Gordon's Gin Boars: The last Ginebra team to win the PBA Commissioner's Cup

It's hard to believe that with all the success the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel squad enjoys now that they had not won a PBA Commissioner's Cup championship in 21 years.

The Philippine President then was cigar-toting Fidel V. Ramos, the PBA Commissioner was the late Jun Bernardino, Kobe Paras was born and Space Jam was the top flick. It was also the Draft class that had (for the first time in league history) the top two selections from abroad with Andy Seigle (the eventual Rookie of the Year) and present day PBA assistant coach Nic Belasco being picked by Mobiline and Pop Cola, respectively.

Yes, 1997.

An era was nearing its end as the franchise (renamed Gordon's Gin from its old Ginebra San Miguel incarnation) was slowly weeding out its old reliables to make way for a new wave of youngsters trying to maintain the winning tradition and popularity it hard garnered from its most iconic member, playing-coach Robert Jaworski.

Jaworski was rumoured to be on a short list of candidates to help beef up the new Nationalist People's Collation (NPC) senatorial ticket in the 1998 national elections and many felt that 1997 would be his last full season at the helm of the franchise he helped build since he transferred from the defunct Toyota Tamaraws in 1984.

The La Tondeña quintet went on to attain three PBA regular championships under Jaworski's tutelage but then went on a title drought after claiming the 1991 First Conference crown (thanks to the now famous Game 7 heroics of Rudy Distrito).

Five years would pass without a sliver of a chance of winning a championship and the once solid line-up composed of the likes of former Rookie of the Year Don-Don Ampalayo, rugged guard Leo Isaac, bruiser Dante Gonzalgo, versatile forward Rey Cuenco and future PBA 40 Greatest Players inductee Chito Loyzaga began waning against the stiffer competition in the league and it appeared that no amount of fan support seemed to help the team win anymore.

Ginebra began rebuilding and soon enough they began landing a handful of young talent such as De La Salle University's inside grinder (The Tank) Noli Locsin via the 1994 draft, Ateneo de Manila University hotshot Vince (The Prince) Hizon in a trade with Purefoods, University of Santo Tomas (UST) playmaker Bal David-who would later earn the moniker of "The Flash" precisely for his gifts-(who was drafted 22nd overall in 1995 but did not get signed by Swift), 7'1" project Edward Joseph Feihl also from the Growling Tigers and perhaps the biggest franchise-changer of the decade: 6'9" do-it-all pagoda Marlou Aquino from Adamson University.

The only remnant of that 1991 title squad was Jaworski.

With the young blood getting some help from a number of talented free agent veterans in "The Fireman" Pido Jarencio, (the late) Cris "Jumbo" Bolado (acquired in a trade with Purefoods for Feihl), Blue Eagles legend Jayvee Gayoso and blue-collar workers Benny Cheng, Wilmer Ong and 15-year veteran Terry Saldaña (Jaworski's former teammate at Toyota), Ginebra finally made it all the way to the Finals in 1996 Governors Cup.

However, destiny had a date with the Alaska Milkmen and young coach Tim Cone captured his first PBA Grand Slam-at the expense of the team he now coaches today.

In 1997, Ginebra transformed into the Gordon's Gin Boars and some of the most memorable and ill-famed instances in franchise history happened.

In the All-Filipino Conference (in a regular preliminary round game against sister team San Miguel Beer), David hit that half-court miracle heave to give the Boars an 83-81 nail-biter and that momentum also propelled them to their second straight Finals stint, but were eventually overpowered by eventual MVP Alvin Patrimonio and the Purefoods Corned Beef Cowboys in six games.

This was also the same conference when the Boars figured in a controversial moment against San Miguel when former MVP Allan Caidic collided with teammate Nelson Asaytono in a midair rebound play and the former landed head first on the Cuneta Astrodome floor. Following that incident, with Caidic still sprawled nearly motionless in a gut-wrenching scene, was the most misconstrued interpretation of a gesture from Jaworski who seemed to give the "death sign" (the movement of slitting the throat with his finger) after game officials did not immediately move his former national team ward off the court.

It was later discovered (through then PBA TV Director Abet Ramos upon investigating the raw audio) that Jaworski vehemently demanded that Caidic be brought to the hospital at once or he might die on the court because of the accident.

The initial "death sign" drew severe public criticism and to this day, there are still some aficionados who claim it meant something else. The Commissioner's Office did not take action on Jaworski's alleged "wrongdoing".

It was also starting to look good at the Commissioner's Cup (institutionalized in 1993 by then Commissioner Rey Marquez) when Gordon's Gin, behind the exploits of its hard-working reinforcement Tyrone Hopkins out of Central Oklahoma, went on a tear during the elimination round. Although undersized for the conference at 6'4" (listed as 6'6"), Hopkins carved a name for himself as no nonsense gung-ho rebounder who thrived in the open court. He also gained an accolade by teaming up with fellow Boar Mike Orquillas for the 1997 Slam Dunk title and looked to be the right man to lead the Boars to the top after being among the five teams to qualify for the double-round robin semifinal phase.

However, an undisclosed injury prompted management to replace Hopkins prior to the start of the semis and Gordon's Gin brought in Chris King, a 6'7" former second round pick by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1992 NBA Draft who had also had a meaningful stint with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1995-1996 season where he started 66 games for the young Canadian franchise.

King was anything but effective in his first few games in the semis as the Boars found itself dropping three of their first five games. After an emotional triumph against defending titlists Alaska, Gordon's Gin swept their remaining assignments to finish in a three way tie for the top spot.

