OVER the years, the PBA fans have been treated to classics, may it be nail-biting games that went into overtime or pure thrillers. But there's one thriller that no matter how many fans reminisce, they won't find any trace in the history books.
As far as the record books are concerned, it didn't exist.
Let's go back to March 21, 2003. Araneta Coliseum. All-Filipino Cup. Ginebra versus Talk 'N Text.
Eric Menk, sensational all game long for the Gin Kings, just hit a three-pointer from the top of the arc that knotted the score at 110 with 8.5 seconds left in overtime.
Looking for the game-winner for the Phone Pals, Jimmy Alapag found an open Bong Ravena at the left corner but his three fell short and only grazed the front of the rim. The ball somehow bounced towards Alapag, who quickly flicked the ball from the top of the arc in desperation as time continued to trickle down.
Lucky for him, Asi Taulava had the presence of mind to pluck the ball in mid-air and put it in the bucket as time expired. Talk 'N Text won, 112-110. The game is over.
Or so they thought.
In an era where there was still no video reviews, PBA rules gave the referees the final say on calls regardless of what the replays showed. Taulava clearly had let go of the leather at the 0.1 mark, but referees Luisito "Boy" Cruz, Joey Calungcaguin, and Wilbert Culanag still waived the basket off.
To the dismay of the Phone Pals and to the delight of the Gin Kings faithful, the game went to a second overtime, where Ginebra came out on top, 122-117. But that was not the end of it.
TNT governor Ricky Vargas, fuming over the game's outcome, chewed out the game's officials and put the game under protest.
"The officiating in this league has gone from bad to worse. We're definitely going to put the game under protest," the executive was quoted in the match report of June Navarro of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Menk finished with a monster double-double of 45 points and 18 rebounds to lead Ginebra. Supporting "Major Pain" were Jun Limpot with 19 and Bal David's 14.
Alapag, only three games into his PBA career, responded with 40 points and 14 assists, as Taulava had 24 points to his name for the Phone Pals.
Those eye-popping numbers, however, meant nothing.
Four days later, PBA commissioner Noli Eala nullified the game and announced a replay during an appearance at the weekly Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum, ruling in favor of Talk 'N Text. He also sanctioned the referees who worked the game, together with table officials Bienvenido Fontanilla and Angelito Mendegoria.
"It was a difficult decision because I didn't want to intervene in the outcome of a game," he said, as quoted by Dennis Eroa of the Inquirer.
Eala elaborated on his decision in a letter to Vargas, Games and Amusement Board (GAB) chair Eduardo Villanueva, and then PBA chair and Ginebra governor Jun Cabalan, writing: "It is our belief that the judgment error of the game officials was transformed to a technical error when they failed to strictly follow the rules and guidelines in arriving at a game-ending basket or no basket decision."
The replay was set a month later on April 22.
To some, especially to the Ginebra faithful, it was the best game that never was.
Alapag, speaking on the matter 17 years later, said it was a pity that the game was scratched from the record books.
"It was too bad because Eric was an absolute monster during the first game," he said. "He was so dominant inside the paint but still had the ability to make shots from the perimeter. It was always fun competing against him because we were trying to dominate the game from different positions."
"Eric and I know that we had some great battles, and that one was one of the best."
Alapag and Menk has since worked together at San Miguel Alab Pilipinas as coach and assistant in the Asean Basketball League (ABL).
It was a bitter pill for the Gin Kings to swallow, but coach Allan Caidic knew that his side had no choice but to abide by the ruling. "We'll continue to work hard and try to win the replay," he said then.
A month later, the Phone Pals got the victory, 90-87. No overtime needed.
The biggest change during that span? Talk 'N Text sending coach Paul Woolpert home and promoting Joel Banal to the head coaching position.
Alapag fired 26 points in the game as the Phone Pals deviated from making Taulava the focal point of their attack.
"It's the new system of involving every player on the floor that won the game for us. We looked like a team now unlike before when we used to rely on individual plays," said Taulava, who wound up with 15 points in the replay.
Menk could not recapture the thunder of the first meeting and was only held to 13 points.
Mark Caguioa led Ginebra with 26 points, as Limpot scored 17.
To this day, it was the last PBA game ordered to be replayed, as per PBA statistics chief Fidel Mangonon III.
The two teams crossed paths in the conference twice more, with their quarterfinal duel on June 13 once again going in favor of Talk 'N Text - a 99-86 decision at Ynares Center in Antipolo that booted Ginebra out of contention.
The Phone Pals would go on and beat Coca Cola in six games to win the crown, with Taulava winning the Best Player of the Conference and Finals MVP awards. He also earned the Season MVP plum, as well as a Mythical First Team selection together with Alapag, who was also adjudged as the Rookie of the Year.
Menk, to this day, refused to issue any comments on this story close to two decades since the controversial replay. He did upload the video of the game on his personal YouTube channel and said: "It deserves to be remembered."
We do, Eric.