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.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Alaska Aces: The Acid Test

Alaska Aces: The Acid Test
by rick olivares pic by nuki sabio
watch out for a second feature behind the scenes of the alaska aces

November 2, 2012
Smart Araneta Coliseum

“This is a test for us.”

Those were the first words said by Alaska Aces head coach Luigi Trillo when he addressed his team before they took to the court. Before he expounded on that, he extolled the accomplishments of Talk ‘n Text as the best team in the PBA for the last several seasons. “And here they are again… undefeated. And they have solid solid coach in Norman Black. They are a great offensive team and now they have become an even better defensive team.”

“Where they are is where we want to be.”

The 13th championship of the Aces seems so long ago. So many things have happened and so many others have come and gone.

“Basketball is fun again,” smiled center Sonny Thoss while watching Air21 pull a Petron on Petron (beating them with superb teamwork and clutch play). Prior to the match, the Aces were at 4-2.

These Aces have a different look and feel to them. Thoss and forward Tony de la Cruz are the only longtime team vets left. Cyrus Baguio and Sam Eman were there for the 13th championship but they have not put in the mileage that Thoss and De La Cruz have.

There are also three former Smart Gilas players on the team in Mac Baracael, RJ Jazul, and JV Casio. Baracael was Alaska’s draft pick from the previous season. Jazul was acquired from Rain or Shine while Casio fell into Alaska’s lap after the Powerade Tigers, Casio’s first PBA team, was dissolved.

“We can’t believe that JV was made available to us,” beamed big man coach Dickie Bachmann who at 18 years, is the longest-tenured person in the room with Alaska outside team representative Joaqui Trillo. “We feel it is a steal for us.”

There are also Dondon Hontiveros, Eddie Laure, and Nic Belasco who are all nearing the end of their long careers in the pros. Belasco previously played one season with Alaska before moving around (he has played with eight PBA clubs). Belasco thought his PBA career was over after a less than stellar stint with Sta. Lucia in 2010. Former Barako Bull assistant coach Ariel Vanguardia brought him out of retirement to play for the Westsports Malaysia Dragons in the Asean Basketball League where he impressed enough to earn a recall to the PBA.

And there are first time pros Raphy Reyes and Calvin Abueva.

Bachmann doesn’t deny that Abueva has re-energized the ballclub that has been in a funk since the Philippine Cup of two seasons ago. “His energy and enthusiasm is contagious,” he said like he was letting some one in on what is the worst kept secret in the PBA.

However, inside the Alaska dugout at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the atmosphere is much like a classroom – reserved and quiet with the players every bit attentive to the game plan.

Several Tropang Texters are singled out as the Aces’ priority in shutting down. Among them are point guard Jimmy Alapag and swingman Larry Fonacier. “You have to be aggressive on your show so they think twice before driving, setting a play, or making a shot,” cautioned assistant Alex Compton. “That oughta chop off some precious seconds off the shot clock.”

While the Aces have returned to the system that has brought them 13 titles – the Triangle Offense – they temporarily shelve it when precocious rookie Calvin Abueva is on the floor. “We run two simple plays when he’s on the floor,” explained Bachmann. “We hope by next conference he’ll learn the finer points of the triangle.”

Abueva is well behaved in an Aces uniform; a far cry from his hellraiser days with San Sebastian. He was at once the Stags’ biggest and brightest hope while he was their biggest cause for concern. In the recent NCAA Season 88, Abueva became the first player in Philippine collegiate hoops history to average a triple double in points, rebounds, and assists for an entire campaign. In spite of that incredible feat, he was not accorded the league’s Most Valuable Player Award on account of a one-game suspension (league rules stipulate that a MVP Awardee must play every single match). For all his prodigious exploits on the hardcourt, Abueva was also like a time bomb where he also led in technical fouls and skirmishes with opposing players and teams. Sometimes he even clashed with his college coach in Topex Robinson who is also an assistant with Alaska. After three consecutive years of booking a NCAA Finals seat, his Stags fell short this past tournament. As soon as San Sebastian was ousted, Abueva traded his red and gold for the red and white of Alaska.

“Even while he was in San Sebastian, Calvin would already practice with us,” let on Bachmann. “So he didn’t come in blind and not knowing anyone. He just has to get used to the system.”

But Abueva is a smart man. He knows he’s new to the PBA jungle. For all his ballyhooed entrance into the pro loop, he knows he is a rookie and until such time, there’s a pecking order in the team. During the pre-game briefing, he was attentive as he absorbed every morsel of information the coaches threw the players’ way.

“When you set a screen and then you roll, Calvin,” pointed out Trillo. “Gabby – he said looking also to Gabby Espinas who recently transferred from Meralco – and Calvin, if the pass doesn’t go to you do not give up. Continue to set those screens. The ball will find its way to you.”

There was some discussion on their screen and roll and Abueva looked a little lost. He asked Casio who was seated next to him for clarification. Casio obliged and Abueva nodded. He got it. If only a little bit.

The triangle offense. Joel Banal ran it part-time before he junked it totally when things when from bad to worse to hell for Alaska. Now it’s back full-time as it is the only system Trillo knows. “I learned it when I was a player here and when I was an assistant,” explained the neophyte pro head coach. “I ran it in Cebuana Lhuillier (in the D-League) and I’m running it again.” But there’s a slant to Trillo’s schemes – he prefers his Aces to be more defensive minded.

“Tonight… it’s the league’s two best defensive teams,” Trillo enunciated clearly for all to hear. “I want to be the better of the two at the end of the game.”

