Of the 4 survivors in this grueling 2019 PBA All-Filipino Conference, the youngest and least experienced team is undoubtedly the Phoenix Elite Fuelmasters. It joined the PBA in 2016, and has reached the semifinals only for the first time in its brief history. In comparison, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters joined the league in 2006, and have bagged 2 championships since then. The Magnolia Hotshots (previously known as the Purefoods Hotdogs and San Mig Super Coffee Mixers) joined the league in 1988, and have taken 14 crowns since. Finally, that juggernaut, the San Miguel Beermen was a founding member of the PBA way back in 1975. It has since annexed a record total of 25 championship trophies.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, it drew the mighty San Mig team for its semis dance partner. The Fuel Masters now hold a precarious 0-2 record in its best-of-seven series, which makes the campaign more challenging.
But the team fights on.
Doggedly. Passionately. Fearlessly.
Despite its relative youth as a team, despite being the shortest among the contending squads, despite the lack of playoff experience, despite having to face a star-studded selection of internationalists in the Beermen, the Fuel Masters are showing a refreshingly unselfish brand of basketball that is able to provide San Miguel a worthy challenge.
This brand of high-octane basketball can be seen in the effort they give in every game they play. You can see it in the way they fight for every loose ball, every rebound despite their lack of ceiling. You can see that they play with more energy, more desire; you can see that they trust each other, and that they genuinely cheer for each other. You can see that they understand each other’s roles, yet they know that faced with the overwhelming talent and size advantage of the opposite side, they must be ready to provide ‘help defense’ to their teammates at any given time.
Coach Louie Alas has inculcated a team philosophy predicated on the dictum that defense wins championships. He has also been able to instill a team spirit and work ethic where the players want to practice, knowing that their hard work has brought them to heights never before achieved. The players all agree with the coach’s direction on how the game needs to be played. They believe in the team’s vision; and they are learning, communicating, and growing as a close-knit group.
Similar to the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers which clearly are not blessed with overwhelming talent in the ongoing NBA playoffs, the underdog Phoenix Elite Fuel Masters have been happily over-achieving. And fans who love to root for the underdog are having a heyday. The team is proving that team effort and high intensity can still trump pure talent and size.
San Miguel is still the most stacked team in the league. Without a doubt. That they struggled in the regular season is not a measure of the rest of the teams. Rather, it only revealed San Mig’s growing impatience and apathy for the regular season, having reached the playoffs consistently for the past decade or so.
Phoenix, on the other hand, is showing a hunger, an eagerness to play in the playoffs. And it is showing that it is no longer a patsy. It can now play hardball with the grizzled veterans of the league. That said, it has certainly gained the respect and admiration of the entire PBA community. But it will definitely need to play a near-flawless game in order to compete with the defending All-Filipino champs.
Overheard at a restaurant after Game 2 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. Some San Miguel fans were eating heartily after San Mig’s win over Phoenix. And as they talked, one professed a grudging admiration for the Phoenix squad: “Pero nakaka-bilib talaga ang Phoenix. Maliliit na nga, kokonti pa ang pambato. Pero talagang palaban! Grabe makipagkagatan!!!” (“But Phoenix’ team is really amazing. They are small, they only have a few outstanding players. Yet they come to fight it out! They can really bite!!!”)
That statement epitomizes the culture and the growing pride among the members of the Phoenix team. That culture compels each player to play hard, play with high energy, and play to win. If they continue to sacrifice and follow this path, then it’s only a matter of time before this team becomes a force to reckon with in the PBA.
Pictures courtesy of PBA.ph. For a closer look, just click on the pictures.
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