MANILA, January 27, 2004  (STAR) By Dante Navarro and Abac Cordero - There couldn’t be a fitting opener to kick off the PBA’s Fiesta Cup next month than pitting two of the league’s bitterest rivals — Ginebra and Shell — in a lone game ushering in the transition tournament of the pro league at the Araneta Coliseum.

Ginebra is raring to prove its worth as a serious title contender right in the 7:30 p.m. game on Feb. 22 while Shell hopes to start the season with a victory and eventually improve on its poor campaign last year where it finished second worst after Purefoods.

The Gin Kings are bringing in tested veterans in Andy Seigle and Rodney Santos, whom the team acquired in exchange for Jun Limpot while Fil-Am Jay-Jay Helterbrand is making a comeback after a one-year hiatus in South Carolina.

With mainstays Eric Menk, Mark Caguioa, Romel Adducul and Alex Crisano, the Gin Kings will parade former FedEx import Jermaine Walker as their reinforcement. The 26-year-old Walker is fresh from playing for Marinos de Oriente in Venezuela where he led the league in free throw percentage (.870) and averaged 19.5 points.

In 2002, Walker played two conferences for FedEx, scoring 27.8 points and snaring 7.4 rebounds a game although the Express forfeited their rights on the import by not signing him up last year.

On the other hand, focus will be on Shell’s new coach American John Moran, whose appointment was contested by the local coaches association; top draftee Rich Alvarez, who is also eager to show his wares; and hardworking Marek Ondera, perhaps the only white reinforcement in a black import-laden conference.

Meanwhile, Ogie Bernarte, the PBA Press Corps 2003 Referee of the Year awardee, hopes the honor won’t be his last.

This after the 36-year-old whistleblower, who received the same award in 1994, was informed by the PBA last Jan. 15 that his contract is not to be renewed for the 2004 season.

The PBA, according to the former PBL referee, based its decision on his previous performance as a referee but could not present him an official evaluation.

Bernarte, a PBA referee of 10 years, said he will appeal the decision signed by commissioner Noli Eala most likely upon the recommendation of technical committee chief Perry Legaspi.

Bernarte, who’s never been suspended as a PBA referee, said if his appeal is turned down, receiving the award is the only way for him to have a graceful exit.

Ernie de Leon, a 17-year referee in the PBA and six-time Referee of the Year awardee, has recently retired, citing health problems.

Rumors, however, circulated that the 56-year-old De Leon, who once played in the PBA, was forced to retire for reasons more than his health problems.

The same goes for Bernarte.

Bernarte, a perennial MVP in inter-color tournaments during his younger days, said just the thought of losing his job has been giving him sleepless nights.

Bernarte’s wife, he said, is currently battling tyroid cancer. They have four children, the eldest at nine years and the youngest at two.

He said losing his P30,000-a-month job might force him and his family to move out of a rented apartment in Sta. Mesa Heights and move in with his mother who resides in Roxas District, Quezon City.

With his manager earnings, he said putting up a small piggery business could just be his last recourse.

Then wait for that chance to blow his whistle once more.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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