ako focused sa nangyayari sa kanila,” said Al-Hussaini. “Kasi iniisip ko kung ano gagawin ko sa sarili ko.”
Both players have confidence in their teammates, even if they are short-handed in these finals. “Sa tingin ko kung kumpleto kami hindi pa kami umabot ng finals,” said Yeo. “Kung kumpleto, hindi magiging ganoon laro ni Arwind [Santos], o laro ni Danny [Ildefonso] o laro ni Sunday [Salvacion].”
“Sabi nga ni Coach Ato [Agustin], lima-lima lang naglalaro. Tapos lamang pa kami sa import.”
Mikkel Bolante is a staff writer for InterAKTV. He runs the basketball blog Patay ang Butiki.
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