Pampanga Dragons celebrate 25th anniversary of MBA championship

It was around 5:30PM at the Sixty-Four bar and restaurant at the Vista Mall in San Fernando, Pampanga.Organizer and former Pampanga Dragons team manager Gil Cortez was feeling anxious after hearing several reports of how bad traffic was entering NLEX in Balintawak.Most of the celebrators were coming from Manila and were already texting him that they’ll be coming in late for the scheduled 7:00 PM gig.

It helped that the music in the venue featured several hits from the 1970’s, relaxing Cortez. The first PBA Rookie of the Year in 1976 also showed his other side as a doting grandfather, taking care of his precocious six-year old grandson, Rafael Iñigo, who ran around the restaurant with boundless energy.

Program emcee and MBA pioneer broadcaster Sev Sarmenta arrived a few minutes after 6:00 PM. Armed with several stories and anecdotes regarding the MBA, including his hilarious impression of the late Dragons coach, Aric del Rosario, the ever-genial sports anchorman was Cortez’s first and only choice to host the event. “There’s no better emcee to have to celebrate the Dragons’ 25th anniversary than Sev – he was there from the get-go, knew the players quite intimately, and can share his own MBA stories like no other,” Cortez revealed to The Rivalry.

It was Long David and his wife, Mhaggie, who arrived first. David, who was one of the heroes in the Finals series against the Negros Slashers in the 1998 national finals, has remained lean in his 6’4 frame. Other players who came in before 7:00 PM included Nonoy Pido, Ariel Garcia, Billy Bansil, Willy Mejia and Lester del Rosario. Ato Agustin, the 1992 PBA Most Valuable Player and the first Finals MVP of the MBA, arrived shortly after and warmly gave Cortez a hug. He then joined his former teammates in the long table.

Norman Gonzales and Eric Gascon joined the party a few minutes after to the collective cheers of everyone. Ompong Segura, former transition finisher of the fabled Toyota Comets in the PBA and who served as the Dragons’ assistant coach, also arrived before 7:30 PM.

Udoy Belmonte, now a captain pilot with the Philippine Airlines who just flew in earlier in the morning from San Francisco, arrived around 9:30PM with his wife. He was at the champion 1993 UST Growling Tigers 30th anniversary gathering at Greenhills in the late afternoon but left early so that he could make it to the Dragons’ reunion.

Another MBA pioneer anchorman, Bill Velasco, arrived around 8:00 PM. Velasco, along with the late Butch Maniego, were the broadcasters of the very first game of the MBA held on March 7, 1998 featuring the Manila Metrostars versus the Cebu Gems. Peter Martin of the Metrostars was the first to score in the then fledgling league.

It wasn’t long before Sarmenta kicked off the proceedings. Agustin, who served as the team skipper, led the opening prayer while offering a special prayer to the eternal repose of the souls of Mondragon owner and former Cabinet Secretary Jose Antonio Gonzalez (JAG) and Coach Aric del Rosario. Team owner Anton Gonzalez couldn’t make it as he was in Cebu to attend a wedding. Instead, the scion of JAG sent a video message extending his warmest greetings to his former players and staff. Cortez then gave his welcome remarks in a prepared script that warmed everyone’s hearts.

Sarmenta then called in everyone from the players to the utility staff as Cortez handed out their 25th anniversary Pampanga Dragons shirts individually, asking them to wear these for the night. A sea of blue permeated the restaurant, a perfect segue for team photos with the 1998 MBA championship streamer serving as a fitting backdrop.

A 10-minute video tribute highlighting several photos of the Dragons’ championship run in 1998 was then played using two songs from that year as background – Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” back-to-back with Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” Segura admitted turning misty-eyed after watching the video produced by the hosts of the sports podcast, “An Eternity of Basketball.” “Ang sarap balikan nun nakaraan,” Segura said. He added that “yun photos, ang sarap tingnan ulit, at nakaka-miss din sina JAG (Jose Antonio Gonzalez) at si Coach Aric,” added Segura.

Sarmenta then regaled the players and staff with stories about the league in general and the Dragons in particular. Sarmenta cited how special the Dragons were, remembering that the team was blessed with having their own chef to prepare their dishes before and after every game. Cortez explained that he was able to convince the owners the value of their players getting first-class food for its nutritional benefits as well as satisfying the discriminating delectable tastes of the Kapampangan players. He then had everyone in stitches with his voice impersonation of Coach Aric during the timeout huddles.

A trivia game then came after, gamely participated in by everyone. Special edition coffee mugs were handed out to those who were able to answer the questions correctly.

Cortez then made sure that the players would enjoy their dinner as much as the camaraderie. Beef nachos and chicken wings were served as appetizers and when the buffet table was opened, there was chicken and mango salad, truffle pasta, chicken and chorizo paella, grilled pork belly, fish and chips and pork sisig. Liquor was just as aplenty, with wines, tequila and Weinsteiner tall beer served.

Everyone went on with their stories, mostly throwback of the good old MBA days, while Cortez serenaded them with hits from John Lennon, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. Pampanga’s own Music Mates duo provided the entertainment with songs from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and a sprinkling of recurrent hits.  David also proved to be a competent crooner, performing a duet with the female vocalist of Music Mates duo.

Curiously, the venue was reserved until 12 midnight but the players didn’t leave until 2AM, a testament to the team’s camaraderie and brotherly spirit. Those who couldn’t make it were mostly players based overseas like Ato Morano, Andy de Guzman, Bryant Punzalan and Dave Bautista. Bautista, the team’s starting small forward, though, sent a video message as well as physical therapist, Robert Miguel. The two others who failed to make it were Gherome Ejercito and Rolof Liangco.

It was indeed a fun night of revelry and nostalgia. Rekindling past common experiences with one another made the occasion more memorable. It was only appropriate that Cortez held this anniversary party at the very province where they made the hometown fans proud. 25 years after, the Dragons remained the kings of Pampanga.


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