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.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Rajko Toroman on the best basketball country on the face of the Earth

Lunch with Coach Rajko (at Green Pastures at Shangri La last Wednesday) who I joined in the early years of Smart Gilas.
This appears on

Rajko Toroman on the best basketball country on the face of the Earth
by rick olivares

And we thought we Filipinos were basketball junkies.

Rajko Toroman’s day goes some thing like this.

In the morning he watches the NBA games. Everything that is shown on local television he watches. Even on delay. What he misses he catches on the replay.

In the afternoon, he catches the UAAP, the NCAA, the D-League in the different venues around the metropolis. In between, he surfs different websites for recaps, stories, gossip, and information about hoops.

When he gets home at night, he watches the PBA.

Think his day is done? His nightcap is the Euroleagues.

I am a basketball coach. It is all I know,” he proclaims.

A man of three countries
Toroman is a renowned figure in international basketball. But he is commonly associated with three countries. 

The first is his homeland of Serbia and being an assistant coach on the last united Yugoslavia team before civil war wracked the Balkan country. That mighty team featured such stalwarts as Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Zarko Paspalj, and Arijan Komazec to name a few.

Together, they won the Junior World championships then the FIBA World Championships in 1990; the swan song of their national team before they were torn apart at the ethnic lines.

He is also considered by many Iranians to be the architect of the success of their golden generation of basketball players that includes Mahdi Kamrany, the Bahrami brothers, Hamed Hadadi, Oshin Sahakian, Hamed Afagh, and Javad Davari. In case one has lived in a cave these past few years, Iran has been the class of Asian basketball in the last decade as they have won three FIBA Asia titles – including their first in 2007 under Toroman -- and a William Jones Cup.

And then there’s the Philippines.

It was during a FIBA event when former Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas Executive Director Noli Eala first intimated to the Serb about coaching the Philippine national team. At that time, Toroman had just led Iran to its first Olympic berth and all he thought about was going back home to Serbia for a rest. While back in Belgrade, Eala reiterated his interest in bringing Toroman over. The coach finally relented and came over. And his first taste of homegrown basketball was an Ateneo-La Salle game.

His green eyes lit up.

Could it be that he found another basketball-crazy nation outside the United States and Yugoslavia?

He was immediately smitten and sold.

And Smart Gilas beckoned.

I am a coach in the best basketball country on Earth.”

The dream denied
It rankles Toroman when he hears that the Smart Gilas project (that used the old Northern Consolidated Cement model of keeping a team of elite college players together for years in international duty) is a failure. While it is obvious that the best players are in the PBA, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the college stars cannot compete.

“That is why we are a team,” he argues. “Every player not only has a role to do but he helps his teammates as well.”

Rather than implement what he used with Iran, Toroman developed a system to suit his players’ talents and what was available to him.

If the ball is thrown to the post, many of the other players generally stand around waiting for something to happen. In the system he runs, there is constant movement. “Constant movement means you will have more chances to score,” he says with authority. The coach also preached that all his players should be able to shoot from the outside in order to spread out the defense and open up the lane to drives.

The goal of the three-year program of Smart Gilas was to qualify for the London Olympics.

En route during the qualifying FIBA Asia at Wuhan, China, JVee Casio got injured, the PBA players loaned out to the team were released a little too late to jell with the holdovers, and two mainstays were prevented from suiting up for the first three games of the campaign. “It was a difficult situation,” he notes of that campaign.

In spite of everything, Smart Gilas still came within a few minutes and baskets of qualifying.

While it is not the result that he or the SBP wanted, he has learned to live with the end product given the aforementioned limitations.

Over at the PBA, he was eager to see how he would fare in Asia’s oldest professional basketball league.

After a brief stint with Petron that didn’t pan out, Toroman was named the lead coaching consultant (euphemism for head coach and somewhat more appealing to the sensitive Basketball Coaches Association of the Philippines) of Barako Bull, he made do with his limited and handicapped line-up to post a four-game win streak and a spot in the recent Governors’ Cup quarterfinals.

However, Barako sputtered when they lost their pint-sized dynamo in Monfort and finished at sixth place in the league standings.

The problem was he could not teach old dogs new tricks. Many players had done certain things a certain way for 10 or even 15 years. To try something new and a little more different to their usual routine was difficult. He refuses to say anything more. “It was not meant to be,” is all he says as he shrugs that famous shrug of his.

Even after his “removal” from Petron and Barako Bull, Toroman still watches the games of his former teams… live. He doesn’t feel shame at all unlike most Filipinos who would shy away from showing their face.

“Why?” he asks. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

I am a basketball fanatic. It is what I am.

The father and his many sons
When Barangay Ginebra rallied from a 12-point third period deficit to defeat San Mig Coffee during the PBA Season Opener last November 17, Toroman was proud that four of his “sons’ played a large role in the comeback – Emman Monfort, Dylan Ababou, Japeth Aguilar, and Greg Slaughter. Of the four, Monfort is the only one not lined up on Smart Gilas’ roster.

