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Pampanga Giant Lanterns shine this 2023

The Pampanga Giant Lanterns are no doubt among Philippine basketball's teams of the year. Pampanga PIO (file photo)
By Ivan Saldajeno

IT is safe to say that Pampanga has successfully worked its way up to where it is now, and this year is the fulfillment of its mission.

The Giant Lanterns, who were among the MPBL's first expansions during the 2018-2019 Datu Season, barely missed the playoffs that year by just being on the wrong end of the tiebreaker with the Caloocan Supremos, now known as Batang Kankaloo.

Pampanga finally made the playoffs the following season, but they still found themselves eliminated in the second round by San Juan.

Building the Pampanga Giant Lanterns' championship team

Things, however, began to change for the Giant Lanterns when Pampanga governor Delta Pineda started intervening in their affairs, first by moving their home from the Angeles University Foundation Sports and Cultural Center to the Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center in the nearby city of San Fernando ahead of the 2022 season.

Pineda's involvement became more active when he took over the coaching reins for the Pampanga franchise when it joined the PSL for the 2023 Dumper Cup season.

And then, a huge plot twist.

Balti Baltazar, who was looking for a career resurgence after his stint overseas ended unceremoniously, signed a contract to join the Giant Lanterns for the latter part of their PSL campaign.

Baltazar's presence was vital as the Pampanga franchise made a late surge and eventually won the PSL championship at the expense of the ever-mighty Davao Occidental club in the national finals.

The Giant Lanterns then shifted their focus to the MPBL again, and this time, with Baltazar and later Encho Serrano around, raced to a 17-0 start to the season, beating no less than the erstwhile champions Nueva Ecija Rice Vanguards in a highly anticipated midseason showdown within the winning streak.

Serrano signed with Pampanga right after his campaign for Siomai King in a PSL preseason event, the D2 Super Cup in Tiaong ended with them winning the championship.

Unlike Nueva Ecija, which went on to sweep the regular season and set the new record for the longest winning streak in Philippine basketball last year before ruling the MPBL, Pampanga lost twice in the 2023 regular season, both in heartbreaking manners to Batangas City and Makati.

However, the Giant Lanterns--with some help from new signing Arwind Santos--delivered the greatest playoff performance the MPBL has ever seen, going 9-0 in the entire postseason including a 3-0 sweep of the Bacoor City Strikers in the national finals, the first time ever that a best-of-five MPBL Finals series only ended in three.

Due to both the PSL and MPBL's independence from each other, Pampanga somehow gets the rare achievement of starting 2023 as a national champion and ending the year with another national title.

"Talagang malaking blessing sa mga Kapampangan na tatlong championships ang naibigay ng mga Kapampangan players natin," said Pineda, who also manages the Pampanga Delta program.

The third championship he was referring to was the PSL U18 title that the Delta had to share with the Farm Fresh-Letran Milkers.

Due to the change in the PSL leadership at that time, the league decided to cancel the supposed finals series between the Delta and the team known in the NCAA as the Squires and declare them co-champs instead.

Balti is back!

Meanwhile, Baltazar successfully rejuvenated his professional career in 2023.

After a whirlwind 2022, Baltazar went beast mode this year, and he eventually earned the distinction of being the first player to win all the MVP awards at stake in an MPBL season, the regular season, the All-Star Game, and the Finals MVP plums.

"Dahil ito sa hard work ko sa practice. In-apply ko dito sa mga games. Binigay ko talaga yung best ko para sa mga Kapampangan at kay Boss [Delta]," Baltazar said.

"Malaki ang pasasalamat ko kay Gov na nakasali ako sa MPBL."

Before the MPBL domination this year, Baltazar won the PSL Finals MVP for leading the Giant Lanterns past the Tigers.

A legacy reborn

It is probably very fitting too that the Pampanga Giant Lanterns' dominating 2023 came right at the 25th anniversary of the province's first national championship, the 1998 MBA title won by the Dragons.

Some members of the defunct Dragons franchise led by former team manager Gil Cortez and team captain Ato Agustin were present in a recent reunion event in San Fernando to revisit the old times.

As Agustin confirmed to Dugout Philippines, some officials of the Giant Lanterns, including current team owner AG Gonzales, were also in the Dragons reunion, and Gonzales actually showed the MPBL title trophy to Agustin as seen on the Giant Lanterns' Facebook page.

"It's been a long 25 years after nanalo ang Pampanga," Agustin said.

"Parang bumalik yung [saya] ng Pampanga. With the support of our governor Dennis Pineda, si Congressman Dong Gonzales and of course lahat ng mga Kapampangan, yung suporta, andoon talaga."

Agustin, now an assistant coach for the San Miguel Beermen in the PBA, also expressed optimism that the Giant Lanterns could make MPBL history again by becoming the first team ever to win the championship twice since they are virtually intact with only Archie Concepcion the key loss after getting drafted by the Blackwater Bossing.

First things first, though: keep the "Big 3" of Baltazar, Serrano, and Santos.

Santos bared in an interview with former PBA commissioner Noli Eala over the latter's Power and Play radio program that Santos, who immediately signed with Pampanga after his contract with NorthPort expired, wants to retire from professional basketball back with San Miguel, where he won all his PBA titles.

"Sabi [ni Danny Espiritu] sa akin, magpalakas lang ako kasi pag naibabalik na yung laro mo, no doubt na makakabalik ka sa PBA," Santos said, implying that the renowned player agent will help him carve his next career move.

Baltazar also revealed that at least three B.League teams expressed interest in signing him during his MPBL campaign, and now that the MPBL season is over, he could revisit the offers luring him back to Japan.

Serrano, whose PBA rights are retained by Phoenix, could consider rejoining the team especially since they are now close to clinching the twice-to-beat advantage in the Commissioner's Cup quarterfinals.

For both youngsters, however, they would let Pineda take the lead in their future endeavors.

"Hintayin ko ang decision ni Boss kasi hindi kami pinapabayaan," Baltazar said.

"Kung nasa tabi ko siya, wala na akong hihilingin pa," Serrano added.

One thing is for sure: regional basketball's team of the year for 2023 will be marked men come 2024.

Follow him on X: @IvanSaldajeno

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