IF one is to discuss which team was the best during the five-year run of the Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) from 1998 to 2002, the expected popular answers would be its champion teams plus the fan favorites. However, the MBA had its own version of the Dream Team.
In 2000, the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) appointed then Manila Metrostars coach David Zamar as the new coach of the national Men’s Team. At the time of his appointment, Zamar was also in-charge of the national Young Men’s Team. The previous national coach, Louie Alas, had just signed up to handle Mobiline in the PBA.
The MBA already had a good working relationship with the BAP. In the past, the MBA lent its players to the national cause as early as its first season in 1998 when the Pangasinan Presidents played in the Champions Cup in Malaysia. The following year, four different franchises were sent overseas – the Iloilo Megavoltz for the Jones Cup in Taiwan, the Laguna Lakers for the 20th FIBA-Asia Men’s in Japan, the Pasig-Rizal Pirates for the Champions Cup in Lebanon and the Metrostars for the 20th Southeast Asian Games in Brunei. In addition to those major tournaments, MBA teams have been sent to small tournaments or goodwill matches in China, Guam and the Middle East.
Coach Zamar quickly called for open try-outs at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum after the end of the 2000 MBA season. Among those who answered the call were the league’s resident superstars led by reigning MVP Romel Adducul of the Metrostars.
After several sessions, the final cuts were announced. Adducul was joined by 1998 MVP John Ferriols of the Negros Slashers as well as the trio of Chris Calaguio, Chito Victolero and Omanzie Rodriguez from the 2000 MBA National Champion San Juan Knights. Also making the team were Ruben dela Rosa of the Slashers and Peter Martin of the Metrostars, Eddie Laure of the Batangas Blades, Junel Mendiola of the Pampanga Dragons, Homer Se and Stephen Padilla of the Cebu Gems, Jomar Tierra of the Davao Eagles, free agent Vince Hizon and lone amateur Egay Echavez. Hizon was then locked in a contract dispute with the Megavoltz while Echavez was a walk-on from Shark Energy Drink of the Philippine Basketball League (PBL). In addition to the veterans, Coach Zamar added collegians Jean Marc Pingris of PSBA-QC and Joshua Ramirez of Adamson to the team’s reserve unit.
What was remarkable was the fact that province-based players like Ferriols, Padilla and Se agreed to live at the quarters inside Rizal Memorial while training was going on. Meanwhile, the MBA was taking time in starting its season, announcing that only eight of its 14 teams would return in 2001.
Despite that delay, the player transactions continued. The Metrostars merged with the Blades thus putting Adducul, Martin and Laure in the same team. Mendiola moved to the Laguna Lakers after the Dragons closed shop. Tierra signed with Negros to join Ferriols and dela Rosa. Coach Zamar, left out in the Manila-Batangas merger, found employment with the Socsargen Marlins and took in Echavez as a pro rookie.
The team’s first public appearance came in February, a two-game exhibition series with the Gems in Cebu and Dumaguete. What followed was the five-team Lina-Mercado Cup in Laguna from March 13 to 18.
Lakers team owner Bert Lina was seeking the province’s gubernatorial post with businesswoman Alita Mercado as his running mate, staging the tournament as a campaign gimmick by playing games in the towns of Santa Cruz and Calamba and San Pablo City over six days. The Nationals would face the Lakers, Wang’s Ball Club, M. Lhuillier-Cebu and Chung-Ang University of South Korea.
Opening day saw a 93-77 demolition of Wang’s. The game was marked by the absence of the Knights trio after their mother team barred them from playing. After negotiations, the team became complete in time for their 97-92 drubbing of Chung-Ang on Day Two. Suddenly the campaign hit a snag as the Lakers pulled off the 87-82 upset of their fellow MBA pros. Incidentally, Mendiola was asked to join the Lakers for the tournament.
Due to the loss, the Nationals faced a must-win situation in their final game against undefeated M. Lhuillier, a team reinforced by imports Bobby Parks and Darryl Smith. A loss would create a triple tie with the Koreans and Lakers for the second finals slot at 2-2, with the Koreans holding the tie breaker.
Adducul was unavailable for the crucial encounter after he got poked in the eye during the loss to the Lakers. The rest of the team though stepped up and ran away with the 94-74 blowout behind the 17 points of dela Rosa and the inside plays of Ferriols, Laure and Se. Earning the second finals berth came at a cost as Pingris tore his ACL in the waning seconds of scrub time.
In the finale, M. Lhuillier of Coach Raul “Yayoy” Alcoseba provided a tougher resistance but in the end the Nationals prevailed, 77-74. Calaguio led the way with 17 points, cementing his status as the team’s top scorer of the tournament with 15.5 per game.
