MANILA, Philippines -- Tim Cone couldn't quite compare his most recent PBA championship to the 22 titles that came before, but he knew that it would go down as the most unique of all of them.
Cone steered Barangay Ginebra to the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup crown on Wednesday night, as they defeated an undermanned yet gritty TNT Tropang Giga squad in five games. Even without Jayson Castro and Ray Parks, TNT went blow-for-blow with the Gin Kings, but Ginebra had too much firepower in the end game and secured an 82-78 win.
For Cone, it was his 23rd title in the PBA, and his fifth with Barangay Ginebra. It was also his fifth All-Filipino crown.
It was also his first "bubble" championship, as the PBA held the 2020 Philippine Cup in a secure environment in Clark, Pampanga due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And if everything falls into place, it will be the lone bubble championship in PBA history.
"It's a little surreal because again, the experience is so different," Cone said after their triumph at the AUF Gym in Angeles City, where all games were played since the PBA officially restarted on October 11.
"The celebration's different, the awarding is different, even the press, you know, it's just a very different experience," he added.
For one thing, there were no fans physically present at the gym. Oh, they were visible through the LED boards that lined the court, but that couldn't replace the feeling of having thousands of fans chanting "Gi-ne-bra" every game.
All of the 12 teams also had to share one abode -- the Quest Hotel, which served as their home since entering the bubble in late September. It made for some great content for the players' social media accounts and vlogs, but it was still a difficult situation as they endured two long months away from home.
Even the games themselves were different. The PBA teams were physically and mentally ready to play last March, when the league opened its 45th season. But only one game was played before the PBA had to suspend all activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would take seven months before the ball got rolling again. In that time, the players did what they can to stay fit, but nothing could take the place of actual games.
"I remember coming into the bubble, looking… We didn't have Greg (Slaughter), we didn't have LA (Tenorio), we didn't have Japeth (Aguilar)," said Cone. "I was saying to myself – can we even make the playoffs? You know, can we prevent ourselves from being eliminated?"
"And then we went out and won our first four games," he added.
Slaughter had decided to take a leave of absence in February, and missed the whole conference. Tenorio had to undergo an emergency appendectomy before the restart, and Aguilar was also late in entering the bubble.
That was where Ginebra's depth became a factor. Prince Caperal was the breakout star of the team in their first four games, while Scottie Thompson and Stanley Pringle ran the show. By the time the playoffs arrived, Ginebra had secured the No. 1 seed, and they were getting even better as both Tenorio and Aguilar were reaching their peak.
Tenorio, in particular, played his best in the championship series against TNT and earned Finals MVP honors.
"There was so much out-of-the-box thinking that had to go into being successful here. I think you really had to think out of the box," said Cone of their run to the tile. "And so, the experience is so different from the other championships you had, it's so unique."
"When we get back to Manila and we look back on this one, I think that we'll just be amazed at how this all evolved and how it all came together and how we actually ended up winning that championship," he added.
It's a "super, super special" championship, one that Cone hopes won't ever be duplicated. The league and its stakeholders did all they could to ensure that the "bubble" would stay secure for the duration of the conference, but the hope is that in the next conference, the league can hold a more normal competition.
"Hopefully, there's only gonna be one bubble championship. And if there's only one bubble championship, we got it. And that's so cool," said Cone.
"Twenty to 30 years from now, maybe when they look back and they say, 'You know that bubble championship?', they'll remember our team because we had the most unique championship in the history of the PBA," he added.
"It's just so unique, and I think it's gonna be remembered forever. It's nice to have that legacy. Our players, even our young rookies, they're gonna remember this bubble championship."