Phoenix Super LPG used the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup as their team's breakthrough, not just in terms of success but also in terms of expanding their fanbase. From their early success to the rough patches, to their amazing run in the playoffs, the Fuel Masters made their games must-see TV.
Their stint inside the PBA Bubble ended at the hands of a loaded TNT Tropang Giga squad that simply had a little more experience when in came to pressure-packed situations as they won Game 5, 91-81, by turning the match into a defensive affair.
Even with the elimination, Phoenix Super LPG head coach Topex Robinson was all smiles when he emerged from their dugout.
"We're going to get out of this bubble as a proud team. We gave it our best. What's important to us is the memories and the learning experiences we gained. Moving forward, it's something we could carry on: experience, the shared adversities, the triumphs, there's so much to be grateful for," said Robinson, who surprised a lot of PBA fans with a semifinals stint in his debut conference as head coach.
"When we made it to the semis, we already said we're just so grateful for the opportunity. TNT was the better team and I'm so proud of the way we battled against the best team."
The Fuel Masters had to have tough challenges before the start of the conference as they parted ways with erstwhile head coach Louie Alas just when the PBA allowed teams to practice in groups. They hit the ground running in Clark but a dark cloud hovered over them with Calvin Abueva's situation.
However, throughout it all, Phoenix Super LPG found our more and more about themselves. They recognized their identity and, when they got the The Beast back, they had an extra shot of energy that pushed them to the second spot after the elimination round.
They eliminated the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok in the quarterfinals as they looked like they might be good enough to march their way to the big dance. Unfortunately for them, Matthew Wright suffered a sprained ankle in Game 1 of the semis against TNT in a contest they narrowly lost. They overcame the injury and went up 2-1 in the series. However, the Tropang Giga had more tricks up their sleeve as they dislodged the Fuel Masters in Games 4 and 5.
"We overachieved. This is the tip of the iceberg for us. We have so many things to grow from. Life will always have its ups and downs but you have to move on," Robinson said. The young coach added that it's not just about the wins and losses but how many people got their message of spreading joy and the virtue of service.
"Getting out of this bubble, I'm sure we touched many lives, not just Phoenix fans but the whole basketball community. We earned their respect and that's we were asking for coming into the bubble. The challenge for us is to keep it alive."
Robinson is proud of his entire team but there must have been additional pride in seeing Abueva not just playing again in the PBA but looking like a changed man.
"I'm so proud of the way Calvin finished the game," he said. "There were times that his temper was tested but he kept it together until the end of the game."
After Game 5, Robinson had a long conversation at center court with Ray Parks, Jr., the player who was painted as Abueva's adversary in the series.
"I told him I was so proud of the way he battled in the series. You have to respect the guy. He was so consistent. He was on top of his game. He made my job hard, which I'm so thankful for," Robinson explained.
Asked what his favorite moment was from the whole bubble experience, Robinson chose the end.
"This game," he said, "because it tested me as a coach."
"It was a humbling experience for me. I have so many things to learn from. I'm going to keep my cup empty and absorb as much as I can."
Phoenix Super LPG will leave the PBA Bubble with their heads held high not just with what they accomplished but with what they could become in the near future. They know they maybe one of two pieces away from becoming a legitimate championship threat and this loss, no matter how painful it is today, will only make them more prepared for bigger battles ahead.