by: Jay P. Mercado

    Ginebra San Miguel and San Mig Coffee square off in a Best of Seven semifinal series for the right to earn a seat in the Finals of the 2013-14 PBA Philippine Cup. Fans are agog anticipating another classic showdown between these two great franchises as the playing venues are expected to burst into the seams for each playdate when these two teams face each other. As early as last Sunday night when San Mig eliminated defending champions Talk ‘N Text, “Manila Clasico” has been the buzzword among PBA followers.

    But what exactly is “Manila Clasico” and where did this come from? It was actually the brainchild of sports editor Jaemark Tordecilla of InterAKTV, the sports website of TV5, coined sometime in early 2012. It was taken after the football rivalry between Real Madrid and AC Barcelona called “El Clasico” that featured two of the most popular club teams in Europe. It was appropriate to call the Ginebra and San Mig (formerly called Purefodos) rivalry as “Manila Clasico” as these two have been the most popular teams in the Philippines for 26 years.

    What many would not know though is that the rivalry traces all the way back to 1986 when the Tanduay Rhum Makers, the precursor of Purefoods. Coming off a simmering feud between Robert Jaworski, Sr. and Ramon Fernandez, the two teams squared off in the 1986 All Filipino Finals when the hostilities started to peak. Fernandez led Tanduay to a 3-1 victory against Ginebra in a controversial Finals series that saw Jaworski bitterly complaining about the officiating, particularly in the final seconds of Game 4.

    When Purefoods bought the Tanduay franchise in 1988, Fernandez was appointed playing coach, only the second local to hold that distinction, after Jaworski. With Tanduay’s nucleus joining the most popular rookies in the Purefoods’ roster, the team’s popularity surged. While Ginebra continued to attract the masses, particularly the males, Purefoods brought in a new wave of fans among the younger set, including the females. From out of nowhere, Purefoods dislodged San Miguel Beer as the second most popular team in the league and with the Jaworski-Fernandez rivalry serving as a perfect side story, the rivalry was formed.

    Purefoods and Añejo Rum 65 (Ginebra) battled for the first time in a PBA Finals in the 1988 All Filipino in one of the most riveting episodes in PBA history. Coming off as a solid underdog, the 65ers pulled off a surprise 111-105 victory that saw Joey Loyzaga exploding for 26 points, including 5 three point shots. As Añejo and its fans celebrated, there was a brewing implosion in the Purefoods’ camp. Fernandez, who gave up his coaching duties to Coach Cris Calilan at the start of the conference to concentrate on his playing, was accused by team management led by Purefoods President Rene Buhain for “game-fixing,” and was benched from Game 2 onwards. The Hotdogs, with its back against the wall, tied the series in the next game with a convincing 117-112 victory courtesy of the 27 points from Jojo Lastimosa. But there was no stopping Jaworski’s charges, winning the next 2 games to complete the Best of 5 series with a 3-1 victory, giving the Big J his first All Filipino title as a head coach.

    With Fernandez eventually being traded to San Miguel Beer vice Abet Guidaben at the start of the 1988 Reinforced Conference, the rivalry was sustained primarily because of the adulation of the fans from both sides. There were more compelling stories to write about – the Jaworski-Lastimosa tussle when the Big J was suspended by Commissioner Rudy Salud for socking Jolas’ solar plexus unseen by the referees; the elimination of Purefoods in the 1989 Reinforced courtesy of Añejo brought about by the departure of the Hotdogs’ import, Dexter Shouse before the game to sign a 10-day playing contract with the Philadelphia 76ers; the punching of Purefoods’ import Rob Rose by Jaworski in the 1990 Reinforced; the popularity battle between Añejo’s Dondon Ampalayo and Purefoods’ Alvin Patrimonio, the one-on-one paint battles between Patrimonio and Chito Loyzaga; among many others. The contrast among the fans was also evident – Ginebra had the masses solidly cheering for the team while Purefoods brought the more elite and perfumed crowd in the venues.

