Mendoza: From ‘Death Squad’ to ‘Dead End’

Mendoza: From ‘Death Squad’ to ‘Dead End’

First to go was Arwin Santos. Then Alex Cabagnot.

Who’s next? Chris Ross? Or Marcio Lassiter? But never June Mar Fajardo.

Santos was shipped to NorthPort for Vic Manuel. Cabagnot to Terrafirma for Simon Encico.

The swaps suited San Miguel Beer more than NorthPort and Terrafirma.

It was obvious: San Miguel was in a reboot to build a young team again in the hopes of regaining its glory days. The last two conferences of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) showed the fangs of old, creaky knees besetting the Beermen, leading to so-so results highlighted by their getting ripped to shreds in the 2020 Philippine Cup.

SMB showed a semblance of a great comeback in the last PBA offering of a second straight bubble in Pampanga. It almost made it to the 2021 All-Filipino finals—only to be blunted brutally in a Game 7 semifinal rout by eventual champion TNT Tropang Giga.

It proved to be SMB’s last hurrah producing a sad farewell to the good old days.

That forgettable series had but one hurtful message: San Miguel’s vaunted formidable first stringers have seen better days.

Oh, yes, their five-title streak from 2015 to 2019 was primarily the handiwork of the greatest first five ever assembled in the league: Fajardo, Santos, Cabagnot, Ross and Lassiter.

But all good things must pass. The handwriting on the wall was clear as day: SMB’s so-called “Death Squad” has reached its “Death End.” No, make that “Dead End.”

And it began with Santos, who, at 40, is the quintet’s oldest. Replacing him is Vic Manuel, the 34-year-old “Muscle Man” dying to devour his first PBA title.

Cabagnot, 38, went to Terrafirma for Simon Enciso, the 30-year-old streak shooter, who could learn more tricks with his guts and spunk from the seven keen-eyed assistants of coach Leo Austria.

Oh, yes, Austria. He said he cried seeing Santos leave.

Who wouldn’t? They’ve been together for seven years. And, in that span of time, they reaped eight of SMB’s record total of 27 PBA titles.

Ross, 36, and Lassiter, 34, are old, too? Maybe yes, maybe not.

But what is old?

LeBron James is 36. He still plays damn well 19 years into his NBA career.

Fajardo turns 32 on Nov. 17. Definitely too young to see him go. He remains the cornerstone upon which the new SMB temple will rise from.


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