#ThrowbackThursday: The very first PBA Christmas Day game

On December 25, 2002, the PBA rolled out its first-ever Christmas Day game at the Araneta Coliseum featuring Game 4 of the All-Filipino Cup Finals between the Alaska Aces and the Coca-Cola Tigers. This was unprecedented as the league inormally ended the season a week before Christmas.

This week, The Rivalry recalls the first time the PBA held a game on Christmas Day for its Throwback Thursday feature.

How it happened

The PBA was committed to represent the country in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea from September 29 to October 14. Even though the season started in February, the league decided to finish the Commissioner’s Cup one week before the Asian Games and hold the All Filipino a week after.

To prepare for the Asian Games, Coach Ron Jacobs designed a program that would prepare the national team. Instead of barnstorming different countries for tune-up games and pocket tournaments, Jacobs opted to have the preparations done at home by forming a pool of 24 players, scattered into two squads – Hapee Toothpaste and Selecta Ice Cream –to play in the first two conferences. To make the field competitive, the league allowed all teams to field in two imports each. The 12 players selected to play for the national team would return to their mother squads in the All-Filipino.


The PBA, though, wanted to complete the season before the year ended. But with only a two-month window, the conference had to be shortened with a single round robin format where all 10 teams played nine games. The top two teams would earn automatic semifinals seats while those who finished from third to sixth would have a knockout round where the third placer would go up against the sixth-best team, while the fourth and fifth teams would duke it out and the winners entering the semifinals.

A best-of-three semifinals series featured the first placer going up against the winner of the game between the fourth and fifth placers, while the number two team would meet the winner of the game between the third and sixth placers. The victorious ballclubs would then move to the finals in a best-of-five affair.

Elimination round

Fresh from winning their second franchise title in the 2002 Commissioner’s Cup, the Batang Red Bull Thunder went on a tear and won eight of their nine games to top the eliminations and earn the first semifinals seat. San Miguel, welcoming back RP Team mainstays Olsen Racela, Dondon Hontiveros and Danny Ildefonso as well as mentor Jong Uichico, ended up tied with Coke at 6-3 but the winner-over-the-other rule applied, enabling the Beermen to secure the second semifinals seat.

The playoffs

Coke went on to play against Sta. Lucia while Talk ‘N Text and Alaska squared off in a pair of knockout quarterfinals games. Four teams were eliminated – Shell, Ginebra, Purefoods and FedEx. In the quarterfinals, Alaska blasted TNT, 82-63, while Coke nosed out Sta. Lucia in a low-scoring thriller, 64-61.

The Thunder and the Beermen were favored to meet once more in the finals, after the 2001 Commissioner’s Cup when the George Chua-owned team upset the mighty SMB team, 4-2, in the finals. But the Aces and the Tigers had other things in mind as the Tim Cone-coached Aces nipped the Yeng-Guiao-mentored Thunder, 2-1. In the other series, the Tigers, under Chot Reyes, escaped with a 2-1 victory against SMB, setting the stage for a battle royale between two coaches who worked together with Alaska in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

The rosters

The Aces were bannered by 1998 MVP Kenneth Duremdes and 1988 Rookie of the Year and grand slam winner, Jojo Lastimosa. They were ably backed up by bigs Ali Peek, EJ Feihl, Don Allado, Eric Reyes and Migs Noble. In the backcourt, they had the likes of John Arigo, Jon Ordonio, Rob Duat, Rodney Santos and Philip Newton.

Coke, on the other hand, had former Aces Johnny Abarrientos, Poch Juinio, Jeff Cariaso and Cris Bolado. They were backstopped by the indefatigable Rudy Hatfield, blue-collar workers Rafi Reavis, Will Antonio, Freddie Abuda and Gilbert Lao, as well as MBA veterans Jojo Manalo, Ato Morano, Leo Avenido, Estong Ballesteros and Jovie Sese.

The year before, these two teams were involved in a celebrated trade that saw Abarrientos and Juinio moving to Coke (then called Pop Cola Panthers) in lieu of Ali Peek and Jon Ordonio. All four players were expected to play key roles in the Finals, particularly Abarrientos who felt he had an axe to grind against his former team for unceremoniously trading him.

