The beginning of Barangay Ginebra’s ‘Never Say Die’ spirit

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Filipino basketball fans have been enraptured by Barangay Ginebra for over 30 years.

There is nothing more awe-inspiring and at the same time spine-chilling than hearing the team’s faithful rock the coliseum with their chant of “Ginebra! Ginebra!”. The chorus from the crowd can either intimidate opposing teams or propel them to elevate their level of play so they could silence the Ginebra legions. Experience has shown, however, that attempting to quiet down Ginebra fans is never an easy task.

How did Ginebra get to this level of adulation from the Filipino basketball fans?

Ginebra joined the PBA in 1979 carrying the Gilbey’s Gin brand of La Tondeña Inc. Its most notable player was Willie Generalao, named the 1980 Rookie of the Year. The team acquired Terry Saldaña, Gary Vargas, Dennis Roldan (the actor), and Ateneo hotshot Steve Watson in 1983. It was generally considered an average team both in strength and fan following in its infancy years. It did make the finals of the 1982 Open Conference where it was swept by Toyota and the 1983 All Filipino where it fell in three straight games to Crispa.

Things began to turn around for the ballclub in 1984. League pioneer Toyota disbanded after the 1983 season and subsequently turned over its franchise and players to league newcomer Beer Hausen. Robert Jaworski and Francis Arnaiz protested the way the players were sold “por kilo” by Toyota and refused to join Beer Hausen. The two decided to sign up instead with Gilbey’s Gin and were joined by 6’6 beanpole Romulo Mamaril and Joey Marquez (the actor) as the team’s fresh recruits. Coached by Arturo Valenzona, Gilbey’s Gin showed it could hang with the big boys when it made the finals of the season’s first All Filipino Conference against the Crispa Redmanizers. However, with Jaworski forced to sit out the first two games of the Best-of-Seven championship series due to a hamstring injury, Gilbey’s Gin was defeated by Crispa in five games.

The team changed its name to Ginebra San Miguel the next season. Jaworski was named playing-coach of Ginebra. Joining him in the squad were his Toyota teammates Rino Salazar who would serve as Jaworski’s assistant coach, Arnie Tuadles, and Ricky Relosa. Another former Corolla, Ramon Fernandez, who won MVP honors after a dominant 1984 season with Beer Hausen, had established himself as the best player in the league. His falling out with Jaworski heightened into a full-blown public feud between the two biggest personalities of the league. Perhaps the demise of the Crispa-Toyota rivalry left fans and the media thirsty for a new storyline to follow, and the growing rivalry between Jaworski and Fernandez filled that void and also helped fuel Ginebra’s growing popularity.

Ginebra did not make the finals of any of the three conferences in 1985, but somehow, fans started becoming more and more enamored with the team. Jaworski flourished in his role as the face of the squad and as a playing-coach. At 39 years old, the Big J made the Mythical 2nd Team and the All-Defensive Team of the 1985 season. But it was a game that was played on October 22, 1985 that is best remembered as the day Ginebra cemented its status as the most popular franchise in the post-Crispa/Toyota era.

Ginebra was playing the national squad, Northern Consolidated Cement, when Jaworski was inadvertently elbowed by naturalized Filipino Jeff Moore. Jaworski had to be rushed to the Medical City to stop his wound from bleeding and to have his busted lip stitched up. Ginebra’s playing-coach returned to the bench in the third quarter but by then, NCC had taken control of the game. With less than seven minutes left in the 4th quarter and the national team up by 15, Jaworski re-inserted himself back on the floor. His entry sparked a frenzy from the Ginebra side that led to one of the most memorable comebacks in league history.

The concept of ‘Never Say Die’ was never an exclusive domain of Ginebra as it was already commonly used by broadcasters and sports scribes to describe games where one team overcame seemingly insurmountable leads to pull off a win. But somehow, fans have come to embrace the idea that the words Ginebra and NSD belong together. Renowned basketball historian Jay P. Mercado is widely recognized as the one who began ascribing the game against NCC as the birth of the Ginebra’s Never Say Die tag. “That game versus NCC was when Ginebra revolutionized the definition of Never Say Die. That time, the effort was described as Never Say Die. But when Ginebra consistently came back from huge deficits in the succeeding games and conferences, the idea of Never Say Die became associated with the team and became part of its legendary mystique,” says Mercado.

In the 1986 Open Conference, Jaworski brought back Michael Hackett, named Best Import of the 1985 Reinforced Conference which was highlighted by him exploding for 103 points in a game against Great Taste. Hackett teamed up with arguably the best import to ever play in the PBA, Billy Ray Bates. The prolific import duo combined forces with Jaworski and Arnaiz and new recruits Chito and Joey Loyzaga, Leo Isaac, Dante Gonzalo, and Rookie of the Year Dondon Ampalayo to blast Manila Beer in the finals, 4-1. The first championship in the franchise’s history further amplified the team’s popularity. Jaworski made that season’s Mythical First Team while Ampalayo and Saldaña made the Mythical 2nd Team. Chito Loyzaga was named to the All-Defensive Team.

The year 1987 was rather slow for Ginebra as Jaworski was sidelined for a significant portion of the season, Saldaña was lost to an injury, while Arnaiz moved to the United States. Coming back stronger in 1988, the team changed its name to Añejo Rhum and proved the Never Say Die spirit was alive and strong. In the All-Filipino Conference, Ginebra went through a knock-out game versus San Miguel and won on a last second game-winner by Mamaril to earn a finals berth against Purefoods which was led by Jaworski’s bitter rival, El Presidente Fernandez. Añejo crushed the heavily-favored Purefoods squad in four games in the finals that saw Fernandez ride the bench beginning Game 2 of the series on orders from Purefoods management. Añejo followed up its All-Filipino title by winning the PBA-IBA Invitational against Alaska, the Los Angeles Jaguars, and the Australian All-Stars. Añejo was reinforced by Bobby Parks and beat an Alaska team which paraded two imports.

At the end of the 1988 season, Jaworski, at 42 years old, made the Mythical 2nd Team and the All-Defensive Team, a testament to the grit and greatness of the man who best exemplified the Never Say Die spirit of the squad and who can be largely credited for Ginebra’s rise to prominence. Ginebra fans cannot claim that Never Say Die originated with the team, but Mercado put it best when he said “Ginebra gave a whole new meaning to the idea of Never Say Die and elevated it to greater heights. Jaworski and his team eventually owned it”.

(Images from Facebook/Philippine Basketball Association Retro 80s & 90s and PBA Media Bureau)
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