Ginebra's 40th: Looking back on the Gin Kings' journey in the PBA

The San Miguel Beermen may own the most number of PBA championships with 25 titles, but in terms of popularity, nothing comes close to their sister team, Barangay Ginebra.

The Kings are celebrating their 40th year in the pro league this year, and they have come a long way in reaching a popular status that has been the envy of other PBA teams.

The Ginebra franchise, which started in 1979 as Gilbey's Gin, has had its share of ups and downs during its first 40 years, but its popularity hardly waned with a new generation of fans still coming to the games live. And that's due to the fact that several generations of its players have managed to live up to the franchise's never-say-die spirit.

In today's digital age, where more and more people make social media a part of their daily lives, it's a common sight for Ginebra to trend on Twitter, hogging the conversation among PBA fans, especially when the team makes an all-too-familiar comeback from a huge deficit against an opponent.

Many other PBA teams in history have made their own successful comebacks, but there's just something in Ginebra's comeback efforts that have captured the hearts of its legion of fans for the last four decades.

The birth of NSD

The franchise started out as Gilbey's Gin and didn't win a title in its first five years. Known as the Gin Tonics, Gilbey's Gin's best efforts back then were a pair of runner-up finishes during the 1982 PBA Open Conference and the 1983 All-Filipino.

But all that changed when Robert Jaworski, Sr. joined the franchise.

Jaworski, along with long-time backcourt partner Francis Arnaiz, donned the Gilbey's Gin jersey in 1984 after nine fruitful years with Toyota. The Jaworski-Arnaiz partnership produced nine PBA championships during their Toyota playing days where they had numerous hardcourt battles with the legendary Crispa Redmanizers.

With Jaworski in tow, the fortunes of Gilbey's Gin, then coached by Turo Valenzona, turned almost overnight as evidenced by the team's finals appearance in the 1984 All-Filipino Conference where the Gin Tonics eventually bowed to Crispa, 4-1.

But that was just the beginning.

From Valenzona, the coaching reins was handed to Jaworski in 1985, becoming the pro league's first player-coach.

October 22, 1985 was a date Ginebra fans will always remember -- the day Jaworski courageously overcame a busted lip and came back into the game to give his team the much-needed emotional lift. His return in the second half, after receiving an inadvertent elbow from Jeff Moore, sparked Ginebra's rally from a huge deficit on the way to beating Northern Consolidated Cement (NCC).

For many, that day marked the birth of Ginebra's never-say-die spirit, one that has stuck with the team since then.

In Jaworski's third season as playing coach, Ginebra won the franchise's very first league championship in the 1986 Open Conference behind the dynamic import duo of Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates.

Ginebra won the Third Conference after beating the Manila Beer Brewmasters, who had an equally deadly import tandem of Open Conference Best Import Michael Young and Harold Keeling. Hackett was an unstoppable scoring machine, entering the record books on November 21, 1985 as the first player in the PBA to score 103 points in a game in Ginebra's 197-168 win over Great Taste, a battle for third place.

Bates, on the other hand, first took the league by storm in 1983 when he led the Crispa Redmanizers to the franchise's second PBA Grand Slam championship. In his PBA return in 1986, Bates showcased his vast offensive repertoire and further cemented Ginebra's place in the hearts of its legion of fans.

Returning from the grave

After the breakthrough year in 1986, the Ginebra franchise won two more PBA titles-the 1988 All-Filipino conference (under the name team name Anejor Rhum 65) and the 1988 PBA/IBA World Challenge Cup (with Bobby Parks as its import, defeating visiting foreign squads and subduing Alaska in the one-game Finals).

Basketball fans were anticipating another championship finish in the 1990 First Conference after Anejo Rhum, led by import Sylvester Gray, faced Shell Rimula X and Bobby Parks in the best-of-seven Finals.

The 65ers, led by Jaworski, Rey Cuenco, Chito Loyzaga, Dondon Ampalayo and Rudy Distrito, gave it their came up empty-handed. Anejo Rhum staged a walkout late in the second quarter of Game 6 to protest the officiating. The controversial and abrupt ending of the finals allowed Shell to win its first-ever PBA crown, while the Office of the Commissioner slapped Anejo Rhum a hefty P500,000 fine for the walkout.

Despite that, Anejo Rhum fans remained loyal to their team, supporting the ball club despite falling short in the next two conferences of the 1990 season.

By 1991, the team reverted to the name Ginebra in the hope of bringing back its luster. True enough, Ginebra players lived up to its NSD mantra, stunning Shell in its First Conference finals rematch by coming back from a 3-1 deficit. Rudy Distrito scored on a tough off-balanced shot over Shell big man Benjie Paras and Jojo Martin's outstretched arms in Game 7 to complete Ginebra's rise from the grave, triggering a wild celebration inside the ULTRA in Pasig City.

