How the PBA navigated through a challenging season

It was supposed to be a big celebration for the Philippine Basketball Association as the league entered its 45th Season. March 8, 2020 saw a grand opening that pitted the finalists of the last Philippine Cup Finals with five-time defending champions San Miguel Beermen defeating the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok.

Just three days after the start, everything stopped. Competitions in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup were suspended indefinitely as Luzon went into lockdown.

Months passed with no updates coming from the PBA as Metro Manila continued under enhanced community quarantine. PBA players settled for workouts at home, sometimes doing them as a team via social media.

Then came the news that August would be the deadline for the PBA's 45th Season with three options on the table: two conferences, one conference, and cancellation.

The PBA took steps to move closer to a possible return. Throughout June and July the PBA worked to get the teams back to practice. On July 18, the league announced that the Philippine Cup would be set for October. Practices were halted again in mid-August as Metro Manila locked down.

Many groups placed their bids to host the PBA Bubble and the league announced on September 17 that Clark, Pampanga would be the host. The delegation would stay at the Quest Plus Conference Center and games would be played at the Angeles University Foundation Arena.

The IATF did not approve the plans until September 24 and PBA teams started making their way to Clark four days later.

With limited rooms available, each team was allowed to bring only 25 people. As many as 15 players were allowed, with each franchise left to decide how to balance the rest of their contingent between coaches, team manager, physical therapists, and staff.

Aside from the teams, all the other personnel involved in the coverage also had to be in a bubble set-up with TV5's delegation staying at the Lohas Hotel, which was also located in Clark.

"Before the start of the bubble, there were so many things on my mind: Testing, the hotel, the gym, practices. We really could not expect what was going to happen because everyone was doing it for the first time," said Marcial. "Before we entered the bubble, I tried my best to prepare myself for all possibilities. What if I test positive? What if I miss my family? I considered all of those things so I wouldn't be caught off guard. We had to adjust on the fly, polishing things little by little, treating each step as a learning experience."

FINALLY, the day came. October 11. The restart of the Philippine Cup, exactly seven months after play was suspended.

There were a lot of challenges for the teams as they sprinted to regain their conditioning. Some teams did not have complete lineups at the start of training with players such as LA Tenorio, Japeth Aguilar, Raymond Almazan, and Maverick Ahanmisi entering the bubble much later than their teammates.

The first big challenge of the bubble came when a referee had an inconclusive COVID-19 test. The referee was transferred to the government's isolation facility in the New Clark City Athlete's Village. Four days later, another inconclusive test result came in from a Blackwater Elite player. Additional testing, however, showed that both the referee and the player did not have the coronavirus.

A few games were suspended during the testing and the postponement added even more pressure to an already packed schedule. With the PBA and its partner agencies from the government installing new protocols to further safeguard the bubble, the action was halted for a few days. The delay forced the PBA to play four games a day -- with most teams needing to play on back-to-back days so that the elimination round would finish on time.

"I was wondering how they could have gotten the virus. Maybe at the gym? Maybe the food coming in from the outside? I considered everything and we all lost sleep over it," said Marcial. "We had retests done and waited for the result. We waited for results at 3 a.m. and even 7 a.m. Those were stressful times."

Ultimately, the PBA decided to employ the services of the Red Cross for the bi-monthly COVID-19 tests for the entire delegation.

"It led to additional expenses of about 2.3 million pesos but we got peace of mind for the PBA, the players, the Board of Governors, and the families of everyone inside the PBA Bubble," Marcial said. "You couldn't put a monetary equivalent for that kind of peace of mind."

Players ground out the grueling schedule to finish on time. Throughout the competition that saw Barangay Ginebra San Miguel crowned as the new champions of the Philippine Cup, there was a sense of camaraderie and community in the PBA Bubble.

"The Board of Governors could have played it safe and held on to the money they spent on the PBA Bubble. However, they knew they needed to make a statement."

From old teammates looking back at their careers, to brothers, cousins, and fathers and sons who got to strengthen their bond, to rivals on the court turned friends on the golf course, the Bubble did its part in forging new relationships, renewing old ones, and deepening existing ones.

There was a sense of responsibility as well as all the personnel who entered the PBA Bubble knew that one careless act could not only cost them heavy fines but also jeopardize the livelihood of a lot of people.

The players also realized that the bubble was greater than individual careers or the success of one team. The Philippine Cup was crucial for the league moving forward. The Board of Governors could have played it safe and held on to the money they spent on the PBA Bubble. However, they knew they needed to make a statement. They needed to show that the PBA is still the preeminent sporting event in the country and being the first to resume its operations amidst the pandemic certainly pushed the league forward.

The PBA Bubble was also used to promote proper health protocols. Even if everyone regularly got tested, they still wore masks as much as possible to remind the community of its effectiveness. The viewership numbers meant that many of those watching the games stayed at home. It means that the PBA, in its small way, helped keep many people indoors.

The Bubble was a big challenge for everyone. Many missed celebrations with their families, and some had to endure being away as their loved ones were ravaged by the consecutive storms. But everyone pulled for success.

Some battled the stress with routine. Coach Tim Cone had a daily swim and a once-in-a-while ice cream that was always two scoops -- but the flavor rotated between vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. Matthew Wright found a quirky hobby as he made it a point to scoop out the leaves that fell into the pool every time Phoenix Super LPG had leisure or aqua training sessions. Wright said it put him in a relaxed state so he did it as much as he could.

OVERALL the PBA Bubble was about overcoming challenges. No story encapsulates this better than the return of Calvin Abueva. It was a long and arduous journey for "The Beast" but it finally culminated in his comeback. It took multiple steps, tears from coach Topex Robinson, and consistent support from the entire team but when Abueva made it back, it was clear he was a changed man. Abueva had his spark and fire and they were focused on the game. His play helped Phoenix Super LPG become the bubble's breakout team, which is now a serious title contender.

"There was a huge difference in Calvin," said Marcial, who drew criticism for his handling of Abueva's situation from PBA fans. For the PBA Commissioner, Abueva's change was vindication that the process he went through, with the guidance of the PBA and the Games and Amusements Board, worked.

"Every time a player fell down, it didn't matter if it was a teammate or an opponent, he was one of the first to pick them up. I kept a close eye on him. He never retaliated even if he was getting hit. It was a complete turnaround."

The PBA Bubble was something the league needed to do to show it remains a leader in the sports industry. Their efforts already led to another opportunity with FIBA picking the Philippines to host two groups in February's Asia Cup Qualifiers at the same bubble location in Clark.

It's not a stretch to say that this would have been a long shot if the PBA did not set the standards to host a successful bubble.

For next year, the league will have to be nimble once again as it attempts to move forward while still being surrounded by a lot of uncertainty. Marcial has already talked about the possibility of closed-circuit competitions for the 46th Season to minimize cost and lessen the psychological burden on the teams.

Still, the PBA Bubble will hold a special place in the hearts of everyone who was part of it. Hopefully, for the PBA, it was a shot in the arm the league needed to gain momentum heading into the future.

"I saw the sacrifices of the entire delegation. I told myself that if I see a jump ball for the first game, it will already be a big achievement but we managed to push through even when we faced new challenges," Marcial closed.

"The completion of the PBA Bubble was the best Christmas gift."

ESPN5.com's Noel Zarate contributed to this story.