It took nearly two decades before the San Juan Knights could repeat the feat it once did in the regional basketball scene — and what a way to win it.
Facing tremendous adversities, the Knights battled back from seven points down with less than two minutes left in the game of their do-or-die championship match against host Davao Occidental Tigers before completing a tense 87-86 win to become the MPBL’s first ever national champion.
Prior to conquering Davao, San Juan had to go through several stiff challenges along the way. After losing Game 4, the Knights were having troubles booking a flight to Davao and requesting the league to move the match on Saturday even crossed their minds.
But the team doesn’t want to make any excuses. The Knights rented Governor Chavit Singson’s plane just to get to Davao and they arrived late Wednesday afternoon. They couldn’t even get a practice venue to prepare for the biggest battle of their lives Thursday night and former Senator Jinggoy Estrada, one of the owners of the squad, advised the squad to rest their minds and bodies for the much awaited encounter.
In a championship series, there’s no room for superstition, but San Juan felt there was a Divine Intervention that happened during their do-or-die encounter.
“It rained so hard during the day of the match as if St. John The Baptist had poured water to bless our team,” said team executive Chris Conwi.
When almost everyone is losing hope, some of the faithful supporters of the squad offered prayers and in instant, the Knights wiped out a seven-point deficit and unloaded a telling 10-2 run capped by Jhonard Clarito’s last six points, including the winning basket in the final eight seconds.
“But the game wasn’t over yet. We thought we had already won the game, but Davao was able to advance the ball to the other end. Luckily, they couldn’t come up with a good shot. God really made it happen for us,” said the former senator, who saw his team’s return to glory after winning their first national title in the MBA, a precursor of the MPBL, in 2000.
Estrada had his own biblical cameo role and just like Moses, who shattered the tablet that bears the Ten Commandments, the co-owner of the squad took the seat of head coach Randy Alcantara, grabbed the coaching board and smashed it hard.
Somehow, it has awaken the team and once they got their sense back, the Knights resumed their mission of delivering the entire city of San Juan back to the Promised Land.
It was like a story book ending for the Knights and there were several heroes noted – Clarito, an unheralded forward who worked his way back to the rotation of the team, Mike Ayonayon, who poured in 33 points and was chosen as Finals MVP, and of course, Coach Alcantara, he, too, played a great game.
Battling sickness and stress altogether, Alcantara had been admitted to the hospital midway the series for high blood pressure. He nearly collapsed in one of the games, but his never-say-die spirit kept him going.
Alcantara had gone full circle. He was part of the San Juan Knights champion squad in Year 2000 as a player along with Gherome Ejercito, Estrada, then the Mayor of San Juan, and Jun Usman, former team coordinator who is now delegated as team manager of the current crop of Knights.
The amiable coach also won back-to-back championships. Last season, he was part of the Batangas Athletics champion squad as an assistant coach of Mac Tan.
Truly, the San Juan Knights came home like conquering heroes and were feted by supporters and local folks. It was their way to return to glory.
Rey Joble is a member of the PBA Press Corps and Philippine Sportswriters Association.