The finals

The series was supposed to be held at the historic Big Dome but because of a previous reservation, Game 1 had to be held at the Cuneta Astrodome, the home of the PBA since 1993. The first 3 games were close, with no team winning by no more than three points. Game 1 saw the Aces fire the first bullet, beating the Tigers, 70-67. In Game 2, playing like wounded tigers, Coke had to play without key starters Abarrientos (fractured cheekbone sustained in Game 1) and conference MVP Cariaso (groin muscle experienced in the semis). It was low-scoring and after 48 minutes, the game was tied at 59 and headed into extension. Morano exploded in extra time, scoring 8 of Coke’s 13 points with Hatfield delivering a pivotal three-pointer to jumpstart Coke’s breakaway, 70-64. In the end, Coke staved off Duat’s twin three-point attempts that missed the mark to win, 72-69, and tie the series at 1-all. A frustrated Cone expressed his disappointment, worried about the overconfidence of his players. “This is what I’ve been saying all along. If we give Coke a fighting chance, we’ll definitely encounter problems.” Reyes, on the other hand, praised Morano’s efforts, describing him as the “best lowest paid cager in the PBA.” At that time, Morano’s salary was pegged at Php 75,000 a month.

Game 3 saw Coke surging ahead in the first quarter, 20-7 in a battle of defensive wits between the two cerebral coaches. The Tigers remained ahead, 33-20 at the end of the first half, but saw this margin vanish after the third after scoring a paltry 5 points while yielding 16 to the Aces. By the end of the third, the score was 38-36 in favor of Coke. With both teams struggling offensively, it became a grit and grind affair between the two protagonists as they worked on preventing their opponents from scoring and making a run.

Regulation ended at 51-all in what turned out to be the lowest scoring finals game in league history that time. The offense, though, picked up in overtime. Arigo made a trey with 43 seconds left that was assessed as a two-pointer by referee Mario Montiel, to the protestation of the Alaska bench and their followers. A three-point shot would have knotted the count at 60, but instead, Coke remained ahead, 60-59. A field goal by Coke and a free throw by Alaska set up the score at 62-60, but with only less than 4 seconds left, Duremdes missed a shot that could have sent the game to second OT. After the game, Alaska team manager Joaqui Trillo called for the suspension of Montiel for the remainder of the series after that glaring error.

Chot Reyes and his Coca-Cola Tigers in a huddle during the 2002 PBA All-Filipino finals. (Original photo from cocacolatigers.com)

The Christmas Day game

Winning a championship on Christmas Day had never happened, but Chot Reyes understood the importance of finishing the Aces on Game 4. For one, Reyes had the shallower bench, and Reyes knew that “the longer the series, the more advantageous it will be for them.”

At the same time, the fiery coach, perhaps one of the game’s best motivators, also realized that winning the conference would be unprecedented as no PBA team had won the All-Filipino title in their debut season. There were four teams that came close to this feat – the Filmanbank Bankers in 1978, the Shell Bugbusters in 1985, the Purefoods TJ Hotdogs in 1988, and the Tanduay Gold Rhum Masters in 1999.

Reyes, in an interview, said, “I don’t know if we could finish them off. I don’t even know if we could win another game in the series as needed.” Reyes wanted to keep the underdog tag for the team, despite being one game away from the championship.

Prior to game day, the PBA announced that they woould open the upper box and general admission sections of the Araneta Coliseum for free to the public entitled “Pamaskong Handog ng PBA at Araneta Center” as their Yuletide gift to the fans.

Coke started off strong, taking a 27-22 lead at the end of the first. The defensive intensity turned up a notch in the second as both Coke and Alaska could only score 10 and 11 points, respectively, to end the half at 37-33, the Tigers ahead.

But in the third, big man Reavis surprised everyone by leading the Tigers to an onslaught, burying three triples, including a buzzer-beater, carrying Coke to a double-digit spread, 59-47, heading to the final canto.

Coke was able to preserve the lead as the Aces couldn’t get a run going, succumbing, 78-63, and giving Coke its first franchise championship. Reyes, in the post-game interview, referred to his wards’ desire to win as the key. “We just caught them at a time that our will was overpowering. This victory is the benefit of all the hard work that we had poured in throughout the season.”

The series victory was also considered a major upset, approximating Presto’s shocking series win against Purefoods in the 1990 AFC championship. When asked to compare his previous championships with Purefoods, Reyes said, “Of course, the first was the most special but this one was sweeter because it was unexpected. It’s an underdog-like title victory.”

Commissioner Jun Bernardino, who was set to step down at the end of the season, summed it all up by “thanking the fans for their support, and that ending the series on Christmas Day is a fitting present.”

This year, the PBA will be holding its 16th Christmas Day game on Sunday in Game 1 of the Finals featuring the Bay Area Dragons versus the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. Fans are expected to flock to the Mall of Asia Arena as part of their family tradition to watch exciting PBA basketball games on Christmas.


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