IT was around two years ago when the fortune of the Ginebra franchise changed for the better.
The crowd favorites entered the 2016 PBA Governor’s Cup with renewed hope of ending a title drought of eight years, especially with proven and tested champion import Paul Harris set to bolster the Kings’ lineup in the season’s final conference.
But then in his very first game with Ginebra, Harris fractured his thumb against GlobalPort and forcing Tim Cone and Ginebra to scramble for an import on such short notice.
Little did they know that the mere replacement would turn out to be the most successful reinforcement in franchise history.
“That was a long time ago. We were fortunate. What’s that expression? ‘One man’s misfortune is another man’s fortune?’ You know, poor Paul. He was a great guy. We liked him so much. He just mangled his hand, so I was in a panic. I had to call around,” Cone fondly recalled after Ginebra’s title clinching win in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals on Wednesday.
“I was given a list of names. At the end of the list was Justin Brownlee. So I said ‘if you could get Justin in a plane in 24 hours, I would get him.’”
The rest, as many people would say, is history.
Not only did Brownlee become a suitable replacement for the high-scoring Harris, he left an indelible mark to not only the fans of Ginebra but Philippine basketball as well.
But it wasn’t really smooth sailing at the start. The do-it-all 6-foot-5 import had to watch from the bench at the tail end of his debut as he suffered from body cramps.
Brownlee did finish with 31 points in his debut, but there’s this one particular story that had the multi-titled coach blushing in the debut of the former St. John’s standout.
“I remember, he missed his first eight shots, he was 0-8 from the three point line in the first game. And I remember that distinctly because I was telling everybody about Justin that he was a lights-out three-point shooter,” Cone said with a smile.
“Then he comes in and goes 0-8 from the three-point line and I was kind of dyahe about it. My wife said ‘I thought he was a great three-point shooter?’ and he clanked every one of them,” Cone said while bursting into laughter.
But that was the last time Brownlee ‘let Cone down.’ The soft-spoken reinforcement just got better and better and cemented himself as one of the most beloved imports Ginebra has ever had as he drained the title-clinching three-pointer in Game Six of the Governor’s Cup Finals against Meralco to lead Ginebra to the promised land for the first time in eight years.
“We knew after that first conference that we had something special,” Cone added. “As the conference progressed, we knew we had something special. We really did.”
Brownlee then came back a year later to defend that title against the same team, before leading San Miguel Alab Pilipinas to an ABL title alongside his good friend and future rival Renaldo Balkman.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Brownlee to date was in the recent Commissioner’s Cup where his nickname ‘Magic Brownlee’ turned out to be most fitting.
The versatile scorer was activated right when his team was in ruins, as Ginebra started with a 1-5 slate in the conference.
A few months later, Brownlee was lifting his first Best Import award before leading Ginebra to its first Commissioner’s Cup title since the Chris King-led Gordon’s Gin Boars won the title in 1998.
He was certainly a game-changer.
“I definitely didn’t expect this. I was just hoping I could come and help out the team you know with Paul (Harris) he was injured,” Brownlee said.
“I was just coming in to just do what I can to help the team win and I was gonna be the replacement,” he added.
While nothing can be said about Brownlee’s abilities on the floor, what makes the Tifton, Georgie native truly special is the things that he does off the court.
There’s really nothing Cone can say about his player who he calls ‘a very good boy.’
“Mostly, it’s not just special on the floor. What makes an import truly special is the combination of what he is on the floor and off the floor. We had a lot of really great imports who were great on the floor, we had imports who were great off the floor but they don’t have the skills on the court. The guys who can do both are the really special ones,” said Cone.
Having coached in the PBA for nearly three decades now, Cone has seen great imports come and go – and he’s ready to put Brownlee on the echelon of some of the greatest imports which he’s had the joy of competing with, or against, in his legendary PBA career.
“I say that about Norman Black, Bobby Parks, Sean Chambers absolutely and Justin Brownlee is another one. He’s just great on both sides. And it’s hard to find that. It really is. It’s harder than you think,” Cone explained.
There may have been other reinforcements for Ginebra in the past which posted better numbers but none had the impact and the success that Brownlee brought to the table.
With three championships, a best import award and Cone’s seal of approval under his cap – few people would dispute that Brownlee could be on his way to becoming the best import that the beloved franchise ever had.
But the ever-humble Brownlee brushed aside the compliments.
“That’s a great compliment, I definitely love the compliment. You know I don’t like to think of myself like that,” Brownlee said. “I just want to keep doing good, just keep working hard and whatever comes with that, you know I’ll take it.”
From being a rushed replacement to an import that was once thought to be the savior of the franchise, Brownlee turned himself into one.
For all the accolades and the praises that he received, Brownlee has just one wish moving forward.
“Man I wish (I can play for Ginebra) forever. I hope for a long time. I’m just gonna see how it goes.”