Remembering Rudy Distrito's epic 1991 game-winner

Thirty years ago, Rudy Distrito sank arguably the biggest shot in PBA finals history, a short stab from the right flank over the outstretched arms of Benjie Paras that gave Ginebra San Miguel a 104-102 lead over Shell Rimula X with one second left in Game 7 of the 1991 PBA Open Conference Finals.

The Zoom Masters had one last chance to salvage the crown, but Ronnie Magsanoc's desperation three was swatted away by Jervis Cole at the buzzer.

Distrito's championship-clinching bucket was the fitting exclamation point to Ginebra's comeback from a 1-3 finals deficit, the first time in league history that a team had overcome such a deficit in a championship series. That shot has secured its place high up in the pantheon of iconic Ginebra buzzer-beaters and game-winners, right up there with Justin Brownlee in 2016, Bal David in 1999 and Dante Gonzalgo in 1990.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Distrito Shot, we look back at that series and the build-up to it. We'll also hear from some of the personalities who played a major part in making this one of the most unforgettable PBA championship series of all time. (Note: All quotes are from the interviewees' guestings on An Eternity of Basketball, and some quotes have been translated from Tagalog and edited for brevity).

The backdrop: the infamous walk-out

The dichotomy of Ginebra and Shell had its beginnings a full year before Distrito's shot went in. The two will forever be linked not just by what happened in 1991, but also by - and in some ways even moreso by - what transpired in the 1990 First Conference Finals.

Shell had taken a 3-2 series lead against Añejo (Ginebra's name in 1990) and was looking good in Game 6 after taking a 63-49 lead in a chippy game. The ULTRA was a powder keg just waiting to explode after Añejo import Sylvester Gray was whistled for his fifth foul in the second quarter. The match that lit it was referee Rudy Hines slapping a technical foul on Rey Cuenco after the Añejo power forward hit Hines on the back of the head to protest his fourth foul.

Pretty soon, as was the case back in the day, fans rained the court with all sorts of projectiles, forcing a halt in play as both teams retreated to their respective dugouts. The Zoom Masters eventually returned, but the 65ers refused, forcing PBA commissioner Rudy Salud to forfeit the game - and the championship - to Shell. Our throwback piece on that walkout can be found here.

That tumultuous ending was the culmination of what had been a highly physical series. Arnie Tuadles, Shell's veteran forward and the one player who wasn't intimidated by Añejo, took out Leo Isaac early in the series with a hard foul that broke Isaac's elbow.

Distrito lived up to his "Destroyer" moniker, hitting Ronnie Magsanoc in the face with a fist in Game 5. Tuadles retaliated for Shell with a hard foul on Chito Loyzaga. For their efforts, both players were fined P3,000 each.

Dante Gonzalgo pretty much summed up Añejo's physical mentality, pointing out that if you're going to foul someone, might as well make it a foul he'll remember:" If you're going to give a weak foul, it's the same thing. It's still a foul."

Shell team manager Charlie Favis would later find out that the Añejo players were supposedly given "special" instructions.

"'Give one hard foul each' was supposedly the instruction given. A player who was trying out for Shell told me that (later on)."

Magsanoc recalled the gauntlet he had to go through.

"It's like what we went through in the UAAP: if you want to get to the top, you have to go through a rough road. If you want to win a championship, especially against a crowd favorite, you have to work for it. Physicality was a part of it. What could you do? You'd just look at the score, move on to the next play. You couldn't get mad because what would that achieve? You try to score off them, you try to defend.

"Our backbone was Bobby Parks. In the low post it was Benjie (Paras). Of course we had a support crew who were fearless. You couldn't afford not to be fearless because you'd get hit by a variety of things. If you went into the lane, you knew it was coming."

The most fearless was Tuadles, who gave a rousing locker room speech as recalled by Favis.

"I remember one very clear thing that he said. He told the team, "Why are you all afraid? That's just Añejo! They're also people like us! So what if you get hit in the face a few times? Just sew it up!" It was incredible. I said to myself this guy is a great motivator. After that, my players were suddenly fearless."

The rematch a year later

In the 1991 First Conference, Shell was tops in the elimination round with an 8-3 card, but Ginebra (the franchise went back to its old name) came on strong in the semifinals, going 7-1.

And so it was that both teams found themselves in a rematch of the previous year's title series. For Shell, it was a chance to erase the stigma of what some perceived to be an asterisk championship by definitively beating their nemesis with no walkout involved. For Ginebra, it was a shot at redemption.

There were few - but significant - changes to both lineups. Tuadles was gone, having transferred to Presto and leaving the Zoom Masters with a big void in terms of leadership and toughness. Ginebra picked up a new import in Jervis Cole, while their back-up center Romy Mamaril hopped over the fence and joined Shell.

Otherwise, the respective cores were still intact: the Parks-Paras-Magsanoc-Dela Rosa quartet for Shell, and the Loyzaga-Distrito-Dante Gonzalgo-Jaworski-Cuenco five for Ginebra.

