Don’t look now, but there’s a new team that’s slowly gaining the recognition and respect of diehard fans of the PBA. Barely 3 years after joining the country’s premiere basketball league, the Phoenix Pulse Fuelmasters are finding themselves in unfamiliar ground as they lead the race for the playoffs in the ongoing PBA Philippine Cup.
Proudly toting a league-best 8-1 slate, the Fuel Masters have had 5 of their games decided by 4 points or less, with 3 going through the cardiac long route. Yup, the season has had 6 overtime games so far, and Phoenix has been involved in half of them. Yes, folks, if you’ve got a heart issue, if you’re not into thrills-and-spills, then definitely this grit-and-grunt Phoenix team is not for you.
In its last game against the Magnolia Hotshots, the Fuel Masters had to chip away at a huge 17-point deficit, before finally taking the lead with less than a minute left. After Magnolia regained the lead on a Paul Lee jumper, the Fuel speedsters would once again rise to the challenge with Jason Perkins burying a 3 to nip the Hotshots 89-87. Phoenix Coach Louie Alas would later quip that these were the kind of games he preferred, a win with character.
Previously, the team would simply surrender when faced with a huge deficit. They used to have a propensity to fold in the dying minutes of a close fight. They used to be considered softies against the grizzled veterans of the league’s heavyweight teams. All that are things of the past.
This year’s edition of the Phoenix Fuelmasters has developed a pug-nosed fight-to-the-death attitude that won’t back down from any adversity. Picture this: they’re the smallest team in the league (Justin Chua is their tallest at 6’6”), and yet they’re tops in the Rebounds statistics! When the opponent takes a shot, everyone hunkers down to help track down the ball. Everyone in this team is taking pride in doing the dirty job of boxing out, of fighting for those rebounds, of bumping and grinding, of providing help-defense despite an acute lack of size.
They’re also tops in the Fouls stats, averaging 28.3 fouls per game; a testament to their gritty defense that has everyone fighting tooth-and-nail for those rebounds and loose balls as if their very lives depended on it. And it all starts with their 2nd year coach Louie, who has inculcated in the players a stronger defensive urgency, transforming the squad into a more cohesive, much better defensive team.
Leading this bunch of blue-collar workers is that migrant from Alaska, Calvin ‘the Beast’ Abueva. Calvin has transformed Phoenix’ defense; grabbing those rebounds, deflecting passes and shots, outbullying the bullies. Twice he bailed out the team in tight situations; hitting the game-winner in overtime against Meralco 93-92, and then shining on the defensive end in stopping NLEX 83-82. His energy is simply contagious. His don’t-even-think-of-bullying-me attitude has rubbed off on the team.
Calvin embodies the new persona that Phoenix’ owner Dennis Uy had wanted for the team. In a talk before his players early last year, the young tycoon expressed his desire to see a hard-nosed team that would fight hard and would not be intimidated. He wanted a team that would not back down from anyone, and have the same never-say-die attitude of the Ginebra of old. In Calvin, he’s found the perfect fit.
With the sniper Matthew Wright, rookie sensation Jason Perkins, the steady RJ Jasul, plus the recent addition of another blue-collar worker, Alex Mallari, the tireless Jaypee Mendoza, bigs Justin Chua and Doug Kramer, and support from vets LA Revilla and Dave Marcelo, Phoenix’ basic rotation is secure. In this new era of positionless basketball, this small, yet scrappy squad is making cage fans take notice. If the resurgent JC Intal recovers from his injury in time, the team could become even more lethal.
In a way, Phoenix is an old-fashioned team, relying more on defense, and the traditional 2-point Field Goals. It leads the league in 2-pt conversions, averaging 28 per game. It is also tops in Free Throws with 21.2 per game, clearly showing that most of their shots are taken nearer the basket where the game’s physicality is more serious. On the other hand, the Fuel Masters are next to last in 3-pt Field Goals, shooting only 6.3 per game. This is one aspect of their game that they could certainly still improve on.
But the best thing about this team is that their chemistry is as good as it can get. Morale is high. Everyone is genuinely rooting for each other, everyone has bought in to coach Louie’s system. Everyone has imbibed the new toughness that Calvin has so generously spread around. There is simply no more trace off fear or awe in their game faces.
A new identity is emerging. One of toughness and true grit. An identity with an unabashed pride in blue-collar work, with abundant help, and selfless commitment to the team. One with a sense of urgency for team defense.
Recently, their sweet-shooting guard Matthew Wright was asked about the team’s chances. Without batting an eyelash, he said: “I think we’re for real”. This humble, yet cool confidence is slowly winning the hearts of many knowledgeable cage fans in the country.
This Sunday, don’t fail to watch as the new challenger in town, the ‘no-guts-no-glory’ team of Phoenix, trade shots and elbows with the old ‘never-say-die’ team of Ginebra. Ginebra may have the glam in LA Tenorio, Japeth Aguilar, Scottie Thompson, Greg Slaughter, Marc Caguioa, Jeff Chan; but Phoenix has the small, yet gritty bunch of Abueva, Perkins, Wright and the gang.
It’s glam versus grit. Who wins? Abangan!!!
(All pictures courtesy of PBA.ph)