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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Coming up Aces: From the outside looking in at Alaska’s 14th PBA title

This appears in

Coming up Aces: From the outside looking in at Alaska’s 14th PBA title
by rick olivares

Prior to the start of this PBA season, Alex Compton, a colleague of mine at the National Basketball Training Center, called with some news, he was going to work as an assistant to Luigi Trillo in Alaska who took over from Joel Banal sometime in April of 2012.

Then I had found out as well that another very good friend of mine, Louie Alas, was also going to be on the coaching staff.

The Aces had drafted well. They snagged San Sebastian College star Calvin Abueva with the second overall pick of the draft and later on picked up JVee Casio from the now the defunct Powerade Tigers (in a deal that also sent long time guard LA Tenorio to Barangay Ginebra).

The team had a different look to it -- there were the Alaska veterans in team captain Tony dela Cruz, centers Sonny Thoss and Sam Eman, off-guard Cyrus Baguio, and forwards Eddie Laure and Nic Belasco who returned to the club they last played with in 2007. And there were the newcomers like RJ Jazul, Gabby Espinas, and Dondon Hontiveros.

I had a long conversation with Trillo at the start of the tournament and this is what he said:

“You can say that this is a new and an old team. That sounds weird, right? We have some familiar faces and of course new ones. We’re bringing back the triangle with a few things added here and there. We’ve also gotten younger with the addition of Calvin, JVee, Raphy (Reyes), and RJ. We’ve also increased our fan base because Dondon helps bring in the fans as well. So maybe now we’ll have a few more fans in the stands cheering for us.”

“The last season did not end the way we wanted it to be but I believe that things will be different.”

It didn’t start out that way, unfortunately, as the team lost several matches to start off the Philippine Cup.

Trillo, in another pre-game conversation confided that he heard the criticism: that he was only head coach because of his father, that he didn’t have the necessary Xs and Os to win, that he was not a winner…

I had seen Trillo coach the Adamson Falcons in the UAAP and the team suffered through a couple of winless seasons. The brickbats were just as unkind if not worse. That the team took of when Leo Austria was made head coach made the criticism only worse.

But I have seen Trillo work hard. No, work harder at his craft. He wasn’t just a disciple of Tim Cone, he is his own man.

During those days when he was still an assistant, the coaching staff graciously allowed me to listen in on their pre-game, half time, and post-match discussions. Not all of it was smooth. There was some arguing here and there (of course that is expected) but it was all for the good of the team. Trillo would always speak his mind. He didn’t win every argument but he respected the decisions. He watched, he listened, and more importantly, he learned.

It is easy to lose a professional club inside the dugout when a team isn’t winning, but inside the Alaska dugout, it was all professional. The players listened and paid attention to Trillo not only during the winning but also the losing. Trillo looked his players in the eye and said with conviction what he wanted them to do and what he believed in.

For Alaska, it took the late arrival of Calvin Abueva, who was wrapping up his collegiate career with San Sebastian (they were eliminated by the Letran Knights in the NCAA Final Four) to galvanize the team. His arrival saw an immediate impact in the club’s fortunes.

They didn’t just become a better club but a bonafide contender. It was a quantum jump in the team’s fortunes. After dropping four straight, Alaska went 8-2 to finish the elimination round in fifth place. The Aces dropped Meralco in two straight in the quarterfinals but went on to lose, 4-2, to eventual champion Talk ‘N Text.

In spite of that semis loss, the team looked at it in a positive manner. This team needed to learn from that experience. They knew that they needed to work harder if not be tougher.

Tough. That sounds strange when you attach that in the same sentence with these Aces. Tough in the context of physically tough. That’s something not seen in these parts since Yoyoy Villamin and Ricky Relosa, the Bruise Brothers, ruled the roost.

It’s amazing what Abueva has brought to the team – toughness, swagger, and well, and well, a never-say-die mentality that is oft attached to Ginebra (more on them later).

Come the Commissioner’s Cup, the Aces finished atop the standings with an 11-3 record. They dusted off rising Air21 in one match in the quarterfinals. Then faced off with now nemesis San Mig Coffee and Tim Cone in the quarterfinals.

In the first conference immediately when Cone jumped ship, there was pressure on Alaska to beat Purefoods (as San Mig was known then). I was in Cam Sur with Fred Uytengsu for the Ironman triathlon and he calmly spoke of it. I flew back to Manila much earlier than Mr. Fred and when I got to the Araneta Coliseum, LA Tenorio (then the team’s point guard), told me that the Boss texted and called him no less than three times about the importance of the win.

Purefoods beat Alaska and they seemed to have the Aces number on every occasion. Of course, Tim knew the club. It didn’t help that the team was confused about what offense to run. Sometimes, then head coach Joel Banal would run the triangle. Sometimes, they’d junk it. The new players couldn’t figure it out.

And so they had a nine game losing streak to San Mig. And it looked like Cone and James Yap and company would continue to hold sway as they won the series opener, 71-69.

The Aces had the talent to match San Mig and at times it was opined within the team if it was all mental. Many of them had played for Cone. Most of them knew of only one coach and he was now on the other side.