Up next was the Fourth Southeast Asian Basketball Association Men’s Championship in Manila from April 2 to 7, and the team had roughly two weeks to prepare.
The team’s long term goal was actually the 21st Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia later in the year. The SEABA Men’s was their first acid test. It should provide Coach Zamar a good gauge of their opponents.
The tournament drew seven entries, divided into a group of four and a group of three. The Filipinos were joined by Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia in Group A. Group B was composed of Indonesia, Brunei and the team perceived to be the hosts’ toughest challenger, Thailand.
The team opened with a 112-72 demolition of Singapore behind Calaguio’s 24 points. The next game saw the Filipinos hold Vietnam scoreless in the third period en route to the 130-46 victory. Ferriols feasted on his smaller opponents with 18 points and 12 rebounds. The Filipinos ended the prelims with a 91-43 thrashing of Malaysia as Adducul tallied 15 points and 15 rebounds.
In the crossover semifinals, the Filipinos disposed of Group B runner-up Indonesia, 88-41, to arrange a championship date with the also undefeated Thais, who walloped Singapore, 70-60.
A citywide power outage proved to some form of blessing as a huge throng of fans left their homes and trooped to the Rizal Memorial for the finals. Coach Zamar’s earlier apprehensions about the Thais’ strength were erased as the team cruised to the 90-73 win and the championship. Calaguio scattered 20 markers while Adducul (14 points, 18 rebounds) and Ferriols (13 points, 16 rebounds) submitted double-doubles. Adducul finished the tournament with averages of 14.0 points and 11.4 rebounds.
The Filipinos and the Thais also earned the right to represent the sub-zone in the 21st FIBA-Asia Men’s Championship in Shanghai, China in August. A possible stint in the Champions Cup, to be held again in Lebanon, was also considered but was later scrapped due to financial constraints.
After much delay, it was announced that the 2001 MBA season would commence on June 3 in San Juan. The players had to return to their mother teams, with a two-day preseason tournament scheduled for April 20 in Cebu City.
However, the biggest problem came from the BAP offices. An ugly leadership dispute eventually led to the country’s suspension from FIBA. Because of that, the Nationals were forced to skip the Shanghai tilt with SEABA bronze medalist Singapore taking their place. That marked the first time the Philippines failed to participate since hosting the inaugural tournament in 1960.
While the politicking continued, Coach Zamar and the team expressed fear that they could be replaced anytime, especially if another faction takes over the BAP. However, newly-installed BAP president Tiny Literal assured them of their security. The protracted dispute also saw some team members join a group of BAP supporters in a picket around Rizal Memorial that eventual led to a march to Malacanang hoping to have an audience with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to air their gripes.
In the end, the BAP leadership row was settled and FIBA reinstated the Philippines, paving the way for their participation in the Southeast Asian Games.
Unlike their preparations for the SEABA Men’s, the team now had to contend with the fact that all of them had to divide time with their duties to their mother teams as the MBA season was already in full swing.
Besides, the politicking had yet to stop. During the Philippine delegation’s pre-departure courtesy call to President Arroyo, the team stood out not because of their celebrity status but because they were the only team that did not arrive in their official uniforms and they were the last to have their photo-op with the President. Some parties were bent on harassing the players and BAP officials by not releasing on time their uniforms, shoes and other freebies for their trip.
In a show of support, the MBA organized a send-off game between the Nationals and an All-Star selection on September 5 at the C. P. Tinga Memorial Hall in Taguig City, the alternate home court of the Marlins. The Nationals eked out the 96-90 win, providing them positive momentum to the games set to start in three days.
Aside from that, the MBA also cancelled its games while the SEA Games were going on, resuming on September 19. However, not all were on the same page as the Gems management earlier withdrew Padilla and Se from the team. Coach Zamar was thus forced to promote reserves Tierra and Hizon in their place in the final 12-man roster.
The harassment continued in Malaysia. BAP president Literal and some team officials were given the run-around by their fellow Filipinos in securing their accreditation and hotel accommodations. Mr. Literal was even insulted as he was issued an ID card for team support staff.
Coach Zamar expected that the opposition would tinker with last April’s rosters. A common practice in the international game is to switch jersey numbers, aside from inserting new players. Ignoring the many distractions, the team focused on the job at hand – bring home the gold.
The same teams from the SEABA were back except for last-placed Brunei. The six teams will play a single-round robin with the team with the best win-loss card taking home the gold medal. There will be no more championship game.
The Filipinos drew an opening day bye, allowing the coaches to scout the opposition. In their opener on September 10, the Filipinos crushed Indonesia, 112-74. Adducul had 19 points and nine rebounds. The Indonesians showed up with six new players.