After a quotient was applied to break the tie, the Milkmen were awarded an outright finals berth with Gordon's Gin left to contend the last slot against bitter rivals San Miguel Beer.

On August 24, 1997, the two titans met for one game that would determine who gets a chance to dethrone Alaska at the historic Cuneta Astrodome.

San Miguel had a plethora of talent surrounding its MVP candidate Asaytono with Caidic, the "Skywalker" Samboy Lim, 6'7" behemoth Dong Polistico and up-and-coming playmaker Olsen Racela as well as import Jeff Ward, a three-time NAIA All-American out of Tiffin University.

It would turn out to be a Ward vs. King showdown as both reinforcements hit the big shots and got the ample local support that the knockout match needed two overtime sessions to decide, with the Boars emerging victorious, 106-100.

After that game, all indications were that replacing Hopkins with King turned out to be the right decision after all. King, who was 28 at the time, blended well with the younger members of the squad and brought in a winning attitude that impressed, above all, Jaworski himself.

Gayoso, the fifth overall pick by Jaworski in the 1991 PBA Draft who now is a senior television analyst for the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL), still has vivid memories of that championship run-especially about the aforementioned Wake Forest University product.

"Chris King was not the best import that I ever got to play with, but he was the Best Import that blended great with the team," Gayoso recalls. "He was a quiet person, reserved. He kept to himself. Because of this, we had our own impressions of him-some negative becuase we assumed this and that rather than making the effort to know him. But come game time, Chris communicated both verbally and thru his performance. To rarely hear his voice then suddenly hearing him motivating us, inspiring us, encouraging us, (it) was awesome! We All Reacted positively to him."

The 6'2" UAAP icon who eventually dabbled into acting for film and television also remembers how management had placed the entire team on "house arrest" for the duration of the series to stay focused on the mission.

"We were on 'house arrest' at the Hyatt (Hotel Manila) and then later moved to (the) Manila Hotel," Gayoso recounts in the vernacular. "There were two of us per room and the brotherhood grew. On two or three occasions, we were treated to a Lauriat in Chinatown-the Chinese community gave us overwhelming support."

This time in quarters started making the Boars believe that it may be their turn to have that date with destiny.

In Game 1 of the Best-Of-Seven Finals, King put on a performance for the ages by registering a triple-double of 40 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists to set the tone with a 99-89 win over the Milkmen.

King would suffer a hamstring injury early in Game 2 but would still come up with the decisive three-point field goal in the dying seconds of the game after he received a desperation kick out pass from Aquino to nail a deep bomb to help give the Boars a 102-96 win. The hamstring issue would later be diagnosed as strained ligament and a partial tear of his left hamstring-one of the most painful and immobilizing muscle injuries there is.

Despite this, King played sparingly in Game 3. It would be the veterans who would pick up the pieces in his behalf as Saldaña (then 35 years old and coming off of multiple surgeries), outworked Ward and Polistico to grab a career-high 15 rebounds while Jarencio went off for a then Finals record of seven triples-including the go-ahead basket coupled with a King layup-having Gordon's Gin come from behind to score an 87-86 nipper. The Boars overall defense in the second half turned the tide and they took a commanding 3-0 (no team had ever come back from 3-0 down in the PBA during this time).

Games 4 and 5, however, saw national team campaigners Jojo Lastimosa and reigning MVP Johnny Abarrientos will the Milkmen back to life and with import Kevin Holland inhaling rebounds, Alaska forced a Game 6 this time with a full load of confidence.

But instead of Game 6 being a saga, it turned out to be a bonafide coronation.

Several Finals records were set on that September 7th playdate (besides the fact that it was the first time I closed a PBA conference as a radio broadcaster): lowest points scored in a quarter (Alaska: 5 points in the third quarter), biggest lead heading into the fourth quarter (Gordon's Gon 79-49 Alaska) and biggest crowd recorded for a Finals at the Cuneta Astrodome (over fifteen thousand SRO). King finished off his masterful stint with 24 points in the blowout while Aquino went on be crowned Finals MVP. He would eventually get christened as "The Skyscraper".

"I can't recall much after that," Gayoso interjects. "Because a week after winning, I was confined at the Makati Med (a renowned hospital) for a month."

The irony of it all was that it was indeed Jaworski's last full season as after winning a seat in the 1998 senate polls, the "Living Legend" decided to step down from the franchise following a now infamous dispute over personnel acquisition by the management and not long after that the young core started departing for elsewhere.

Hizon was the first to go as he accepted a huge offer from the Iloilo Megavoltz in the fledgling Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) in 1998. Locsin departed for Pop Cola in 1999 in a move that began his career as a journeyman. Aquino went on to be involved in the biggest trade in PBA history at the time when he swapped jerseys with Sta. Lucia's prized big-man Jun Limpot in 2000. The veterans also started disappearing with Saldaña hanging them up after the 1998 season, Jarencio rejoining his former UST teammate Alfrancis Chua (who would eventually be the a pivotal figure for the Ginebra franchise) at Tanduay in 1999 and the rest began falling into obscurity not long after the championship.

David stayed on the longest-until 2005-which means he was still around to mentor the budding duo of Jay-Jay Helterbrand and Mark Caguioa and be part of two more titles for the Barangay Ginebra Kings (2004 Fiesta Conference and the 2004-2005 Philippine Cup).

Now, the present day Barangay Ginebra San Miguel looks to take its first step into ending a 21-year dearth in a conference it had not even been in the Finals of since 2013 (when they were swept by the Alaska Aces).

And, like in August 24, 1997, they take on the Beermen-this time with armaments at a premium, a full seven game series and basketball having changed immensely over the more than two decades since Jaworski was lifted in celebration for the very last time.