    The rivalry somehow wavered in the early to mid-90’s as Purefoods went on to win several championships while Ginebra struggled and found themselves in the bottom of the heap. In 1996, with the acquisition of the 6’9 rookie Marlou Aquino and free agent point guard Bal David, the Gins suddenly found itself competitive once more. In the 1997 All Filipino, the two teams once more played in the Finals for only the second time. In what appeared to be an even match, Purefoods’ experience proved to be the major factor. The Hotdogs exacted vengeance on their 1988 tormentors (now called Gordon’s Gin) with a 4-2 series victory, powered by Alvin Patrimonio’s 40-point explosion in Game 6. Despite the series reaching 6 games, Purefoods totally dominated the Boars as the latter struggled trying to contain Patrimonio and Jerry Codiñera inside the paint, and Bong Ravena, Elmer Lago and Dindo Pumaren from the perimeter. A key to this series was Pumaren’s ability to contain David and Pido Jarencio by constantly hounding them from the backcourt.

    With Jaworski’s departure to become Senator of the Republic, many thought the rivalry was good as dead. Patrimonio was now the face of the PBA, replacing the Big J while Ginebra struggled with a new identity in the post-Jaworski era. But no one wrote the epilogue to this great rivalry as both teams found ways to be competitive. Ginebra brought in the extremely charismatic Mark Caguioa from the draft in 2001. With his blond-dyed hair and jersey #47, the Spark caught the attention of the millions of Ginebra fans and became their new darling. Everything that Caguioa did – right or wrong – was revered by the fans. Curiously, it also came at a time when Patrimonio was close to retirement and the league needed a new face to carry the PBA banner. Caguioa was fit and ready for that role.

    In 2004, in what may be best described as God’s fate, Purefoods needed a new franchise player to take over the Captain’s role. Drafting 2nd overall that season, Coach Ryan Gregorio was pleasantly surprised to see Formula Shell drafting Rich Alvarez as first overall, giving Purefoods the rare opportunity of drafting a young UE Red Warrior named James Yap. Yap was already a superstar in the UAAP, despite UE’s inability to win a title during that period. Yap appeared to be the perfect replacement for Patrimonio – he was popular, equally good-looking, and had that wholesome persona that the Hotdogs were looking for. Yap’s popularity surged when he tied the knot with celebrity actress Kris Aquino and found himself being adored by the masses, including the non-basketball watchers. He won his first of two MVP titles in 2006, beating teammate Kerby Raymundo and Red Bull’s Enrico Villanueva for the prized plum.

    It wasn’t a surprise therefore to see Yap and Caguioa becoming two of the most popular players in the league. Both are also the most controversial – Yap with his off court romantic developments and Caguioa with his brutal frankness. Both are acknowledged leaders of their respective teams. And when these two teams face each other, the expectations rise by several notches. Caguioa has struggled in the past recent games against San Mig while Yap hasn’t been playing well lately. Will they be able to respond to the high expectations, summon their vintage selves, and become relevant pieces in their campaign for a Finals seat?

    It remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though, Manila Clasico is bound to be another humdinger and a box-office and ratings success for the PBA. The continued rivalry between these two franchises is expected to reach fever pitch levels starting with this semifinals series. With Ginebra parading two imposing big men in rookie Greg Slaughter and leading MVP candidate Japeth Aguilar, they have finally found a new dimension in their game that brings more options to the team. Now, Ginebra isn’t just a Caguioa-led team anchored on its run-and-gun style. On the other hand, San Mig, with Tim Cone as mentor, has become the best half-court executing team in the PBA today. Cone’s arrival has given the Mixers more opportunities for the other players to score instead of relying heavily on Yap. Under Cone, Yap has willingly taken a backseat to give Marc Pingris, PJ Simon and Mark Barroca more chances to shine. This only made San Mig more formidable.

    Manila Clasico starts tonight at 8PM in Game 1 of the semifinals series between the two teams. Who’ll end up on top, no one can say. It won’t be surprising to see this series go all the way to 7 games with the deciding game expected to break box-office records.

    The heat is on…for the next week and a half, this is going to be a phenomenal Manila Clasico series no one should miss!

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San Miguel Beermen 9 1
Alaska Aces 7 2
Rain or Shine Elasto Painters 7 2
GlobalPort Batang Pier 7 3
Barangay Ginebra San Miguel 6 4
Talk N Text Tropang Texters 5 4
Barako Bull Energy 5 5
NLEX Road Warriors 4 6
Star Hotshots 3 7
Blackwater Elite 2 7
Mahindra Enforcers 2 8
Meralco Bolts 1 9


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