A 7-month layoff officially ends Sunday afternoon, when the PBA returns to the hard court with a double-header amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking a cue from the successful bubble tournament in the NBA, the premier domestic league resumes play in the 2020 Philippine Cup with TNT Tropang Giga facing Alaska at 4 p.m., and NLEX and Barangay Ginebra meeting at 6:45 p.m.
Games will be held daily at a single venue — Angeles University Foundation Gym in Angeles City, Pampanga — without spectators, with teams playing in a compressed schedule expected to be finished by December granted there are no hitches.
The league will strictly enforce medical guidelines to prevent COVID-19 infections.
“The rules and the protocols are set to be followed for a reason,” NLEX star playmaker Kiefer Ravena said.
“You want to make sure that everybody, even their staff maintains proper hygiene, social distancing with face shield, face mask.
“Ito iyong bagay na ayaw mong maging careless kasi isang mali, baka matigil lahat. Mabuting nang safe para tuloy-tuloy ang balik ng liga.”
Vince Dizon, president and CEO of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority, which played a significant role in opening Clark to the PBA and thus bringing local professional basketball back, said expectations are being tempered.
“This shows that we are ready to slowly but surely go back to the things that we used to do prior to COVID,” Dizon said.
“As long as we do it safely, we will slowly but surely try to get some semblance of normalcy amidst the challenges that we face.”
The PBA squeezed in one game for its 45th season — a victory by defending All-Filipino Cup champion San Miguel Beer over sister team Magnolia on March 8 — before it suspended play just as the coronavirus blew up into a pandemic.
“All the teams here are trying to break the stranglehold of San Miguel and Ginebra. They’ve just kept on winning the championships. They alternated between the two of them,” NLEX coach Yeng Guiao said.
While all 11 teams want to concentrate on playing and get their minds off a still active health crisis, there will be questions entering the competition price-tagged at P65 million, a significant fraction of which will go to making sure everyone who is part of the event do not contract coronavirus.
Given the break in action that went on for more than half a year — the longest hiatus the PBA has been on since its inception in 1975 — game rust could have set in for players whose basketball activities were severely restricted during that time.
The PBA is also hoping that, like the NBA, it will finish the Philippine Cup without a COVID-19 case. Everyone involved in the bubble is housed at a single hotel inside the Clark Freeport Zone.
It will be interesting, too, how teams will respond to an environment absent fans, particularly the popular squads, such as Barangay Ginebra.
Ginebra head coach Tim Cone said the hiatus could even the field.
“I think it equalizes things a little bit. It equalizes, because we're all gonna come back after a long, long stretch, and back to zero,” Cone said in an interview in August.
“The team that’s gonna be able to get in shape and be able to rediscover their system is gonna be the team that's gonna have the edge.”
He added at the time: “But you know, we’re looking forward.
“Right now we're just thinking about, let's go back to work and let's chase whatever is out there.”
Meanwhile, TNT will be without Kelly Williams, who has retired, while Alaska’s Sonny Thoss has opted out of the bubble.
Vic Manuel, Jvee Casio, Jeron Teng and Kevin Racal banner a youthful Alaska cast that also includes Yutien Andrada, Mer Jesper Ayaay, Rodney Brondial, Mike Digregorio, Abel Galliguez, Robert Herndon, and Abu Tratter, and rookies Kevin Ebona, Jaycee Marcelino and Reynaldo Publico.
Maverick Ahanmisi, formerly of Rain Or Shine, will try to catch up as soon as he joins the Aces.
Alaska finished eighth in the 2019 Philippine Cup.
Barely missing the finals in the 2019 Governors Cup and aching to do better in the bubble are head coach Bong Ravena and his TNT squad, rebranded as the Tropang Giga.
Poy Erram, Simon Enciso and rookie Kib Montalbo join a TNT squad boasting the core of Jayson Castro, Troy Rosario and Roger Pogoy.