by rick olivares
Behind every dark cloud there’s a silver lining. In the case of the 1-8 Coca Cola Tigers, that cloud has a blonde streak.
In his first game in a Tigers jersey, Paul Asi Taulava, all 6’9” of him was expected by his banged up and shell shocked teammates to be Jordanesque, nay, the Taulava of yore and to rescue them from the dregs of PBA mediocrity. He did score 33 points and haul down 17 boards, but it wasn’t near enough to give Coca Cola a win against the Alaska Aces.
The Taulava of yore. It is theorized that Talk 'N Text team management thought the man mountain had lost his fire that’s why they needed a shake up. They’ve dangled Don Allado and Yancy De Ocampo previously, but if any player was worth Ali Peek and a first round draft pick it was the Big Fella.
As the 11th acquisition of Coca Cola since April of this year, Taulava joins a team with already a huge chip on its shoulder.
Forced to let go of its core that gave them championships, the team was in a rebuilding phase in more ways than one. Since the team was practically decimated, there was structure where the newcomers could plug the holes – everyone had to compete for playing time further souring chemistry. And the double whammy was the insecurity of having changed team ownership. The team already felt like a fourth-class citizen in the San Miguel hierarchy and now, the felt like an island surrounded by a sea of question marks.
To compound matters, the team was downed by a plague of injuries. And they’ve never fielded an intact line-up for some time.
“When I joined the PBA, I came into a similar situation with Talk ‘N Text where they were in the cellar,” said an optimistic Taulava in his first official practice with the Tigers. “I was surprised by the trade, but I got over it very quick. It’s the nature of the business. I guess they wanted to go in another direction and thought that maybe Ali (Peek) was they guy they needed to get there. It’s nothing personal, but it is not bad. We have an opportunity to turn things around.”
When the trade was consummated, Tigers coach Binky Favis gave Taulava a call and asked one question, “Did I do the right thing?”
“C’mon, coach,” laughed the former league MVP. “It’s me.”
That was all Favis needed to hear. They now had a player that other teams cannot take lightly. The normally worked up Tim Cone had his team make sure there wasn’t any complacency now that Asi was playing for the Tigers.
Alex Cabagnot missed six games with a sprained ankle but was activated for the Alaska match. “Not playing was killing me,” said the former first round draft pick of Sta. Lucia “But with Asi around, I wanted to see if we could get a win. We didn’t but we’ll get better.”
“We have nine games to go and if we’re able to get our act together, we should still be in the hunt for a play-off berth,” added Favis.
Taulava’s presence has clearly boosted the team’s morale. Barely in the team for a couple of days, the big man, lean and rejuvenated, is taking charge and bouncing all over the court egging on his teammates. Said one league coach, “Asi isn’t like the other Fil-Ams who don’t know how to relate with the locals. He’s a great teammate.” In fact, on the night of his trade to Coca Cola, many of his current teammates went to his pad to visit him.
“Everyone here’s a joker,” fessed up Cabagnot. “But Asi’s the biggest one of them all.”
The kidding aside, every one here is playing for their basketball lives. “I’d be lying to you if I said the losing isn’t getting to us,” said Favis. “But now with Asi here and John (Arigo), Egay (Echavez), and Cesar (Catli) rejoining us soon we’ll have a better fighting chance.”
The Tigers, a curious blend of the youth and experience from the players down to the coaching staff, would dearly love to win a title and prove their detractors wrong.
More so with the team’s brain trust. Binky Favis, Richie Ticzon, and Boybits Victoria were all stars of their respective teams (UST, Ateneo, and San Beda) who all played against each other during their amateur days. Ironically, all three never won a title in the collegiate and PBL level. It was only in the pros that they got an opportunity to experience a title campaign. “Maybe that’s something that drives us,” says Victoria who to this day still carries the scars of an NCAA finals loss. “But it’s not all just about games. As coaches, we have a responsibility to our players. We also help them get through life.”
“In many ways, this is even harder than your average 9-to-5 job,” extrapolates Favis. “We’re always thinking of the game and the team 24-7. We watch endless tapes of our games as well as yung sa kalaban. We scout, we train, we teach, we plan… it can get tense. We’re in this because we love the game.”