MANILA, Philippines -- PBA commissioner Willie Marcial received the best possible birthday gift on Monday as the league continued to operate smoothly, two days since restarting its 45th season in a "bubble" in Clark, Pampanga.
Marcial is set to spend the next few months in the bubble together with nearly 400 other delegates, including all 12 PBA teams, league staff, media members, and other personnel. The bubble is a result of long months of planning by the PBA, led by Marcial and the Board of Governors, as they worked to salvage at least a portion of the league's 45th season.
For the commissioner, just seeing the PBA players return to the court after a seven-month hiatus was a source of relief.
"Kasama ko si (Alaska team governor) Dickie Bachmann," Marcial recalled during an appearance on the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum on Tuesday morning. "Nasa tabi ko siya. Sabi ko, maka-jump ball lang ito, okay na ako."
"Nagra-round robin pa lang, nagwa-warm up pa lang sila, iba na ang pakiramdam ko," he added. "Akala mo, mawawala ang PBA, pero hindi ako nawalan ng pag-asa. Simula't sapul, sinabi ko, makakabalik ang PBA."
There was reason to doubt if the PBA could return to action this year. All league activities were halted in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was not until late August that they finally received approval from the government to proceed with small group training sessions.
Also in August, the PBA revealed that it was studying options for its own "bubble," following the model done by several leagues in the United States -- including the NBA, which concluded its own season on Monday morning, Manila time.
Clark was granted hosting rights in September, and teams began filing into the city later that month. The league and its hosts, led by the Clark Development Corp., put together strict protocols to ensure the safety and security of the entire delegation.
On Sunday, the ball was tossed for the first time since March, with TNT Tropang Giga and the Alaska Aces putting the PBA back in action at the Angeles University Foundation (AUF) Gym, where all games will be held for the duration of the Philippine Cup.
"Ang hirap noong binubuo natin ang bubble," admitted Marcial. "Pero eto, naglalaro na."
As he celebrated his birthday on Monday, Marcial expressed his gratitude that everything is running smoothly so far inside the bubble.
There have been minor hiccups -- for instance, players are asking how they can get their haircuts -- but by and large there have been no complaints. During their media availability sessions in the mornings, players and coaches make it a point to express their gratitude to be playing again, even in unusual circumstances.
"It's a real honor to have this setting. I think the PBA did a really good job of organizing the bubble," said Meralco's Chris Newsome, also on Tuesday morning.
"As of now, so far, so good," said Marcial. "Ang maganda sana, tuloy-tuloy. Wala pa naman akong nakikitang major na dapat baguhin."
The players are in good spirits, with some even jokingly asking Marcial to treat them for his birthday. The commissioner also assures that they are doing what they can to safeguard the players' mental well-being, not just through amenities inside the bubble but also by making mental health professionals available soon.
While the operations are running smoothly, Marcial expects that changes will be made at some point. They already made one big adjustment: initially, players were only allowed to enter until October 10, but now even latecomers are welcome to the bubble.
Among the possible changes? Allowing a few family members to watch the games physically at the AUF Gym. Marcial was initially adamant in saying that the bubble is closed even to the players' relatives, but he softened his stance on Tuesday.
"As of now, pinag-usapan sa board 'yun na wala munang papasok maski na semi-finals. Tingnan natin, tingnan natin habang tumatagal," he said.
"Kasi, katulad ng sinasabi ko, itong bubble na 'to, lahat naman tayo ina-adjust natin kung papaano. Kasi bago sa atin eh," he added.
"Learning stage talaga po ito, na habang naglalaro tayo, nag-aaral din po tayo kung paano gagawin."