AFTER LEADING THE Petron Blaze Boosters to the 2011 PBA Governors’ Cup title, Arwind Santos is finally getting recognition for a career that had somehow always seemed mired in runner-up finishes and consolation prizes.
Fittingly enough, the biggest victory of Santos’ career came against the man who seemingly was always one step ahead of him: Kelly Williams.
The relationship of the two players goes way back. Santos and Williams were teammates as semi-pros in 2005, playing for the Magnolia Ice Cream Wizards in the Philippine Basketball League.
The two joined the PBA at the same time, in 2006. Both were touted as possible first overall selections and future franchise players.
They had plenty of similarities. Both were athletic forwards who played hard-nosed defense, grabbed plenty of rebounds, and could hit three-pointers in a pinch. Santos, a two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player and three-time UAAP champion, was the most decorated local player in the draft. But the Filipino-American Williams, who was discovered in the US by coach Chot Reyes and recruited into Philippine national team, was seen as the prospect that no one could pass up.
The top pick that year was held by the Sta Lucia Realtors, a franchise that held true to a philosophy of employing only pure Filipino players. They had resisted the Fil-Am movement for years, and several observers thought that it would open the door for Santos to be selected before Williams.
Surprisingly, the Realtors went back on their long-standing philosophy and chose Williams, while Santos was selected second overall by the Air 21 Express.
Williams was No. 1. Santos was No. 2. It wouldn’t be the last time in their PBA careers that it would happen.
THE DECISION TO DRAFT Kelly Williams paid instant dividends for Sta. Lucia. The high-flying forward turned the Realtors into must-see TV with his athleticism, while stuffing the stat sheet with 17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks in his rookie season.
In the Philippine Cup, Williams and the Realtors came face to face against Santos and the Air 21 Express for a spot in the quarterfinals. Sta. Lucia came out on top in the first playoff duel between the two rivals; at the end of the season, Williams was named the Rookie of the Year.
Santos was, again, No. 2.
BY THEIR SECOND SEASON IN THE PBA, both Kelly Williams and Arwind Santos had already blossomed into full-fledged superstars. The 2007-08 Philippine Cup saw Santos and Williams finishing first and second, respectively, in statistical points. The Best Player of the Conference plum came down to a choice between the two men.
Despite trailing in stats, Williams edged Santos for the award. It was mostly due to the success of his team, which entered the finals and upset a powerhouse Purefoods squad in seven games to win the Philippine Cup. It was just the second title in Sta. Lucia franchise history, and the first in an all-Filipino conference.
Santos and Air 21, for their part, would find their own success the very next conference. Behind import Steve Thomas, the Express barged into the Fiesta Cup finals against Barangay Ginebra.
But the Express fell short in the deciding game 7 to finish as runners-up, which still remains the best result of an Air 21 team in franchise history.
At the end of the year, Williams and Santos found themselves the obvious choices for the league’s top honor, the MVP award.
Both players had all the qualifications of an MVP. Williams averaged 18.2 points (4th in the PBA), 10.2 rebounds (2nd), 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks. Santos put up similarly impressive numbers with 16.5 points (8th), 9.5 rebounds (4th), 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals (8th) and 1.4 blocks (2nd). Both enjoyed deep runs into the playoffs as well, helping their teams enter the PBA finals that year.
Williams again emerged victorious, taking home the MVP trophy after garnering 2,762 votes over Santos’ 1,775. Santos did not go home empty-handed though, as he was named Defensive Player of the Year.
But the title under his belt sealed the MVP win for Williams, who forged for himself a reputation as a warrior and a winner. Such was not the case for Santos, who failed to lead his team to a championship.
THE NEXT TWO YEARS saw major career developments for Kelly Williams and Arwind Santos. As has become the norm in the PBA, the two superstars who plied their trade for smaller franchises eventually moved to the big-money teams.
In 2009, Santos was traded by the Express to the San Miguel Beermen, the winningest franchise in PBA history. The Beermen were coming off the franchise’s 18th championship when they picked up Santos, essentially replacing key player Marc Pingris in the roster. In SMB, Santos was forced to share the load with several other stars like Jay Washington, Dondon Hontiveros, Danny Seigle and later, Alex Cabagnot and Rabeh Al-Hussaini.
Williams saw a major move of his own, as he was acquired, alongside teammate Ryan Reyes, by the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters shortly after he recovered from a bout with thrombocytopenia, a blood disorder that kept him sidelined for months. At Talk ‘N Text, Williams was joining a team full of stars with Jimmy Alapag, Ranidel De Ocampo, Harvey Carey, and Jason Castro.
Joining two of the most-talent laden teams meant that it was only a matter of time between Williams and Santos faced each other in the finals. And that encounter finally happened in the 2010-11 Philippine Cup.
The result was familiar. Williams took home another trophy, while Arwind Santos nursed another heartbreak.
FEW PEOPLE THOUGHT that Arwind Santos and his team, which had been renamed the Petron Blaze Boosters, would make it to the 2011 PBA Governors’ Cup Finals. After all, the team finished last in the previous conference, the Commissioner’s Cup, after a trade that saw the Beermen ship longtime ace Danny Seigle, Dondon Hontiveros, Dorian Peña and Paul Artadi for the first three picks of the 2011 PBA Draft, Al-Hussaini, Nonoy Baclao and Rey Guevarra.
Worse, the Boosters’ lineup was crippled by injuries, with Washington, Al-Hussaini, Joseph Yeo, and Lordy Tugade all missing a major chunk of the action.
But it was Santos’ superhuman effort that towed the Boosters to the finals, providing 17.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks.
And when the Petron Blaze Boosters entered the championship round, lined up on the other end was Kelly Williams and his Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, who were seeking a rare Grand Slam.
But for Santos, more than frustrating the Tropang Texters’ historic bid, it was another opportunity for redemption. A chance to exorcise all his demons.
BEFORE THAT, HOWEVER, there was more heartbreak for Santos, who had been favored to win the league’s MVP award after previously finishing second in the race twice. Santos was runner-up yet again, this time to Williams’ teammate Jimmy Alapag, who won the award thanks to overwhelming support from media voters.
In game 4, shortly after the MVP award was handed out, Santos played like a man on a mission. After averaging 14.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in the first three games, Santos upped his production to 18.8 points and 14.5 rebounds for the final four games of the series. His field goal and free throw percentages shot up significantly, from 37.8 percent to 52.6 percent and 57.1 percent to 90.9 percent, respectively. He also averaged 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks for the series.
In contrast, Williams averaged 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds for Talk ‘N Text — pedestrian numbers for a dominant player.
Santos dominated the series by being absolutely everywhere, chasing down loose balls, making jumpers, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds away from Williams and the rest of the Tropang Texters frontline. When the dust cleared, the Boosters had won the epic series, and Santos was named MVP of the finals. He finally got to take home not one, but two trophies.
It was just the first win for Santos in his storied rivalry with Williams. But taking away the Grand Slam from Williams and his team must have been particularly sweet for Santos.
Williams, after all, had been the Moby Dick to Arwind Santos’ Captain Ahab. Williams was the man Santos had to beat — or die trying — to finally find redemption.
And with Santos’ victory over his friend and rival, redemption is finally his.
Mikkel Bolante is a staff writer for InterAKTV. He runs the basketball blog Patay ang Butiki.