Photo Art by Michael Dooley
After Alfred Jarry & J. G. Ballard
Many researchers and sports historians remain baffled about what exactly happened during the final two minutes of Game Seven of the PBA All-Filipino Conference Finals between the San Miguel Beermen and the Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings, one of the most controversial basketball games ever played in recent memory. The game was so hotly contested, hundreds of thousands of people spilled onto the streets of Manila as soon as the final buzzer sounded, accusing the Philippine Basketball Association of rigging the game against the crowd favorite Ginebra, whose motto "Never Say Die" resonated with the masses that year and fueled their abortive championship run. At its height, the scandal even drew the attention of ESPN (now part of the Disney monolith). The company ordered the production of a special episode of 30 X 30, which quickly became one of the iconic episodes of the critically acclaimed sports documentary series. Titled "Never Again," the episode dominated all television awards shows and cemented ESPN's reputation as the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." As a matter of fact, ESPN quite nearly won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series that year, losing by mere inches to the NBC police drama Hill Street Blues.
More than 30 years later, Filipinos continue to memorialize this game, with die-hard PBA fans treating it as a national holiday, flocking to the Araneta Coliseum to pay respect to the people's champion. It still dominates public sports discourse, peeling scabbed wounds and digging up buried frustrations from the longtime fans of either team; in fact, just talking about the game poses significant risk of inciting mass street demonstrations, evoking the public fury of those tumultuous years that forced the league to reverse the results (awarding the Gin Kings the championship) and the near-expulsion of the San Miguel Beermen from the league. To this day, hardcore Beermen fans refuse to acknowledge the Kings' victory, insisting the Beermen won legitimately and the PBA, in fact, rigged the game in favor of Ginebra. This hypothetical title would have given the Beermen their 28th PBA championship, instead of the league's official record of twenty-seven.
If we want to unravel the truth behind this infamous game, let us begin with the facts:
1. The San Miguel Group of Companies (SMC) own both the San Miguel Beermen and the Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings. In 1979, La Tondeña, Inc. joined the PBA as an expansion team. The company would be renamed La Tondeña Distillers, Inc. after the San Miguel Corporation became majority owner in 1987. Meanwhile, the San Miguel Beermen had joined the league in 1975, under the name Royal Tru-Orange (a softdrink brand owned by SMC at the time).
2. The late Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Jr., had taken control of SMC before that fateful PBA tournament, but the public outcry from the notorious Game Seven forced him to step down as company chairman and even flee to the United States, fearful of violent reprisal and sanctions from the league. ("Never Again" only glances upon this subject.) It was only after the clamor died down, many years later, that he returned to his native land.
3. That Finals series itself was one for the ages. Pushed on by massive public support, the Gin Kings almost came all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to win the PBA championship. If they had won Game Seven, they would have been the first and only team in the league's nearly 50-year history to do so. This feat would have immortalized the Kings as basketball royalty, especially when we consider that for the first three games, the Beermen were bulldozing them. The Beermen seemed to simply outmatch the Kings in every conceivable basketball category. Their players appeared to be faster, bigger, and stronger. Beermen All-Stars Juan Ponce Enrile, Fabian Ver, and Fidel Ramos were imposing their will on the helpless Gin Kings. Likewise, San Miguel tactician Ferdinand Marcos coached circles around his Ginebra counterpart. Winning Games One to Three by an average margin of 21 points, the Beermen looked invincible until Ginebra rallied from 25 points down in Game Four to spark their series comeback. Even though San Miguel led by double figures for the majority of Games Five and Six, they were unable to put Ginebra away. The people's team kept coming back, led by Gin Kings star wingman Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., and they won both games by a total of eight points.
4. The television broadcast of Game Seven, which ESPN also used for "Never Again," shows us the problem began in the final two minutes. Near the end of a disastrous Beermen possession, in which they failed to attempt a single shot against the stifling Ginebra defense, Ninoy stole the ball and dashed for a fast-break opportunity. The score was tied, 83-83, with 90 seconds left in Game Seven. With only Beermen sharpshooter Rolando Galman on defense, Ninoy should have scored an easy layup to take the lead, completing the miraculous Ginebra comeback. But he missed—and this miss would be the impetus behind three decades of controversy.