Lightweight Vietnam was up next. Facing the same team they creamed by 84 points five months ago, the Filipinos tallied the easy 100-40 win. The win came at a cost as Hizon rolled his ankle. Dela Rosa led the way with 17 points.
The game was over by 6:00 PM and the Filipinos had a break the following day. The team decided to eat out to celebrate Ferriols’ 27th birthday which came two days earlier. While walking to the restaurant, Ferriols received a text message from his family back home – a plane just crashed into New York’s World Trade Center. By coincidence, the group was positioned right in front of the Petronas Twin Towers! “We better take pictures now, this might be next,” said Tierra laughing.
While the team relished their meal, deep inside everyone was worried about their loved ones both back home in the Philippines and in the United States. It did not help that responsibility was pointed to a group of Muslim extremists and Malaysia was a predominantly Muslim country.
Up next was their rematch with SEABA runner-up Thailand. This could just be the game that would determine the color of the medal that they will bring home. After 40 minutes, Coach Zamar could now breathe a sigh of relief. His wards zapped the Thais, 94-65, a bigger margin compared to last April.
After another rest day, it was time to face Singapore. The Filipinos raced to their fourth straight win, 83-59. The only stumbling block left was host Malaysia. Another snag then popped up from nowhere.
Coach Zamar received the shock of his life when he was fired as coach of the Marlins by team owner Ruben Solon, naming former Davao mentor Francis Rodriguez in his place. The Marlins under Coach Zamar had won only two of their 16 games before the league went on a break. That meant going home a jobless man.
In the prior game, the Indonesians beat Vietnam, 76-73, to rise to 4-1. The 3-1 Malaysians could force a triple tie if they beat the 4-0 Filipinos. Furthermore, the hosts could steal the gold if they win by 21 points or more. Of course, Coach Zamar did not want to take any chances. He wanted to show that despite all the off-court distractions, he and the team will deliver. Perhaps, seeing the big group of Pinoys who were denied entry into the gym fired up the squad.
Deliver they did as they mowed down the Malaysians, 81-59. Calaguio again lived up to his moniker of “Hot Hands” by drilling in 14 points. Adducul and Martin added 12 each followed by Laure with 10. Laure ended up as the Philippines’ top scorer with 15.6 per game on top of 5.8 rebounds.
As they received their gold medals and the national anthem was played, all the disunity and politicking that marred the run-up to the games were temporarily forgotten. Indonesia, who placed fourth in the SEABA, took the silver and Malaysia the bronze. After the medal ceremony, the team was treated to dinner at the Chinese restaurant at the ground floor of the MABA Stadium courtesy of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo.
That same night, the team retreated to their hotel to prepare for the flight back home the next morning.
It was back to their mother teams to play the remainder of the season. In the end, Adducul, Laure and Martin powered the Blades to the 2001 National Championship over Ferriols, dela Rosa, Tierra and the Slashers, 3-1. Laure emerged as the season’s MVP.
Like most national teams of the era, the team was disbanded after the SEA Games, going their own ways. Rodriguez, Calaguio, Se, Victolero and Mendiola were selected and eventually signed to pacts in the 2002 PBA Rookie Draft. Hizon also found his way back to the PBA as a free agent via Red Bull.
The rest of the team remained in the MBA for its final run. Adducul tried to apply for the 2002 Draft but was denied clearance by the Blades, forcing him to transfer to the revived Pangasinan Wave with a heavy heart. With Socsargen disbanding, Echavez joined Padilla at the Gems together with the now healed Pingris, who decided to skip his remaining varsity eligibility to turn pro. Laure, Martin, Ferriols, Tierra and dela Rosa stayed put with their old teams. Meanwhile, Coach Zamar was hired to coach his alma mater, University of the East in the UAAP while his main deputy Bong Ramos was taken by Ginebra as an assistant. Coach Ramos would cut short his PBA stint to coach in Indonesia, handling their team in the next SEA Games in Vietnam.
When the MBA finally called it quits midway in 2002, Adducul, Echavez, Padilla, Laure and Ferriols fled to the PBL and eventually found their way into the PBA by 2003. Tierra, an unsigned draftee of San Miguel in 2001, earned a spot with Santa Lucia. Pingris came in a year later in 2004. Dela Rosa extended his playing career a bit by hooking up with M. Lhuillier in Cebu while Martin, the team’s eldest player at 33, retired to become a PBL team manager and sportscaster.
Is this the greatest MBA team of all time? Maybe, if one is to name the best players from the five seasons of the MBA. Of course, a case can be argued for one or two players not in the list but the fact remains that these gentlemen represent the best products of the MBA.