Justin Brownlee's journey from replacement import to Ginebra icon

Justin Brownlee has gone from a replacement import to an icon of Barangay Ginebra, with the recent 2022 PBA Governors' Cup triumph his fifth title with the Gin Kings. PBA Media Bureau

Barangay Ginebra has beaten Meralco four times in the PBA Governors' Cup Finals, the most one-sided finals rivalry in league history. For Gin Kings coach Tim Cone, there is only one reason why his side has prevailed each time.

"Let me just say, the difference between us and Meralco, the difference between me and (Bolts coach) Norman (Black) over the last four finals, is that we have Justin Brownlee. And that's the bottom line," said the winningest coach in PBA history.

While there is some truth to Cone's assertion -- Meralco has really not been able to figure out how to stop him after all these seasons -- Brownlee deflected his coach's praise.

"Man, I definitely appreciate the compliment, especially coming from him," the import said Friday night after Ginebra finished off Meralco in six games. "But of course, I don't want to take too much credit in that aspect. But I just pride myself on just trying to do whatever the team needs as an import. I feel like it's not my job to come here and just necessarily get numbers. I do gotta get numbers, but it's also seeing where the team needs me the most and try to fill that role in, whether it's scoring, rebounding, defending, whatever it could be, I just try to see what the team needs. And then I try to do that for the team.

Ever since replacing an injured Paul Harris in the 2016 Governors' Cup, Brownlee has won five PBA titles, including four against Meralco. He hasn't always led Ginebra to a championship; they fell in the semifinals in the 2018 Governors' Cup and 2019 Commissioner's Cup.

But Brownlee appears to have cast a spell over the Bolts. They just can't beat this guy in the Governor's Cup Finals. Meralco truly felt it had the right roster to finally get past Ginebra this time, even bringing in an import -- Tony Bishop -- who played in the perimeter to complement its new pieces. It was all for naught.

"It feels great. Winning the championship, it never gets old," Brownlee. "It's a great feeling. I just want to give a lot of credit to Meralco. They played tough, they played hard. Coach Norman Black, he's been proving he's a really good, great coach in this league. And he had them prepared every game, had his guys playing hard. His son stepped up and played great for him. Just want to give them credit. They fought very hard, and it was very tough, winning against them. So, big ups to them, give them a lot of props first."

That Brownlee was able to even come back to Manila is a major achievement in itself. Covid cancelled the Governors' Cup in 2020, and then he suffered an injury playing for Al Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates last year that kept him sidelined for several months.

"Just myself coming back out here, with the pandemic, especially because I am getting older and I think it was close to two years, not being not here, I was questioning myself, like, how would I come back, not in the best of shape had a bad injury. So this is very special personally, for me. Just being able to come back to the Philippines, still able to play at a high level.

"(Abu Dhabi) was the last time I played. I actually got injured. It was in March of last year, and it took about six or seven months for me to fully recover. So I was just basically kind of just getting back to where, I can comfortably play, right before the conference, almost like maybe a couple of months before the conference."

Brownlee was still finding his legs when the 2021 Governors' Cup got underway, and it showed in Ginebra's record.

"I know people kind of wondered why Justin struggled early in the conference, but bottom line is he hadn't played in (several months)," Cone said. "He came in and he wasn't really in great shape yet, and it took him a while. It took him a month before he started to get going again. And that little break during the pandemic probably helped us because he was able to work on his body and do some things to get ready for the rest of the conference."

Brownlee admits it was a challenge to get back to the level at which he was used to playing. "It was difficult just trying to stay in shape. Because it's like, I didn't know when I would play or if I would ever play again. I didn't know just because I didn't know what with the pandemic it was just so up and down. So it was hard, and then especially coming back, you know, I really tried to work hard."

Brownlee's return to form coincided with the start of the playoffs, where Ginebra tore through the field with a 9-3 record en route to the crown.

"He got his rhythm, he got in shape," Cone added. "Right before the start of the quarterfinals, about a game or two into the quarterfinals, his game started to elevate. And as his game elevated, we all started to elevated -- elevated right into the quarterfinals, and of course, what he did in the semis and in the finals."

Along the way, Brownlee even found time to etch his name among the great scoring imports in PBA history. His 24 points in the Game 6 clincher pushed him into fifth spot on the all-time imports' scoring list, ahead of perhaps the most prolific PBA import of all time.

"It feels great to be able to accomplish things in this league. I feel like this is a great league. It's very established, has a lot of history. A lot of great players have played here. And then Billy Ray Bates, I've definitely done my history on the imports that have played here. And I know he was a great import. And he had a lot of success here and he's labeled as one of the best, if not the best import that's ever played here. So it's always great to be mentioned with those guys, him and Norman Black, and it's great. It's a great feeling."

It's been nearly six years since Justin Brownlee first arrived as a replacement import. He now has a five-year-old son, Jye, whom he brought to Manila for this conference. But he could never have foreseen what would unfold for his basketball career.

"I didn't expect this. When I first came, I was only supposed to be here for one month and that's what I had my mind set on. Just to try to help the team out as much as I can. And when Paul got healthy, he would be back and I was just hoping I'd help the team until he got back. Whatever it comes, I'm just trying to stay in the moment and just try to make the best out of the moment. And if more championships come, I'll definitely accept them and be thankful for it."