The Zoom Masters took a 3-1 series lead, although in hindsight it was deceptive since two of the wins came in overtime. Still, Shell had a chance to close it out in Game 5, which they controlled for majority of the way until the Gins unleashed a 32-0 bomb that still stands as a league record for most consecutive points scored by a team in a single game. From 85-80 Shell, it was suddenly 112-85 Ginebra. The Zoom Masters' lead was down to 3-2.

Ginebra again came from behind in Game 6, erasing an early 14-point deficit to tie the series with a close 123-119 win. Just like that, it was down to a winner-take-all game 7. Up to that point, no team in PBA history had ever come back from a 1-3 series deficit.

Game 7

A standing room only crowd packed the ULTRA for the final game of the first conference. The crowd included Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, who in a year's time would be Philippine president. Millions more followed the action on television and radio. They would not be disappointed (unless they were Shell fans).

Shell took a 32-23 lead after one quarter, but playing true to form, Ginebra fought back in the second. It was 55-53 Shell at halftime, and after three quarters, nothing had been settled yet as the Zoom Masters clung to an 82-81 lead.

The Gins opened the fourth quarter strong. A Distrito drive put them up 89-83, forcing Shell to call an early timeout with 9:33 to go. Then 45-year-old Sonny Jaworski whipped the crowd into a frenzy by hitting a tough step back jumper over Paras to give Ginebra its largest lead of the game at 91-83.

Shell kept chipping away, though, and eventually regained the lead at 100-99 on a Jojo Martin tip-in with 1:38 left. After unproductive offensives by both sides, Gonzalgo completed a three-point play off Paras to give Ginebra back the lead at 102-100 with 43 ticks to go. Paras answered back with a layup that knotted the count at 102, time down to 25 seconds.

After a timeout, Ginebra isolated Loyzaga against Paras. The burly forward drove to the middle then spun to his right. Paras anticipated the move and swatted the ball out of bounds with just five seconds left.

Another timeout. Distrito was on the bench for the previous play, but now Jaworski told him to check in for Isaac.

Sev Sarmenta called the game with Andy Jao, and 30 years later still remembers the scene in the Ginebra huddle as captured by the TV camera.

"It's 102-all and we step out of Sonny Jaworski's iconic way of setting up his play. 'Do you understand?' Jaworski shouted. Our microphone picks it up despite the din of the crowd."

Jaworski inbounded from the baseline. Distrito curled from the top of the key to receive the pass. As Sarmenta recalled, the feisty guard wasn't fully set when he let go of the ball.

"Then with five seconds remaining, the inbound is passed to Rudy Distrito who doesn't have the most elegant of forms as he releases on the way down. The shot goes in. Ginebra up by two."

As the ULTRA erupted and Ginebra players began celebrating, Jao was quick to remind the TV audience that there was still time left on the clock.

"I keep shouting 'Yes! Yes!' but Andy Jao correctly reminds me there's one second to go," Sarmenta recalled. "That's the advantage of having Dr. J on your side. His sharp eyes honed by years of being a manager and assistant coach spots that there's one second to go. Shell calls time out. I can hardly hear myself think as they say but I'm thinking if Shell can come up with their own miracle. In the end it never came and Ginebra completed the comeback. The biggest lesson there: a shot can be a great, a winning shot even, but always check if there's time left for one more attempt."

It was Magsanoc who tried to give Shell that last miracle, but Cole was there to block his shot. Ginebra had done the improbable, and had done so in the most Ginebra way: on a dramatic game-winner.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Shell.

"My thought was, we were champions already because it was 3-1," recalled Dela Rosa. "We were still on our game. It was really destined for them. Because it was 3-1, then 3-2, then we reached a Game 7. Then Distrito happened."

"They started playing better, more cohesively, their defense improved," Favis noted. "I will not remove that victory from them. They played well. Because we were already up by 3-1, we relaxed a bit and got overconfident."

Both imports played the entire game and virtually canceled each other out; Cole had 32 while Parks put in 33. At 45, Jaworski played 36 minutes and chipped in 17. Gonzalgo finished with 16, while the game's hero Distrito had 12. Magsanoc and Dela Rosa had 19 and 16, respectively, for Shell, with Paras churning in a double-double of 14-13.

The aftermath

Shell and Ginebra would never again meet in a PBA finals. In fact, the league's hottest rivalry fizzled out the very next season when the Zoom Masters hired longtime Jaworski assistant Rino Salazar as head coach, and he brought along Cuenco and Isaac with him. Distrito, meanwhile, signed a free agent contract with Swift. The Zoom Masters went back to the finals, and this time they took care of business, defeating San Miguel 4-1 to annex their second championship.

But afterwards, neither team would make it back to any finals until the 1996 season, when both fell to Alaska in separate conferences. Ginebra, now known as Gordon's Gin, finally won another one in 1997, while Shell picked up a couple more in 1998 and 1999 before leaving the league in 2005.