Before coming over to Manila, it was said that Toroman’s son was Iran forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami. A few months later, it was said that his Filipino son was Chris Tiu. Sometimes it was Mac Baracael. Or even JVee Casio.

Hence, the “father” doth protest. “It is crazy (on the assertion of favoritism). They are all like my children,” he pronounces.

So it was a proud papa who watched the last four PBA Drafts where his “boys” went at the top of the class.

In 2010, Rabeh Al-Hussaini went second, Rey Guevara third, Ford Arao 14th, and RJ Jazul 15th.

And in what is known as the “Smart Gilas Draft” of 2011, JVee Casio was tabbed number one overall. Chris Lutz went third, Marcio Lassiter fourth, Mark Barroca fifth, Mac Baracael sixth, Jason Ballesteros seventh Dylan Ababou tenth, and Magi Sison 11th.

In the 2012 Draft, Aldrech Ramos was selected fifth overall while Smart Gilas skipper Chris Tiu went seventh.

And during the most recent draft, the last of the Smart Gilas players turned professional. Greg Slaughter was the number one overall pick while Ryan Buenafe went eighth.

Regarding the success of his “boys”, Toroman beams: “I am a proud of my players’ achievements. If I helped them in anyway become better players that this is good news.”

When prodded, he will recite all their statistics. That’s how keen his mind and memory is. 

I am a basketball coach. Teaching players is what I do.”

The long goodbye
The Serbian coach’s Philippine adventure is drawing to a close. In nine day’s time (December 1), Rajko Toroman will take the 15-hour flight (give or take a few hours more for a layover in Dubai) from Manila to Belgrade where he will rest, recharge his batteries for his next coaching stint (word is he will head for the Middle East), and spend time with his family. And he will get a chance to see his six-year old grandson play basketball. That is something that brings a smile to his lips. There’s another Toroman in the game of basketball.

A check of the Serb’s passport will show that outside his native Serbia, the longest time that he spent in any country is in the Philippines – five years. That is an eternity for an international basketball coach.

He’s grown to love the Philippines and feels attuned to everything that goes on. It isn’t only the love for the game that matches his thirst for it. It isn’t even the celebrity tag that comes along with being a recognized coach; albeit one that he finds strange. For in Europe, it is the players are recognized. Mind you, he is grateful for the attention. Even while walking around, the passengers of a jeepney will call to him and wave. “I must have done something right,” he muses.

He loves the Filipino’s penchant for smiles even in the most difficult of situations. It showed more so during the carnage and devastation of Typhoon Yolanda. Of the Filipinos’ resilience, Toroman has one word – “remarkable”. He shakes his head with a smile. “It is remarkable.”

Every one of his former players has a Rajko Toroman impression. From his deep Serbian accent to his oft imitated shrugs and expressions. Sports scribe Joey Villar, who followed Smart Gilas from the beginning, does an excellent imitation of Toroman’s “Japeth Aguilar, what are you doing” complete with the shrug.

Baracael is said to do a terrific impression of Toroman.

San Beda Red Lions team manager Jude Roque, who served as an assistant to Toroman in the early days of Smart Gilas, affectionately calls him “lolo” or “grandfather”.

Smart Gilas trainer Jim Saret was a substitute trainer for a day and never left. He is thankful and grateful to Toroman for asking him to be a part of the team. It was high profile in nature and helped him get back into the basketball scene. “He loved what I was teaching the team,” says Saret who has since gone on to help the PSC, other national teams, and become a part of the Philippines’ version of “The Biggest Loser”; that show where obese people compete for a cash prize while losing weight.

While in Manila or in the various Philippine consulates or homes the national team visited abroad, Toroman tried out the local cuisine. But he makes no bones about his taste buds preferring European or American food. After all, he was weaned on that. In fact, even if it was out of the way, he would send for the Serbian food at compatriot Marko Batricevic’s ‘Balkan Express’ just a few hundred meters away from the San Juan Arena. “He is a regular,” shares Batricevic. “It is his home away from home.”

But the Philippines too has become home. One doesn’t spend five years some where and doesn’t develop an affinity for it. Toroman may have not mastered the Filipino language but the few words that stick in his mind are “salamat”, “mabuhay”, and “puso”. Incredibly they say a lot about the Filipino in general.

When he talks about the national team or even Philippine basketball despite not being a part of any one of them any more, he always uses the pronoun “we”.

“This is why we are successful.”

“This is what we need to do to go to the next level.”

“This is how we won.”

“This is what we are good at.”

“This is what we can do for the country.”

The ideas and skills that he taught in many of our young players are seen on a regular basis now in the pro league. He helped bring back the country to international basketball prominence as well.

For that we are thankful.

And when he leaves, there will be a large slice of the Philippines in his heart.

“Wherever I go from here,” he says. “What ever time it may be, I will always follow what goes not only in Iran but also in the Philippines.”

I was a basketball coach of the Philippines. It is something that will always be a part of me.”


Thanks, Coach. It was fun covering the games of Smart Gilas alongside you. Good luck on your next journey.

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