After nearly six minutes of play, both squads were tied at 11 points apiece; the second deadlock of the match. Abueva entered at the 6:06 mark for a foul-plagued Mac Baracael. The crowd at the Big Dome cheered the entry of the player they call, “The Beast.”

The greeting is a far cry for Abueva who was always soundly booed by the galleries of opposing NCAA teams. “Yung Gatas Republik…” commented head honcho Jaemark Tordecilla, “ay Abueva Republik na.”

Of course, Abueva’s first act on the court was to foul TNT’s Ryan Reyes in the act of shooting a three-pointer. Abueva quizzically looked at the referee then to his bench to apologize. If this were the NCAA, bodies would be hitting the floor in the next play. In the meantime, Reyes hit all three free throws to give his side a 14-11 lead.

At the 2:37 mark, Abueva stole a lazy pass by TNT’s Jason Castro. The Beast hightailed it down the court then found Casio for a lay-up, 21-20, Alaska.

In TNT’s next offensive set, Abueva blocked counterpart Harvey Carey. That too led to another Casio score --- this one a trey that made it, 24-20, Alaska. The Aces finished with a flurry to go up 29-20 after a quarter.

When the Tropang Texters got the ball back to start off the second period, Abueva and Gabby Espinas forced Ranidel de Ocampo to brick a close range shot. Once more, that led to another Casio trey.

The pressure defense worked for Alaska early on as they forced Talk ‘n Text to shoot an anemic 41% for the entire first half. The Aces on the other hand shot at an impeccable 58% shooting clip. Ridiculously high especially against the hitherto a defensive-minded TNT squad.

TNT had no inside scoring as the defense was airtight. The Tropang Texters also took shots late in their shot clock. It was their guards who in fact, kept  them in the game. The tables were turned.

In the meantime, one of the defensive goals of the Aces for the match was telling – Fonacier, in 15 minutes of play, had zero points, one rebound, two assists, and two steals. His points, so valuable from the outside and from his lane incursions were sorely lacking on this night.

But Norman Black had his own ace. In his last five years with the Ateneo Blue Eagles, his halftime adjustments were legendary. And the multi-titled coach brought his mojo with him to TNT. Once the third canto got underway, his Texters found their groove. By quarter’s end, his Texters were up,  73-68, as they began to pound the Aces from both inside and outside.

In the fourth period, TNT was up 83-72 with six to play and looking like they had finally solved the Alaska puzzle.

Cyrus Baguio actually got the comeback started with a pair of his trademark drives. Then Abueva picked De Ocampo’s pocket and that led to a four-point play by Casio to make it 83-81 for TNT. Still Black’s squad held off Alaska.

With a minute and nine left to play, Casio drove to the basket. All game long except for the brief spell when TNT took that 83-72 lead, Black’s squad had problems guarding the pick and roll. Casio drove and his guard went with him with the other Texters closing down the lane. The Alaska guard kicked out the ball to Abueva who was unmarked from the top of the arc.

The Beast hit the bottom of the net to notch the count at 90-all. But Abueva’s glory was short-lived as he fouled out on the very next play as Kelly Williams deposited the two free throws for a 92-90, TNT lead. Black’s troops looked like they had that crucial defensive stop on the next play when Williams blocked a drive by Baguio. However, officials called Williams for goaltending replays clearly showed that the ball was still on its upward flight when the TNT center swatted it away. 92-all.

In TNT’s penultimate offensive, De Ocampo missed a baseline jumper while Fonacier couldn’t tip the ball in. Alaska corralled the last of their 38 rebounds and called time where Trillo called for the ball to go to Casio and to create depending on what the defense gave him. With 5.3 seconds left, Casio took the inbound and drove hard to the basket. He quickly eluded Jimmy Alapag and blew by Williams who was a fraction of a second late in helping out. Casio laid the ball in for the game-winning basket, 94-92 (TNT was unable to score in their next play).

Inside the joyous Alaska locker room, veteran Tony de la Cruz, who played only 15 minutes and didn’t score a point (although he hauled down seven boards), smiled. Thoss, who sat in the section next to the Alaska captain, was all smiles. “I had forgotten this feeling,” he said. “This is a satisfying win.”

“Bukas ako,” Abueva (14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals, 2 blocks, and 6 turnovers) described of his game-tying triple to Laure. “Buti na lang pumasok.” Joaqui Trillo patted his head as a sign of appreciation.

Luigi Trillo then said out loud, “I can’t even remember the last time Alaska won five straight.”

Then his prognosis: “We passed the test.”

Now for Rain or Shine.


The Alaska Aces held Talk 'N Text to 38.2% FG shooting.


The last time I extensively wrote about the Alaska Aces was the Philippine Cup Conference after they won their 13th title. Then I got busy. Real busy. That was also followed by a losing spell for the ballclub and how do you write stories about continuous losing? I originally intended to begin writing at the start of the season but my workload prevented me from doing that. I can't say I'll be there for every ball game but I will try. Thanks to Alaska for allowing me to once more gain access to the team. Hope you like it. And watch out for more locker room pictures including a shot of the coaches congratulating JV Casio.


  1. First, it was Aljon Mariano. Now, it's JV Casio.

    As good as Norman Black is with half court adjustments, I don't think even the best coach can take into account players who just suddenly explode during the game.

  2. Er, in case you watched the entire season, Aljon Mariano blew hot and cold. He only played one good game against Ateneo. And it's halftime adjustments not half court.

    1. I was comparing this game with that 1 game between Ateneo and UST. In both games, it seemed NB figured things out; unfortunately, someone from the other side spoiled things for his team. In that UAAP game, it was Mariano; in this PBA game, it was Casio.

      As for half court, typo on my part