Prior to that, no team in PBA history has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. It was only 25 years later, in the 2016 Philippine Cup finals, that Ginebra's sister team, San Miguel, topped that feat when it recovered from a 0-3 deficit to beat Alaska and win the title.

The next five years were agonizing for Ginebra fans as their favorite team went from title contenders to punching bags.

In 1992, Ginebra posted a mediocre 19-24 win-loss record for the season, before plummeting to 9-26 the following year. Things only went from bad to worse as the Ginebra franchise only posted 12 and five wins in 1994 and 1995, respectively, including a winless spell (0-10) in the 1995 Governors' Cup.

Those were trying times, no doubt, but Ginebra became relevant again in the 1996 season.

The entry of former Adamson top slotman Marlou Aquino as Ginebra's top overall pick that year, the rise of free agent guard Bal David and the resurgence of Vince Hizon, Pido Jarencio and Jayvee Gayoso enabled Ginebra to wrap up the 1996 season with the second best overall record of 35-29 behind Grand Slam champion Alaska's 51-21 card.

By 1997, Ginebra, known as Gordon's Gin, completed its ascent back to the top after beating Alaska in the Commissioner's Cup finals, 4-2, led by explosive import Chris King. Aquino stood tall as well in the Ginebra franchise's fourth league crown, which proved to be the last under Jaworski who resigned in 1998.

Post-Jaworski era

Although Jaworski was no longer present on the sidelines, Aquino, Noli Locsin and David continued to champion the never-say-die spirit for the franchise.

In the 1999 All-Filipino Cup quarterfinals, the Gin Kings became the first no. 8 seed team to knock off a no. 1 seed, which at the time was Mobiline. David came through with the game-winning basket at the buzzer to lift Ginebra to a pulsating 82-81 in their epic do-or-die collision.

But one by one, the players who saw action under Jaworski eventually left the team, and by the turn of the 21st century, David and Wilmer Ong were the only ones left from the 1997 Commissioner's Cup champion squad.

David served as the bridge from the older Ginebra generation to the franchise's next superstars, Mark Caguioa and Jayjay Helterbrand.

Caguioa and Helterbrand, known as the "Fast and the Furious", joined forces with Fil-American big man Eric Menk to help the Gin Kings end their seven-year title drought by ruling the 2004 Fiesta Conference. Menk was named the Finals MVP of that championship series.

Ginebra also reigned supreme in the 2004-05 Philippine Cup by beating Talk 'N Text, 4-2, in the finals. The Gin Kings won two more titles during the decade -- the 2007 Philippine Cup (behind Best Player of the Conference Mark Caguioa and Finals MVP Jayjay Helterbrand) and the 2008 Fiesta Conference (where Menk and Ronald Tubid shared co-Finals MVP honors).

The next eight years, though, became frustrating times for the Ginebra franchise.

Jong Uichico, the architect of Ginebra's 2008 Fiesta Conference championship, resigned to join the national team. Siot Tanquingcen, and later Alfrancis Chua, took the helm in the succeeding years, but even their experienced coaching weren't enough to put an end to the franchise's worsening title drought.

Ginebra fans grew impatient after seeing their team come up empty conference after conference despite having a star-studded roster that boasts of Japeth Aguilar, Greg Slaughter, LA Tenorio and Caguioa.

However, when Tim Cone, the league's winningest PBA coach, transferred from San Mig Coffee (Purefoods franchise) to Ginebra in 2015, the future brightened for the most popular squad.

In 2016, Cone led Ginebra to its first PBA title in eight years after ruling the Governors' Cup crown at the expense of Meralco. Import Justin Brownlee provided the highlight when he drained the game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer to give Ginebra the Game 6 win and the championship.

Brownlee returned the following season and helped Ginebra defend the Governors' Cup, this time in front a new PBA record crowd attendance of 54,068 at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan.

The Gin Kings' championship collection continued in the 2018 season after beating the Beermen in six games in the Commissioner's Cup finals for the franchise's 11th title overall.

With young players Scottie Thompson, Kevin Ferrer and a now healthy Arth dela Cruz joining Aguilar and Tenorio, it's safe to say that Ginebra will be a title contender for more seasons to come.

Coinciding with Ginebra's 40th anniversary is the fourth run of the GINEBRA SAN MIGUEL 3X3. The tournament, which is in partnership with the PBA for the third straight year, will run across 16 areas nationwide from April to July.

The winner from each province will compete in the national finals in Manila where the top two teams will play for the championship during a PBA game at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum. For more info on the GINEBRA SAN MIGUEL 3X3 Tournament, visit the PBA website.