Photo by Tristan Tamayo/ INQUIRER.net

Justin Brownlee had a dream turn into a heartbreak once. Snubbed in the 2011 NBA Rookie Draft, the 6-foot-5 forward had to chase that dream in his own way. It’s a journey that led him to a rash of summer leagues and international stints for five years before finding his way to the Philippines.

Brownlee has found a basketball home here. And for the second straight PBA season, the Ginebra import found himself in the middle of roaring fans who stormed the court.

“I never played in anything like this. It’s an amazing view,” he said. “In the Philippines, the fans are special and different from other countries. They really love their basketball here, so I’m just blessed to be here and perform in front of this amount of people.”

It’s this red sea of fans that pretty much told the story. Along with the highs and lows of the series came the ebb and flow of cheers from the crowd in the packed arena.

Hushed in Game 6 when Ginebra got ripped by Meralco, the Gin Kings’ passionate supporters—all geared up in fiery red shirts—came back loud on Friday night at cavernous Philippine Arena in Bocaue.

And in a do-or-die Game 7, it all mattered.

It mattered that the spirited fandom dominated the all-time record crowd of 54,086. And it mattered to the Kings, who needed a dash of their never-say-die spirit in the final push to turn back the rallying Bolts and complete their quest of defending the Governors’ Cup crown.

“As a kid, of course you dream of playing in a championship. But I never thought it would be in a place like this. Fifty-plus thousand, it’s amazing,” said Brownlee. “It’s unbelievable. Words just can’t describe it.”

Even coach Tim Cone who has already witnessed too many hardcourt battles—and collected an all-time league best 20 titles—the sight was still overwhelming.

“Look at this crowd,” the Ginebra mentor. “This is absolutely grabe (wow). Amazing. That’s what makes it so special, to be able to do it in front of these fans, even the Meralco fans.”

It was the second time in three days the PBA crowd record got shattered—thanks mostly to the country’s most popular ballclub that lured a likewise mammoth crowd of 53,642 in Game 6.

“It’s unfathomable that you can play in front of 50,000-plus people,” said Cone, “Nobody does that. Nobody coaches basketball in front of 54,000. Maybe 20,000 to 30,000, but 54,000—that’s such a privilege. And it’s back-to-back games of 50,000-plus.”

For the two-time Grand Slam coach, it’s a story worth telling. And he even plans to let his friend Erik Spoelstra, the Filipino-American Miami Heat coach, know all about it.

“He’s been in the NBA Finals, but he has never coached in front of 50,000 people, so I got one up on him,” the American mentor said with a laugh. “It’s awesome. I’m proud being a part of it. I’m so happy that we made the Ginebra fans happy. That’s the best part of it all. I’m so happy to win this for them, 54,000 people—it just blows my mind.”

The Ginebra die-hards couldn’t be any happier, too. Their past heartbreaks forgotten, just like Brownlee’s.
And their undying and unmatched loyalty, gifted with a championship anew.

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