Twenty years later, Ginebra faces another 3-1 deficit

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It's the month of May, and Ginebra is in the PBA finals. The league's most popular team faces an uphill battle, down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series against a formidable foe. Can it bounce back and sweep the last three games?

The above scenario best describes Barangay Ginebra's current predicament in the ongoing Commissioner's Cup finals. But it's also the exact same scenario the franchise faced 20 years ago. In the 1991 PBA First Conference, the team, then known as Ginebra San Miguel, squared off with powerhouse Shell Rimula X in a best-of-seven finals that would go down as one of the most exciting ever played.

Ginebra was led by their charismatic playing coach Robert Jaworski and blue-collar import Jervis "Burning" Cole. The locals were a bunch of overachieving journeymen, including Chito Loyzaga, Dante Gonzalgo, The Destroyer Rudy Distrito, Leo Isaac, and the late Rey Cuenco.

Shell had the prolific Bobby Parks, who was in the midst of his reign as a seven-time Best Import awardee, the Tower or Power Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, and talented forward Romy Dela Rosa. Today's generation of basketball fans probably think of Parks as the father of superstar-in-waiting Bobby Ray Parks, Jr., but 20 years ago, he was the best American import in town. Even though the height limit for imports in the first conference was six feet and five inches, Shell figured the six-three Parks was better than any six-five import out there.

The '91 finals was the perfect sequel to the controversy that took place the previous year in the very same conference. Shell won the 1990 First Conference, 4-2, when Ginebra walked out just before halftime of Game 6 in protest of what they felt was biased officiating. Shell was ahead, 62-49, when the walkout took place. Defying a direct order from then-PBA commissioner Rudy Salud to return to the playing court, the Gins refused to leave their locker room and decided to forfeit the game and series. It was a hollow first-ever PBA title for the Shell franchise, while for Ginebra, it certainly wasn't the ending they wanted.

It was against this backdrop of bad blood that the two teams met again a year later to settle the score once and for all. Shell nabbed Game 1, 114-109, behind Parks' 38 points. Ginebra bounced back to win Game 2 in overtime, 125-114, with Jaworski orchestrating a spirited Ginebra comeback in the fourth period. The Big J, then already 45 years old, scored 10 straight points in the fourth to force an extension and add another chapter to his storybook career.

The Turbochargers then took the next two games, 120-113 and 127-125 in overtime, to post a commanding 3-1 series lead. But the Gins extended the series with a lopsided 116-90 blowout in Game 5.  In Game 6, Cole outscored Parks 51-31 to lead Ginebra to a 123-119 victory. Suddenly, what was a sure championship for Shell turned into a winner-take-all Game 7.

An overflow crowd of close to 15,000 packed the ULTRA on May 19, 1991 to witness the seventh and deciding game, with thousands more turned away outside. Crowd control became a major problem as fans came close to rioting in a mad rush for the few tickets left on sale. That's how big the PBA was back in the day.

I vividly remember watching this game because it was the birthday of my high school buddy Jason Paredes, who was hosting a birthday party/championship viewing party at his house in Makati. Practically all the guests there that evening were diehard Ginebra fans. I think I was the only one rooting for Shell. We were all glued to the TV set to watch the game go down the wire.

Paras tied the count at 102-all with only 26 ticks left. Ginebra called a timeout and in the ensuing play, Loyzaga saw a slight opening and drove to the basket. His path was blocked so he spun around and launched a scoop shot that was easily swatted away by Paras. Five seconds left. The ball found its way to Distrito, who drove along the right baseline and, upon seeing Paras waiting for him near the basket, pulled up and launched a fadeaway from around six feet.

The ball swished through the net to the roar of the crowd. Over at the party, the whole street where Jason's house stood erupted in cheers. But there was still one second left. Shell sued for time and set up a play. Magsanoc got the ball on the left flank behind the three-point line and turned around to launch a prayer. Only he never saw the basket. Cole rushed over and blocked the shot as time expired. Somehow, Ginebra had won the series after trailing three games to one, and the never-say-die Ginebra spirit sealed its place in local basketball folklore.

What Ginebra did in 1991 resonates to this day because it was like catching lightning in a bottle. Now, 20 years later, this new generation of Ginebra players has to do it all over again. Not an impossible feat, but a very difficult one. But wouldn't it be nice to catch lightning again exactly 20 after you first did?

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