[Editors' note: With this piece, we start a 'WHAT IF' series to look back at important events that could've altered Philippine basketball history]
REMEMBER the Air21 franchise in the PBA?
A team that began as FedEx from 2002 until 2005 became Air21 from 2005 to 2009, where it enjoyed its finest moments including its lone finals appearance in the 2008 Fiesta Conference where they battled Ginebra in seven tough games.
After that watershed moment, the franchise became Burger King from 2009 to 2010, reverted back to Air21, and then transformed into Barako Bull from 2011 to 2016 before the franchise owned by the Lina Group of Companies was sold it to Phoenix.
Aside from the basketball, the Express will be remembered for the many trades of players and draft picks the franchise entered into during its PBA run, which begs the question.
What kind of team Air21 could've put together had it kept the players it drafted or used the draft picks the franchise traded away?
Before he starred for the Purefoods franchise, Pingris was actually drafted by Air21 in 2004, where he averaged only 4.6 points in the 2004-05 season. Pingris would only play one season with the Express as he and Egay Billones were shipped to Purefoods for a draft pick. Air21 (then carrying the name of Burger King) actually got back Pingris (who was then with San Miguel) in a trade that sent Arwind Santos to the Beermen camp in 2009, but the Express immediately shipped Pingris to Purefoods where he became one of the faces of the franchise along with James Yap and PJ Simon.
Ranidel De Ocampo
Selected fourth overall in the 2004 draft, De Ocampo played for four years with Air21 including that Express team that reached the finals in the 2008 Fiesta Conference against Ginebra. His best career numbers on points actually came while playing with the Express after he averaged 15.3 points in the 2006-07 season. De Ocampo, however, was sent to Talk ‘N Text during the 2008-09 season in exchange for Don Allado, beginning his long association with the MVP group until he recently retired with Meralco.
Romeo was selected fifth overall by GlobalPort in the 2013 draft, but the Batang Pier obtained the right from Barako Bull as part of a three-team trade that also involved Petron. In the trade, GlobalPort got the fifth pick after Yousef Taha shipped to Petron, and Mark Isip and Magi Sison headed to the Barako Bull. Romeo is now one of the most popular stars of the league, playing for San Miguel where he was named Finals MVP in the 2019 PBA Commissioner’s Cup.
Lee was drafted second overall by Rain or Shine in 2013. The Elastopainters moved up the drafting order through a 2011 three-team trade with Barako Bull and Meralco. The Elastopainters got a 2011 first-round draft pick, Ronjay Buenafe, and Ronnie Matias from Barako Bull, previously known as Air21, while also getting Beau Belga from Meralco. The Bolts got Sol Mercado and Paolo Bugia from Rain or Shine, and Erick Rodriguez from Barako Bull, while the Express received Reed Juntilla and a second-round pick each from the Bolts and the Elastopainters.
Before San Miguel, Santos starred for an Air21 team that made him the second overall choice in the 2006 draft. Santos was part of the All-Rookie Team in his first season, and was even a Best Player of the Conference contender the following year. Santos was also an integral part of Air21’s run to the Fiesta Cup finals in 2008. Santos was later traded after the 2009 season to San Miguel in exchange for Marc Pingris, Ken Bono, and a draft pick. Santos went on to win an MVP in 2013.
When Air21 was renamed Burger King in 2009, the franchise owned the No. 1 pick in that year’s draft. The Whoppers (then coached by Yeng Guiao) selected Japeth Aguilar with that draft right, but Aguilar later expressed his intention not to play in the PBA and focus instead on the Smart Gilas national team. When a settlement was reached, Aguilar played one game with Burger King before being traded to TNT, which it turn loaned him to the national squad. Aguilar eventually landed at Ginebra where he recently won the Finals MVP award in last year’s Governors’ Cup.
Anthony was drafted sixth overall in 2010 by Air21, but was immediately traded along with Renren Ritualo and 18th pick Jai Reyes to Powerade in exchange for a second round pick in 2011 and a first round draft pick in 2012. Anthony actually played for the second Air21 team that was purchased by NLEX. Anthony has since transformed into one of the top cagers in the country after winning a Mythical First Team and All-Defensive Team in the 2019 Leo Awards, and the Defensive Player of the Year plum from the PBA Press Corps.
Initially, Ross played for Coca-Cola before moving to Sta. Lucia/Meralco and to his current team San Miguel, but Ross was actually a third overall draft pick of Burger King in 2009. However, Coca Cola was then very interested in Ross at that time, and so entered into an agreement that if the Whoppers were able to get Ross, he will be shipped to the Tigers. The trade was later consummated with Marvin Cruz and the 13th pick going to Burger King in exchange for Coca-Cola’s 2010 first-round draft pick. Ross later flourished with San Miguel where he became part of the core of its recent championship teams.
June Mar Fajardo
The original Air21 team had a shot at drafting Fajardo in the 2012 draft. But in May 2011, Air21 and Petron entered into a curious swap of first-round selections. The Express dealt two 2012 first-round picks to Petron in exchange for the first-round picks of the SMC-owned franchise in 2012 and 2013. It's quite a complicated deal but to make a long story short, the Shopinas/Air21 team finished last in the 2011-2012 season then won the draft lottery over Alaska to get the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. The draft right, however, was already owned by Petron which used it to select Fajardo. The rest, as they love to say, is history.