But Abueva is not of these parts. He doesn’t know much about Alaska’s history. He only knows of the here and now. He reminds me of that early Charles Barkley commercial for Nike where he says that he is paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. And that is what Abueva has done.

Like the Chicago Bulls finally riding itself of nemesis Detroit, Alaska took the best-of-five series with San Mig in four.

In the finals, there was a resurgent Barangay Ginebra.

Truthfully, it was a difficult series to watch. I was a former Ginebra fan that switched allegiances when the team changed from one of a team of discards, has beens, never weres, with unproven rookies and one certified superstar to a team of stars. The one team that exuded that Ginebra brand of old (and you can through in the toughness and roughness is Rain or Shine under Yeng Guiao – along with his Red Bull teams).

But there’s that part of me as well that still finds it in my heart to root for them (even if I have become a fan of Alaska in the last few years). Furthermore, it does bring back memories of those 1990s when Alaska used to be a thorn in Ginebra’s side. I would groan and be depressed for days when they would lose to the Milkmen. But I switched teams later on for reasons I’d rather not go on about here (and that’s for some other day). Suffice to say that it helped when they had Blue Eagles LA Tenorio, Wesley Gonzales, Larry Fonacier, and Paolo Bugia on the team.

Nevertheless, that is something that Fred Uytengsu has challenged me on occasion. A few years back, he caught me wearing an Olsen Racela San Miguel jersey during the Ironman triathlon. He kidded me about it. The following year, he saw me with an Air21 Nonoy Baclao jersey. I meekly protested and said that Tony dela Cruz has been one of my fave PBA players and since his Shell days with Rich Alvarez, Chris Jackson, Joey Mente, Rich Alvarez, and Banjo Calpito to name a few.

I did get my dela Cruz jersey that is several conferences late but that is something best left for another time.

Aside from the history between the two teams in the finals, Ginebra also had several former Aces in their line up in Tenorio, Mac Baracael, and Elmer Espiritu. The latter two were their draft picks but maybe more so for Espiritu, it didn’t work out as he was benched by Cone. I was sure they’d want to show their former club what they were missing.

With Tenorio, he had not played well against his former team but in Game Three, he was superb. Ginebra’s shooting was superb while there seemed to be a lid atop Alaska’s basket. Import Rob Dozier carried Alaska for long stretches until the fateful fourth when Ginebra coach Alfrancis Chua rested Tenorio.

There is a drop in the quality of the PG position when Tenorio is out and Alaska, down by one at the end of the third, made their run. By the time Tenorio and Mark Caguioa returned to the game, Ginebra’s guns had fallen silent. Not even Chris Ellis who came up huge for the Gin Kings could buy a basket.

The game, so close for three-quarters of the way, ended in a rout. No one on Ginebra could guard Sonny Thoss.

Thoss’ post-up game, non-existent for the first half, had come alive at a crucial juncture. It gave the Aces scoring down low outside Dozier but it also gave them second chances. It also opened up the perimeter for the outside sniping of Alaska. The lid had been lifted.

There were five people I sought out after the game – Fred Uytengsu, Alex Compton, Sonny Thoss, Calvin Abueva, and Luigi Trillo.

Fred Uytengsu is someone I work with in my day job at Mindshare. The product I handle, Gatorade, sponsors many of his triathlon events not to mention the Aces. “I feel like my first year in the PBA,” he said joyously. “I feel like I am 24 years old. That was a long time ago. This is an incredible journey and a great transformation. I think with this group, the first of many to come.”

Quipped in Nic Belasco who over heard the conversation, “I feel like 24 also!”

Underscored Compton, “This was won by a special bunch of guys. It’s a gift to be a art of this.”

For Sonny, he said that the rookies had given new life to the club. Suddenly, basketball had become fun again. Seeing his former teammates leave – Joe Devance and Tenorio – was difficult. Seeing his former head coach on another team (along with former teammates who were now on Cone’s coaching staff) was also difficult. But that’s life. You move on. He feels reinvigorated.

For Abueva, playing against the team that he grew up following – Ginebra – was not really a problem. “Alaska ako ngayon, pre,” he served notice.

He’s been booed on the court and become the new villain for many teams and their fans. But it doesn’t bother him one bit. “Ma-uubos lang lakas at oras nila mag-hate. Masarap pa rin tulog ko!”

When I asked him how he felt about winning a college title with San Sebastian, a couple of D-League titles with NLex, and now, a PBA championship with Alaska, how did this feel. “Masarap, syempre,” he roared as he was doused with beer by teammates. He added a few minutes later with beer cans in hand, waiting for Trillo to enter, “Kulang na lang para sa bayan.”

Trillo, in the meantime, was inside the press room. He had been there for close to 30 minutes talking about the game and the season. By the time he entered the locker room to the cheers of his wards, he allowed himself a smile.

Watching him during the on court celebration, he smiled too. I stole in a question, “You gonna cry!”

“Not here,” he smiled. “For joy!” The man who endured so much stood by and watched as his players, management, and supporters whooped it up.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

“Yes, it does. Yes, it does.” He then shared a long hug with his dad, team manager and PBA Board member Joaqui Trillo.

Who said nice guys don’t win in the end?

1 comment:

  1. Sir, minor correction: the Alaska-San Mig semis is only a best-of-five series.