Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bleachers' Brew #275: Endings & new beginnings

This appears in the Tuesday September 6, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.

Endings & new beginnings
by rick olivares

Amidst all the hoopla of rookie signings, player transfers and new faces on the sidelines, when the new Philippine Basketball Association tips off this October, for me, it’s both a beginning and an end to a couple of things.

First, the Alaska Aces will parade Joel Banal as their new head coach after Earl Timothy Cone officially stepped down after 22 years on board.

And second, Smart Gilas Pilipinas will be scattered across the PBA landscape.

I understand that the only permanent thing is change so this is a rebirth for both teams.

While not a babe in the PBA woods, Banal, who also coached and won with Talk ‘N Text early in the new millennium, has really big shoes to fill.

How big? Try 13 titles that Cone has won in his long tenure as the head tactician of the Aces; second only to Baby Dalupan’s 15. Unlike Dalupan who accomplished that with Crispa, Great Taste, and Purefoods, Cone won all 13 with Alaska.

But back to the 22 years Cone spent with Alaska. Before he took over in 1989, only two coaches ever completed a season with the club and that goes to show what he meant and what he accomplished. Cone also guided Alaska to 25 PBA finals berths! Amazing.

During the second conference finals of 2010 (their last title under Cone), team owner Fred Uytengsu told professional triathlete Lance Watson (as this was right before last year’s Ironman triathlon) that coach had been around for more than two decades. “What?” exclaimed Watson. “The way he walks and yells up and down the court it’s like he’s just started on the job.”

Cone took it as a compliment as he said that it was a sign that he had not lost his fire. “When the fire is gone then it’s time to go,” he told me one day in Cam Sur.

He would always say—like any other coach – that you’re only as good as your last win. On several instances, some had opined that the triangle offense he ran should be junked as it was too intricate. He also recounted how on several occasions where his head was on the chopping block including one lunch where he was supposed to have been let go but management was ultimately swayed to keep him.

It has been tough on the Aces that have largely been unable to keep or sign the league’s better players.

I remember one huddle inside the locker room in last season’s Philippine Cup when the team was in the midst of a two-game slide. Apparently, they had also been watching former teammate Larry Fonacier’s progress with Talk ‘N Text. “He’s doing well over there,” remarked Tony dela Cruz. “We should have never lost him. He fit our system perfectly.”

The others nodded but further refrained from sharing their thoughts. A couple of the assistant coaches were chairing the quick huddle among the bigs. “Nothing we can do about that now but use what we have,” reminded Dickie Bachmann. “We’ve got a job to do.”

The Aces lost that game as well as the next. The nosedive began and the promising start petered out at 7-7 and they never advanced to the next round.

During their Commissioner’s Cup campaign, the team started well and were feeling good about themselves that after a meet and greet with fans in Robinson’s Galleria last March 11, Cone waxed hopeful. “We’re okay but not good yet,” shared the coach with me. “I’m not a pessimistic guy but sometimes, I’m waiting for the hammer to drop.”

After going 4-1, they finished the elimination round 1-3. They wrangled out a close win over Air21 in the first quarterfinals match with Air21 but dropped the next two and were eliminated from contention.

It was a tough year. After being in the finals in the last several conferences, they were shut out in all three of the 2010-11 season. And the last time, I spoke with Cone, he seemed bummed out. Little did I know that he’d be out sooner than anyone expected.

And so there’s a new coach (who worked incredible magic while minding the Ateneo Blue Eagles and Talk ‘N Text) and new players for Alaska. And in true winning tradition, Uytengsu said that this team will try and go win a championship in the first conference.

Last year, I wanted to write a story about Smart Gilas Pilipinas titled, “How not to form a national team.” The team was sold on a dream; a difficult one when you think about the slim chances of making it to the Olympics (not when FIBA gives so few slots to Asia). Then some things were put in motion (in my opinion) that altered the dynamic of the team forever.

The team was based on the old NCC concept, a team of collegians backstopped by a naturalized player. When the team couldn’t avail of all the best players for a variety of reasons, they had to make do with what they had. When they had it tough, the team blinked and asked for help from the PBA. Nothing wrong with that since we all know the best hoopsters in the land play in the PBA. But why wasn’t that done in the start? The addition both helped and hurt the team. 

It also did not help that some team officials were controversial to say the least. If the foundation of the team isn’t built on solid people with no agendas then it will help. Otherwise… 

Whichever it is, the team had changed. They say that a person’s true colors show when times get tough. And following their first and controversial stint in the 2009 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, the team was never the same again. That was when CJ Giles was removed and Jamaal Sampson came in. When three players bolted for the 2010 PBA Draft and went high, some of the remaining players wondered if they should have done the same. And this year, they finally joined the draft.

Through the highs and the lows, Smart Gilas is a team that we should be proud of. They went to foreign lands and showed other countries that we can be just as good if not better if we were not too vertically challenged. Not since the old NCC did we have a national team that spent this much time together. The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas management has done a Herculean job in keeping this team going and trying to make the Olympics. And the fact that along with the patronage of Smart, they have decided to keep the program going for at least another two years is highly commendable.

But the players who defined Smart Gilas, the first version at least, are going to the pros. Like many others, I cheered, cried, and grit my teeth for that team. Now I wonder, scattered as they are across the PBA landscape, how do I root for them now?

I really can’t say, but one thing is for sure, this coming PBA season will be fun and interesting to watch.

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