At around noon of April 20, 2022, PBA commissioner Willie Marcial, with a few hours to spare before heading to the Smart Araneta Coliseum for the PBA 3×3 Second Conference Grand Finals, lounged comfortably at his home in Libis, Quezon City, calm as someone who has gone through extremely challenging times – and survived.
He was in good mood. And why not? PBA fans are back in big numbers, his two weeks spent in the hospital due to Covid-19 is behind him, and the league is about to wrap up the second conference and bring the curtain down on the 46th season. Surely the worst is over.
Then his cell phone rang.
□ □ □
The call jolted Willie Marcial from his reverie.
As soon as he saw the forwarded video, showing gray smoke slowly seeping out of the air-conditioning vents, Marcial jumped to his car and raced to the Big Dome.
He called deputy commissioner Eric Castro to get everybody out and to ascertain if indeed the fire, whose origin was yet unknown, had already been contained, meaning Game 6 of the best-of-7 Governors’ Cup Finals between Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and Meralco could proceed at 6 p.m.
Marcial reached the Big Dome in record time. He got as far as the South Gate — which opens to the driveway leading to the locker rooms and the playing court — only to back off.
“Two steps pa lang ako, sumakit na mata ko, naluha-luha ako. Pupunta sana ako sa court, di na ‘ko nakatuloy. Sabi ko ‘di puwede ‘to,’” he said. (I couldn’t even make it to the playing court because the smoke got into my eyes.)
Marcial called off the game right there.
Game 6 of the Finals was moved to April 22 at the Mall of Asia Arena. Game 7, if needed, was then booked at the 55,000-sitting capacity Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan for April 24.
Trailing 3-2 in the series, the postponement should have allowed the Bolts more time to plot a strategy against the Kings for a winner-take-all.
However, the extra 48 hours proved of little consequence as Ginebra, in front of more than 20,000 fans, cut loose from a tight first half and ran away with its fourth Govs’ Cup championship from 2016, each one fashioned against Meralco.
Surveying the fully-packed venue, from special ringside to general admission, Marcial realized with a cold dread that the PBA had just dodged a bullet.
The size of the crowd – large even by pre-pandemic standards – was enough to conjure in him a nightmarish scene.
The word ‘stampede’ was never used. But for Marcial no extraordinary prescience was needed to summon hellish images of people – kids and adults, men and women – getting trampled in the mad rush for the exit at the first sign of smoke.
“Suwerte pa rin natin kasi nabuksan yung mga [Big Dome] aircon nang maaga dahil me 3×3 Finals,” Marcial said. “Pinapaandar kasi yon mga three hours before the game.” (We were fortunate the air-conditioning was turned on early.)
By his estimate, disaster waited in ambush by the first quarter of Game 6, had no previous event been on schedule that day.
“Bubuksan nila yon (aircons) ng 3 o’clock, sakto 6 o’clock jump ball natin. Kung naglalaro na tayo, 5×5 finals, tapos ganon karami ang tao, 18 to 20 thousand, at biglang magka-usok, baka me mangyaring iba na di natin inaasahan na mapapasama tayo,” Marcial says. (It would have coincided with the start of Game 6. Under the circumstances, something untoward could have happened.)
And his fifth year on the job would have been anything but redeeming.
In early 2018, while functioning in his old post as media bureau and external affairs head, he was asked by the PBA board to take on a different role as it looked for a replacement for Commissioner Chito Narvasa, who had stepped down in mid-December.
Marcial agreed to sit in as OIC for a month. But then the board upped the ante.
On Jan. 25, 2018, after much cajoling from the league governors and countless consultations with people close to him, Marcial, who had resisted offers to accept a full-time assignment mainly because his father, cardiologist Dr. Rogelio Marcial, told him not to, became the PBA’s 10th commissioner.
“Di naman natin pinangarap yung position na yon e,” Marcial says. “At saka ayaw ni daddy kaya nag-decline ako noong una (I never sought the position. Also, my father was against me accepting it).”
In the end, though, Marcial’s father bowed to the wisdom of one who came before him.
A paternal grandfather – ‘lolo Bert Galarpe,’ a former Quezon City councilor who, Marcial says, raised his father as a child, held a contrary view to that of the elder Marcial.
“Sabi ni lolo Bert, ‘isang karangalan yan at bihirang dumaan sa buhay natin ang ganyang pagkakataon, tanggapin mo,’” says Marcial. “Kaya pumayag na rin si daddy kasi si lolo Bert na nagsabi e.” (My grandfather said the job is a rare opportunity and an honor, and that I should accept it. Told what lolo Bert said, my dad finally relented.)
Sadly, Dr. Marcial passed away of a heart ailment in February 2020. But he lived long enough to see his only child restore peace and harmony among the governors after contentious issues in 2017 threatened to rip them apart.
It was that harmony, that reforged sense of unity and kinship, that kept the PBA together when it traversed the pandemic a few weeks later.
PBA Bubble in Angeles
Amid much fanfare, the PBA ushered in the 45th season with a blockbuster Philippine Cup opening day game on March 8, 2020 between San Miguel Beer and Magnolia at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Three days later, however, the PBA announced the suspension of the first conference after just one game as Metro Manila lapsed into the initial throes of Covid-19.
As the days passed and uncertainty mounted, the PBA worked quietly to secure the green light from the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force to resume the Philippine Cup, having decided to scrap the Commissioner’s and Governors’ Cups.
Around August-September that year, the league got it.
