IS this the last year of Barako Bull in the PBA?
League insiders are anticipating what they describe as a 'long-overdue' ownership change in the ballclub that will pave the way for the return of basketball patron Bert Lina to the PBA after a brief absence.
Lina, currently the commissioner of the Bureau of Customs, had maintained a team in the pro league for years until he sold his Air21 Express franchise to NLEX at the end of the 2013-2014 season.
However, Lina's group still has a 49-percent stake in the Barako Bull franchise, which is still owned in majority by the Photokina company of well-loved team owner George Chua.
League sources said the current set-up between the Chua and Lina camps was planned for a three-year window before the Lina group, led by his former board of governor Lito Alvarez, takes over the reins.
The coming season will be the fourth in the league for the Chua-Lina tie-up.
“Lagpas na nga 'yung three years eh. Nakaka-apat na taon na kami. So maybe this will be their last season,” said a source. “Tatlong taon lang talaga yan, tapos papasok na ang Lina group."
"Kaso nagtataka nga kami kasi up to now, hindi nasusunod 'yung plano. Pero I won’t be surprised if after this season, mangyari ang changes,” he added.
However, even the presence of officials from Chua's group at Barako has been greatly eroded over the years, even though the man behind the successful Red Bull team remains listed as the team owner.
Gone from the team is longtime team manager Raffy Casyao, one of Chua's trusted men since the Red Bull days, as well as Chua's sons Paul and Michael and former assistant team manager Jay Llanos Dee.
Manny Alavarez, a known ally of Lina, remains the Barako governor while Reyboy Rodriguez, a college teammate of Barangay Ginebra governor and San Miguel Corp. basketball head Alfrancis Chua, is the team manager.
Over the years, the team has taken flak for what fans felt were 'lopsided trades' in favor of SMC teams - accusations that have been repeatedly denied by Barako officials.
At present, from the 18 players vying for spots in the Barako team next season, 12 had previously played for SMC-controlled teams Ginebra, Star (formerly Purefoods) and San Miguel Beer.
One of them, Chico Lanete, has in fact gone full circle with previous stops at Ginebra, Purefoods and San Miguel before landing at Barako. Veteran Mick Pennisi returned to the Energy camp in a trade just last weekend after Star exceeded its Fil-foreign player limit.
Aside from Lanete and Pennisi, other players in the Barako pool who had previously played for SMC teams are James Forrester (Ginebra), Josh Urbiztondo (Ginebra, Star), Jondan Salvador (Star), Emman Monfort (Ginebra), JC Intal (Ginebra, Star), Jeric Fortuna (SMB), Jens Knuttel (Ginebra), Willy Wilson (Ginebra, SMB), Dylan Ababou (Ginebra), and Rico Maierhofer (Ginebra, Purefoods, San Miguel).
The only non-SMC players in Barako's current pool are RR Garcia, sophomore Jake Pascual and rookies Michael Miranda, Kris Rosales, JR Alabanza and Yutien Andrada.
Aside from that, Barako also gave up its 2016 first-round pick in the trade that brought Nico Salva to Ginebra in exchange for Monfort, Urbiztondo and Knuttel.
Barako also previously acquired Brian Heruela from Blackwater before sending the league's assist leader last season to SMB for Fortuna, setting the stage for Heruela's reunion with college pal June Mar Fajardo.