IS Magnolia the least favored child in the San Miguel conglomerate?
On paper, that assumption may have a ring of truth to it.
For the better part of the last half-decade, San Miguel teams have imposed their dominance in the PBA . But over the past four years, nine of the last 11 champions were won by San Miguel or Ginebra. None by Magnolia.
Magnolia, in fact, has not won a cup since the San Mig Coffee completed the rare Grand Slam in 2014 under Cone, who, to the eternal chagrin of longtime Hotshots fans, was moved by SMC bigwigs to oversee the rehabilitation of Ginebra.
Manpower-wise, the Beermen and the Gin Kings have also made major moves to bolster their rosters this season alone.
San Miguel added bruiser Kelly Nabong last conference to shore up its already loaded frontline which got more potent with the addition of first-year player Christian Standhardinger through a controversial pre-draft trade.
Ginebra, on the other hand, boosted its wings with the acquisition of Jeff Chan to go along with the arrival of Julian Sargent and the finally fit-again Art dela Cruz.
In contrast, Magnolia hasn't made any roster moves save for taking in unheralded rookie Robbie Herndon in last year's draft. The team's last major deal was the October 2016 mega-deal that brought in Paul Lee from Rain or Shine in exchange for James Yap.
So do the Hotshots really feel like the third wheel in the SMC organization?
“Wag sila mag-isip ng ganoon,” Magnolia team manager Alvin Patrimonio, the star of the glorious past of the fabled Purefoods franchise, told Spin.ph.
Head coach Chito Victolero agreed.
"Pantay-pantay lang ang tingin sa amin ng management," he said.
Marc Pingris, hands-down the longest-tenured member of the squad, also shared the same sentiments, though he understands where that assumption is coming from.
"Lahat naman ng team, napag-uusapan yung ganoong bagay, na hindi kami masyado nabibigyan ng pansin sa San Miguel group. Pero sa sarili ko, wala naman akong iniisip na ganoon. Hindi naman nagkukulang ang management sa amin," he said.
Though Magnolia management has done little to bolster the team's lineup over the years, Victolero said there isn't much need for that since he has put a premium on developing the team's chemistry, especially with the cloud of the Grand Slam team still looming over their heads.
It took quite long and the team had to endure a string of disappointing conferences since, but that chemistry has started to bear fruit this season.
Come December, Magnolia will be make its second finals appearance this season and will get a chance to end a four-year title drought when it faces Alaska for the 2018 PBA Governors' Cup championship.
For Pingris, winning the chip in the season-ending conference will be a validation to the path Magnolia took, proving that though it may not be considered as dominant as SMC sister teams San Miguel and Ginebra, he himself knows that his side can be successful against the best in the league.
"Bahala na sila mag-isip ng ganoon," he said. "Kami naman, kung sino ang nasa team o kung sino ang dumating, pag-iigihan namin kasi nandyan na yan eh. Wala na tayong magagawa sa ganyang bagay. Ang magagawa lang namin is paghandaan yung mga malalakas na team."
Patrimonio also believes for the first time since the 2014 grand slam, the basketball gods are once again smiling on Magnolia.
“May times na we’re on top. May period na nandoon kami sa taas. So it’s really a matter of timing,” he said.
“Bilog ang bola. May times talaga na may nangyayaring injuries at hindi okay ang imports, but the only thing to do is maging positive lang. Yung character nila and yung chemistry ng team, nag-improve pa lalo. Yun ang importante.”
People can look at Magnolia as the third wheel, the black sheep, the least favorite child of SMC bosses, but Pingris is secure in the Hotshots' identity as an underdog.
"Di ba nga mas magandang kalabanin yung malalakas na team? Kami minsan pag mahina yung team na nakakalaban namin, nagla-lie low yung ibang players at parang walang gana. Pero pag malakas, mas may gana sila," he said.
To be the best, you got to beat the best, indeed.
“Challenge talaga for us to get better and to build relationships with each other. Pero makikita mo naman na lumalaban 'yung team and it’s already a positive for everybody. The beauty lang is nandyan ang team na lumalaban at nandyan yung team na hungry pa rin for another championship," ended Patrimonio.