It was June 3 at the Mall of Asia Arena. I felt like it would be a crossroads fight between two of the powerhouse teams in the league as the San Miguel Beermen faced Barangay Ginebra.
The defending champions held a record of 1-3, losing to Meralco, Rain or Shine, and Alaska before finally beating Phoenix in their last game. Ginebra, on the other end, was at 1-4. They lost to Rain or Shine, TNT, Phoenix, and Meralco with only a win against Blackwater to show for.
The two teams engaged in an instant classic that went into overtime. In the end Renaldo Balkman out-performed Justin Brownlee en route to a 104-97 victory that sent Ginebra near the cellar with a 1-5 record.
"My friend from the States texted me saying he'd come to Manila to visit. I was the best man at his wedding, he was the best man at my wedding and he asked if he could stay with me," said Ginebra head coach Tim Cone.
"I said sure because I thought I was going to have a lot of time. We were 1-5. For sure we're going to be eliminated or have an early exit so I'll have a lot of time."
The seasoned coach had a feeling that the conference simply was not for them. With the injuries they were dealing with and with Brownlee shooting poorly from the field in his first few games with the team, there was some doubt in his mind as to whether they could still bounce back from being at the bottom.
His players, though, convinced him to keep believing as they went on a five-game winning streak to close out the elimination round. With some help from the PBA quotient, they landed safely at the fifth spot and led them to a best-of-series against their nemesis Meralco.
Ginebra swept them in two games to arrange a big duel against Rain or Shine, the best team in the elimination round. The Kings also hurdled the tough Elasto Painters to earn the right to challenge the San Miguel Beermen.
Cone's promise to his friend had to be broken as he had a championship on his sights. "He came in just before Game 1 of the finals," Cone said about his friend. "I just was not able to spend the time with him that I wanted."
While his friend was enjoying the beaches of El Nido, Cone was in deep preparations to deal Leo Austria his first PBA Finals setback.
"Back then I didn't think we will be here. Who would've thought it could happen? From 1-5 to beating SMB in six games, who would've thought? I certainly didn't," said Cone.
The winningest coach in PBA history might not have seen it coming but at the half of Game 6, he was sure that's exactly where they were meant to be. Just like Game 5, Cone and the Kings made it a defensive struggle as the count was only at 38-35 in the Beermen's favor after the first 24 minutes.
Cone knew that one big rally could be enough to secure the win and the title.
It came in the third quarter for Ginebra as their defense clamped down on the Beermen, allowing only eight points in the period while they scored 27 on the other side.
"That's what happens when you get momentum. That's what happened in Games 1 to 4. The team that got momentum first, ran away with the game. When you get momentum and it's really hard to break."
"It's amazing that we can come back from a 1-5 start and be able to match up with San Miguel in the Finals," added Cone as he credited Greg Slaughter's ability to match-up with June Mar Fajardo, Justin Brownlee's brilliance offensively and defensively, and Finals MVP Scottie Thompson's energy for helping them secure the victory.