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, August 3, 2013

Toroman reflects on Iran and the Philippines

This appears in the Sunday, August 4, 2013 edition of the Business Mirror.

Toroman reflects on Iran and the Philippines
by rick olivares

Rajko Toroman sat by the patron section of the Mall of Asia Arena watching Iran carve out an impressive 76-65 victory over tough Korea.

After the match, the former Philippine national coach was being interviewed along the mixed zone area when Iran forward Mohammad Jamshidijafarabadi exited passed by.

“Congratulations!” beamed the Serbian coach.

“No, congratulations to you,” grinned back Jamshidijafarabadi who brandished the victory sign with his fingers.

It has been six years since Toroman coached Iran to a FIBA Asia championship in 2007 and piloted them to their first Olympics berth the following year in Beijing. Before that, the Islamic Republic didn’t really care much for the game of basketball. Hired to build a program, Toroman and the Iran Basketball Federation president Mahmoud Mashhoun selected a team of young players who they would train, keep together, and nurture into a champion team.

The roster of the Iranian national basketball team that was assembled included the Bahrami brothers Aidin and Samad, Hamed Haddadi, Mahdi Kamrany, Oshin Sahakian, Hamed Afagh, Javad Davari, and a few others. They were in their early 20s – young and woefully inexperienced.

Previously, the highest the team finished in an international basketball tournament was third place in the Asian Games.

“For us to win, we went through hard times,” recalled Toroman of those days in Tehran. “We were never complete. Mahdi was always injured. Then Samad’s brother, Aidin, died in a car accident. There was always something. But things changed. The team got stronger and is now more experienced. Healthier. Haddadi went on to play in the NBA.”

As Iran began to get better, they started to win. They successfully defended their FIBA Asia championship defeating long time Asian power China on its home soil in 2009. But Toroman was no longer the coach. The Serb had left to coach the first edition of the Gilas national team in 2008.

Iran has seen two other Balkan coaches follow Toroman in compatriot Veselin Matic and current Slovenian mentor, Memi Becirovic. But Toroman’s place in Iranian history is secure. “I call him my second father,” revealed Samad. “He is not only my coach.”

Mashhoun fondly refers to Toroman as the father of Iranian basketball. The 58-year old basketball coach smiles. “It is nice to be remembered. But the work is not all mine.”

In this 2013 FIBA Asia championships, Toroman cuts a curious figure on the stands as he watches not only the other teams but also especially Iran and the Philippines. It is in this nation of over 7,000 islands where he has stayed the longest having developed an affinity and liking for the country. “I have lots of good memories here,” he exclaims.

Bad ones too. His last stint with the team in Wuhan remains a painful memory even if the country finished the highest (fourth place) it’s had in 40 years. “We didn’t have enough time to prepare with Ranidel (De Ocampo), Jimmy (Alapag), and Kelly (Williams). We had some very good young players in Jayvee Casio, Chris Tiu, Mac Baracael, Marcio Lassiter, and others but from the start of that tournament it was hard. Then we lost Chris Lutz and Marcio Lassiter who were not allowed by FIBA to play for a few games.”

Although his stint with the Philippines did not achieve the same level of success Toroman had with Iran, he likes to think that he’s contributed something positive to Philippine basketball. “But that is for people to judge,” he points out. The consultant for Barako Bull in the PBA looks like there is more that he wants to say but he holds back. He then shifts gears.

He has no regrets not does have any envy for those who have come after him on the national team. “This is all part of our job – changes. They (Gilas II) are good. They have three months to train together to be together and that will help them. They have a good chance.”

Of his original team of Gilas players, the only holdovers are naturalized player Marcus Douthit and Japeth Aguilar.

“Problems are always a part of life,” he noted. “I sometimes wish that some things were different.”

Toroman is beyond envy or vengefulness even if the split with the current Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas management wasn’t the best of partings. He is after all a basketball junkie. He can routinely be seen watching not only the PBA games but also the UAAP and the NCAA. When he’s at home, the Serb watches the NBA and the Euroleague.

While current Philippine head coach Chot Reyes was being interviewed in the post-Jordan win, Toroman passed by the media room, took a quick look, and smiled at the proceedings. He left.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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