5. The Beermen were on track to win the championship. Once again, they had led by as much as 21 points for the first three quarters. The Gin Kings looked totally gassed by halftime; they weren't running back on defense or running their offensive schemes. Their legs were giving up. Yet Ninoy kept the faith, promising the courtside reporter they had another run in them during the halftime walk-off interview.
6. But the Gin Kings opened the third quarter with three straight turnovers and terrible defensive possessions. Making matters worse, Ninoy tweaked his ankle halfway in the third quarter after landing awkwardly off a contested rebound. Injuries like this can demoralize even the toughest teams. Ginebra pulled Ninoy out of the game with six minutes left in the third quarter.
7. Something must have happened on the Ginebra bench while the trainers addressed Ninoy's injury. Suddenly they played with intention and energy. Their imposing defense forced successive Beermen turnovers, allowing the Gin Kings to go out on transition and score easy baskets, fueling their massive 19-5 run to close the quarter, cutting the lead to single digits. Ninoy sat on the bench while this was going on, but the footage shows him cheering on his teammates while the trainers taped up his ankle.
8. Ninoy checked back into the game at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with San Miguel leading by five points. He seemed bouncy and refreshed. After grabbing a defensive rebound, Ninoy ran the length of the court and launched a three-point shot off the bounce. The deafening cheers after this made three threatened to burst out of the television footage. It was a game now, 79-77. However, a shooting foul sent Galman to the free throw line. He made the first foul shot but missed the second. On the next possession, Ginebra pushed the tempo again, Ninoy running through a couple of screens to get an open shot from deep, which he hit again, tying the game at 80. About two minutes went by with neither team scoring. Then, Galman made a tough, contested three to give the Beermen some breathing room. However, Ninoy would answer at the other end with a lay-up plus a foul, tying the game again at 83.
9. Ninoy missed the go-ahead layup. Galman had sprinted down the court and then jumped with him in an attempt to bother the shot, giving the other Beermen time to catch up. There were already three Beermen crowding the paint at the moment of the incident.
10. It's clear from the live broadcast that Ninoy tumbled headfirst into the stanchion after botching the layup. It's a gruesome injury. Carried by a strong forward momentum, Aquino looked like he flew right into the steel bars, where he hit his head, receiving a severe concussion. He lay still for a few moments. You could hear the air getting sucked out of the arena. Paramedics and security personnel rushed onto the court, and you could tell the game was over at that point. Totally demoralized, the Gin Kings let the Beermen score six straight unanswered points, all from Galman threes, leading to the 89-83 San Miguel victory.
11. The live footage is the only video evidence of the game, meaning the PBA had to make do with the grainy broadcast quality during the official investigation. A major problem with the TV broadcast was it only showed one angle of the injury. What the footage showed were mere implications; there were too many people surrounding Aquino, such that the TV cameras were unable to capture the actual incident.
12. For three decades, this footage has confounded sports historians. Did Galman intentionally injure Aquino? As seen in the video, Ninoy fell flat on his stomach, his arms outstretched, as if in supplication. This posture implied someone pushed Aquino from behind, leading him to overshoot the layup. Was it Galman? He was directly involved in the play, but many fans believe he was too far from Ninoy to have pushed him with sufficient force. Was it somebody else? Notorious Beerman Fabian Ver was also in the video, standing behind Galman. Fans have given him the reputation of being a dirty player because of his overly physical play. Did Ver push Aquino? Or was it Juan Ponce Enrile? Maybe it was Fidel Ramos? If it was intentional, then was it under Ferdinand Marcos' directions? The PBA prohibited making copies of the TV footage, and the league also locked the original video inside its vaults, leading the public to suspect conspiracy. Did the PBA rig the game and deliberately cover it up after the Beermen secured the trophy?
13. The PBA suspended Galman and Ver indefinitely, and the San Miguel Beermen decided to cut their losses and release both players from the team. Enrile and Ramos retired from the league before the next season started. (They would come out of retirement a few years later and win two more championships with different teams.) San Miguel also fired Ferdinand Marcos and replaced him with Aquino's wife, Corazon, as a peace offering to the irate Ginebra fans.
The Aquino incident has surely cast a long shadow over the PBA, tainting public perception of the league for the next 30 years, although the league was able to develop into the biggest professional sports league in Southeast Asia. Still, one unanswered question continues to dominate drinking conversations among the PBA community: Who exactly was the better team?