The greatest team of all time versus the greatest coach of all time.
In another place, another time, those labels would have been debatable. But not now, not here. Not after the PBA records San Miguel Beer and Tim Cone of Barangay Ginebra have logged in league history.
It’s the dynasty versus the modern-day “Maestro” for the Commissioner’s Cup trophy starting on Friday, a matchup Beermen coach Leo Austria had foreseen long before either team had booked a Finals berth.
If ever it was bluster on Austria’s part, it is understandable.
“He’s never been beaten in the Finals,” Cone said when asked of what he thinks of his matchup with Austria, who is 6-for-6 in a championship series with San Miguel and has played a big part of the Beermen’s stranglehold of the past four PBA seasons.
“And we will be going up against what could very well be the greatest team of all time.”
Cone has been very good at deflecting credit and winning as an underdog. He did that with Alaska where he won multiple championships before moving to Purefoods/San Mig. He won a Grand Slam for each franchise, becoming the only coach to have won the league’s Triple Crown twice.
But Cone will let no past accomplishment steal the relish with which he faces this new challenge.
“It’s a real honor playing San Miguel Beer in the Finals,” he said. “Of all the teams in the league, we probably have the best matchup to San Miguel. We’re up for the challenge; my players will embrace it.”
Even the subplots are intriguing, they may very well be the main narrative of this best-of-seven drama.
June Mar Fajardo, perhaps the biggest reason no team has really shaken the Beermen the last four seasons, battles college rival Greg Slaughter in a crown duel for the first time in the pros.
Budding pro rivalry
The last two times both players squared off was when their schools battled in the finals of the Cebu varsity league, with Slaughter’s University of Visayas toppling Fajardo’s University of Cebu, 3-1, in the championship series.
“I hope I will win this time,” said Fajardo in Filipino.
“It’s been a long time since (and) it’s really exciting to be squaring off again in the Finals,” added Slaughter.
The two big men were supposed to chart a new rivalry in the pros, but Slaughter has been injury-riddled, missing the last time the Beermen and the Kings tangled in the championship. San Miguel won that one, the 2017 Philippine Cup.
Justin Brownlee also puts his sparkling 2-for-2 record in championship series appearances on the line as he tries to power Ginebra against a very familiar foe.
Just months ago, Brownlee and San Miguel Beer import Renaldo Balkman lifted San Miguel-AlabPilipinas to the Asean Basketball League crown.
The Kings actually won the last time both teams tangled in a series, when Brownlee led Ginebra past San Miguel in the 2017 Governors’ Cup semifinals, denying the Beermen a shot at a second franchise Grand Slam.
And then there is the showdown between Scottie Thompson and Chris Ross, a battle of hard-nosed, do-it-all guards. Austria also believes that Ginebra made a mid-season move in preparation for a series against them, when the Kings brought in Jeff Chan from Phoenix “to break our zone defense.”
On top of all the narratives though lies the matchup between the two gentlemen who will have a direct hand on how the drama will run. Austria may have all the pieces on the board, but he will face off against a Grandmaster of a coach in Cone.
Which coach will make all the right moves? Which big man will shine? Which import will dominate?
There are so many questions, and until after the horn ending Game 1 on Friday at Smart Araneta Coliseum sounds, no one can really know.
This is a best-of-seven series, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this thing drag on.