MANILA, AUGUST 1, 2006 (STAR) By Abac Cordero - Coca-Cola, one of the teams under the San Miguel Corp. umbrella in the PBA, may be headed toward a graceful exit in the pro league in the aftermath of a big player movement over the weekend.

A PBA source said Coca-Cola could be replaced in the PBA by another brand or product under the giant food and beverage company.

There had been speculations of a franchise change following the three-team trade involving eight players with Ginebra getting the better deal of the swap consummated over the weekend.

"I heard there are ongoing talks or negotiations between San Miguel Corp. and Coca-Cola’s mother company that might affect the PBA franchise," said the source in explaining why SMC might have to let go of Coca-Cola in the PBA.

But SMC, according to the source, is bent on keeping the franchise in the PBA. From Coca-Cola, SMC might shift to one of its many other products like Magnolia or Viva Mineral Water.

A source close to Bobby Huang, president of Coca-Cola Bottlers Phils. Inc, said the beverage head has categorically denied the Tigers are to be disbanded.

"There’s no truth to the rumor that Coca-Cola is disbanding. We are definitely committed to stay in the PBA," the source quoted Huang as saying.

Coca-Cola is just one of four PBA franchises owned by SMC in the PBA, the others being San Miguel Beer, Ginebra and Purefoods. All these teams, including Coca-Cola, have won titles in the PBA.

Coca-Cola was involved in the three-team trade involving eight players.

Former Coca-Cola players Raffy Reavies and Billy Mamaril, as well as the rights on Fil-American Rudy Hatfield, are now with Ginebra.

In return, Coca-Cola took in Kalani Ferreira and Manny Ramos of Ginebra and Ryan Bernardo from Air 21.

Air 21, the other team involved in the trade, got Aries Dimaunahan and Erwin Sotto.

Meanwhile, teams looking to complete their rosters now have the PBA pre-season games for reference.

An expanded and more competitive pre-season matches will be played beginning this year that involve all 10 teams, including newcomer Welcoat, and feature rookie and veteran free agents left unsigned.

The games are set from Sept. 1-17 just before the 32nd season of the PBA opens in October.

Venues of the event have yet to be determined although league commissioner Noli Eala has proposed to take it to the provinces.

He said prospective provincial organizers who wish to host an event will have to list up with the Commissioner’s Office.

With the inclusion of rookie and veteran free agents, the 10 teams are allowed to have 18 players on their lineup during the three-week long pre-season games.

The series of matches will allow unsigned players a final shot at showing their skills and talent, and hopefully, hook up with ball clubs still in the process of filling up their rosters.

"So I’m encouraging all free agents to list up with the Commissioner’s Office so we’ll know how to spread them out," said Eala.

"This is the way things are being done in the NBA, where teams still looking for talent or those which have excess players, rely on the pre-season games as barometer on which players they will sign or cut."

He added NBA pre-season games are usually played for about a month.

The PBA commissioner cited the case of Ginebra freshman Mark Macapagal as a perfect example of a rookie free agent that failed to land a roster spot with any of the teams prior to the 2005-06 season, but is now doing good with the Kings.

The freshman guard out of San Sebastian was picked no. 14th by the Talk ‘N Text Phone Pals but failed to make the grade in the powerhouse backcourt of the telecommunication franchise.

But he persisted and managed to land a spot with Ginebra.

"Perhaps none of the team saw his potential in the beginning. It was a matter of giving the kid a break," said Eala of the hard-working Macapagal. "Now, he’s certainly enjoying his newfound status with Barangay Ginebra."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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