This appears in the Monday, February 6, 2012 edition of the Business Mirror.
|With coach at the UAAP games.|
The Rajko Toroman era comes to an end
by rick olivares
Rajko Toroman flew back to Serbia Sunday night just as the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters vanquished the hard-fighting Powerade Tigers to become the first repeat All-Filipino champs in 27 years.
His departure officially ended the Serb’s era as head coach of the Philippine Men’s Basketball National Team. Unlike his arrival that was announced to much fanfare, Toroman left quietly. He packed his few belongings at the Eastwood condo that served as his home the past three years and opted not to take any calls.
When he arrived in Manila the other week, he met up with his former players in Smart Gilas who had moved up to the PBA. Even from afar, he kept track of their progress and how they had taken the Philippine Cup by storm. To watch them play made his heart swell with pride. He even knew their statistics. Not that I am surprised. He was always good at things like that. “Like a father watching his children,” he joked.
Contrary to his reputation as a difficult man to please, I had seen Toroman break out into a smile on many an occasion. But the attempt at mirth and jocularity left me with a wide grin. Will wonders never cease? Rajko Toroman feeling sentimental and joking, I teased.
He shrugged that famous shrug of his while still smiling. The time away following Smart Gilas’ failure to win the FIBA Asia Championships at Wuhan had nursed him back to the pink of health. It wasn’t only him. His players needed to recover from the disappointment.
“You see the players on how they have made a big impact in the PBA?” he said like a proud father. “We can build a new Gilas. Fix the problems of the old and make it better.”
He went on for another five minutes rattling off names of collegiate players who could replace those who had moved up. He had a few ideas and a few plans.
I asked him how long he was staying in Manila and he said until Sunday. “But I can extend it depending on what happens.”
He said that he was going to get an offer from the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas that evening. “What if it’s a consultant position,” I pressed further.
“No. I am a coach. Not a consultant.”
I asked if he considered working for a local club – say Powerade of which feted him a dinner to welcome his two former wards in JV Casio and Lassiter. “No. It was nice of them to offer dinner so I can have a reunion with JV (Casio) and Marcio (Lassiter). But I work for the SBP and Smart Gilas.”
What if it doesn’t work out? “I can always find a job in Europe or Asia,” he answered.
We talked a little more and I asked him if we could meet the following evening. “Sure. In my apartment in Eastwood,” he said.
Only we never got to meet. The offer never came and he opted not to meet up.
In the early days of Smart Gilas when I used to run around with the team, he used to borrow my laptop to check on the sports scene in Serbia and Europe.
When he watched basketball games in the San Juan Arena, he would always drop by (former La Salle Green Archer) Marko Batricevic’s Balkan Express restaurant nearby. “I need my slice of Serbia,” he once told me as we munched on some terrific food at Batricevic’s restaurant.
When Vlade Divac arrived in Manila for the first NBA Asia Challenge, he met up with his former player (on the last unified Yugoslavian national team) to catch up.
When compatriot Milan Vucicevic joined Smart Gilas for the 2010 FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup, he had another person with whom he could converse in his native tongue.
Yet as homesick as he was, he came to love his “adopted” country. He became a familiar sight at many a local sports event. When he wasn’t attending to trainings or practices of Smart Gilas, when there wasn’t a basketball game on television or played in any of the multitude of arenas in Metro Manila, he would walk around the malls. He was never one to turn away a person who asked for a photograph or an autograph. When he was back in Serbia, aside from going online to check out his players who had been scattered across the PBA landscape, he would search on news about the Philippines.
I never got to meet up with Toroman that Saturday. I tried to get through to Toroman but he said that he couldn’t make it. Suddenly, I had a feeling that the rumors about the next generation of Smart Gilas going on in another direction were all true.
I asked him that Friday evening if things were all right between him and SBP management. He said that he has been treated very well and he had only good words for all.
During the post-match interview with TNT’s Chot Reyes inside the pressroom at the Araneta Coliseum, one of the sports scribes asked the coach if he was going to be handling Smart Gilas. Reyes said that his only focus was the next PBA conference.
I knew right there that the Rajko Toroman era had really come to an end.
Sports like everything else in life is in a constant state of flux. But lost within the politics, the highs and lows, the backstabbing, and the tears of joy and pain is where the Philippines stands in the international basketball scene.
The country has gained a measure of respect and that is something that can never be taken away. And so is Rajko Toroman’s part in it.
|Back in the day with Smart Gilas dreaming big before the wolves came out.|
At the half of Game 4 of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals, I made my way towards Rajko Toroman who was seated at the patron section. We were supposed to meet up earlier but I arrived late because an office meeting ended late. He was seated next to football coach Zoran Dordevic and he stood up and made his way towards me when I approached. We shared a hug and a clasp of hands. And chatted for about 20 minutes before I let him go to enjoy the game. But before I did, I thanked him for coaching Smart Gilas and making the national team a better one. He thanked me in return and said that he wished that I could have been there for all the trips of Smart Gilas to cover the team. I looked forward to the meeting the following day. Only it never happened. At least I got to thank him.