With the help of Sen. Bong Go, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and BCDA head and anti-Covid deputy chief implementer Vince Dizon, the PBA restarted its stalled season via a bubble setup in Clark, Pampanga on Oct. 1, 2020, with the games held at the Angeles University Foundation gym.
The entire PBA delegation – team executives, players, coaches, trainers, team utility, referees, league officials, staff, media and medical personnel – was then housed at the nearby Quest Plus Hotel, ferried back and forth to the venue by sanitized buses.
Marcial recalls the logistical problems surrounding the bubble conference.
“Ang hirap mag-buo kasi di pa natin alam kung ano ang gagawin noon kasi bago lahat e,” says Marcial. “Halos araw-araw ang meeting to discuss papano yung venue, yung hotel, yung transpo, testing, logistics, ospital, staff, mga players and coaches, coverage, fans, lahat…” (It was difficult to set up the bubble because of the many things that had to be considered, from the overall cost, the venue, hotel, transportation and everything else.)
Eventually, the league put it all together, amid the ever-changing, ever-shifting protocols and endless swab tests, completing the shortened season to the tune of no less than P70 million and with Ginebra prevailing over TNT in the Finals 4-1.
As quarantine regulations eased up, the PBA launch two conferences – the Philippine Cup and Governors’ Cup – for the 46th season starting on June 16, 2021 at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig.
“Sabi namin, baka puwede naman na semi-bubble, venue-bahay ka lang, uwian (A semi-bubble setup was proposed where players can go home after the game),” says Marcial.
New protocols were crafted and presented to the IATF, and government assistance was again solicited, including a valuable one, Marcial says, from MMDA chairman Benhur Abalos.
With team owners and governors, led by chairman Ricky Vargas of TNT Tropang Giga, throwing their full support behind the two-leg season, the PBA raised the drapes to the Philippine Cup halfway in June, and soldiered on amid a spectator-less, closed-circuit environment.
Then came the need to again move the games outside Metro Manila.
The site chosen once more was Pampanga, where the Don Honorio Ventura State University in Bacolor, through the intercession of Gov. Dennis Pineda, offered to host the remainder of the first conference from late August 2021 to the closing days of October, with TNT beating Magnolia in the Finals 4-1.
Covid-19 close to home
Unknown to the public around that time, just when the PBA was negotiating the move to Bacolor, its leader was facing grim odds, having been rushed to the hospital where doctors fought to keep him from lapsing into mortal danger.
“Hirap talaga ako huminga non (I really had difficulty breathing),” says Marcial, who battled the virus for 14 days while monitoring the progress of the PBA semi-bubble from his sick bed.
“Naitawid ng staff ko (My staff carried through in my absence),” he says. “Ang nagdala talaga non, si Eric Castro at si Michelle [Flores, executive assistant and PBA social media head].”
By God’s grace, Marcial’s condition took a turn for the better in early August. He then shepherded the 46th season home.
The Governors’ Cup, which kicked off on Dec. 8, 2021 at the Ynares Sports Arena, weathered a six-week suspension due to rising Covid-19 cases and wrapped up on April 22, 2022 at the MOA Arena, two days after the Big Dome smoke scare.
A welcome sight for all was the return of PBA fans, first in trickles then in droves, something which took Marcial by surprise.
“Hindi ako nawalan ng pag-asa kasi alam ko na makakabalik ang fans. Pero di ko akalain na magiging ganong kabilis at ganong kadami (I knew fans would eventually come back but I never thought they’d return so quickly and in such big numbers),” he says.
From around 3,000, live audience rose to 5,000 and then swelled to quadruple that number by the time it reached its peak during the Govs’ Cup Finals.
A new beginning
Like his gradual recovery from those 14 dreadful days, the PBA putting together an expensive bubble and then riding out the viral storm with a closed-circuit conference, welcoming the return of a live audience and escaping a potentially calamitous Game 6 situation, Marcial now faces a new beginning with the 47th season set to begin on June 5, Sunday.
And he has spared nothing to pull out all stops.
During their recent PBA planning session in Boracay, Marcial gave the ballclub governors the whole nine yards, spelling out a grand season geared at a full-blast return to pre-pandemic conditions.
“All out na ‘ko! Kung ano ang naging presentation ko sa kanila noong 45th season, ganon din ginawa ko nang meeting sa Bora; hindi na pang pandemic,” he gushes over the phone.
“Normal na lahat ang nilatag ko. May three conferences, All-Star, out-of-town games, out-of-the country, yung opening ceremony, magiging bongga! Sa Araneta. At yung mga di namin nagawa nong 2020, gagawin namin lahat ngayon.” (I presented to the board during the planning session in Boracay what I proposed to them back in 2020 prior to the pandemic. All activities are in, from three conferences to the All-Star Weekend and out-of-town games.)
What about other challenges? Like a number of upcoming stars taking their acts to foreign lands?
Marcial says he respects these players’ rights and that the league won’t stand in the way of their earning a livelihood wherever they choose to.
“After all, pupunta rin naman sila sa’tin pag dating ng panahon, di ba? (They’ll be joining the PBA in time, right?),” he says.
So where does this wellspring of optimism come from?
“Di natin alam siempre kung anong pandemic ang darating sa’tin uli pero naniniwala ako na lalong tumibay ang PBA dahil sa mga dinaanan natin na pagsubok nitong huling dalawang taon,” Marcial says. “Kaya pang normal na season ang nilahad ko sa board dahil optimistic ako na kakayanin natin.” (We’re not certain what lies ahead in terms of this pandemic. But I’m optimistic we would be able to hurdle the challenge considering what we went through in the last two years.)