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.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Last Huddle of Smart Gilas Pilipinas

This appears in the Monday, December 2, 2013 edition of the Business Mirror.

The Last Huddle (of Smart Gilas Pilipinas)
by rick olivares

It was the perfect send off for Rajko Toroman.

It was an evening of pasta, pizza, salads, and satay at California Pizza Kitchen at Bonifacio Global City with some of his former players in attendance and talking about basketball.

“It’s why he loves this place,” quipped Asi Taulava. “It’s basketball 24/7. It’s his second to the last night here in Manila, all we’re talking about here is basketball.”

It’s a basketball journey that is filled stories of hope, triumph, defeat, disappointment, pride, good memories, and lots of laughs.

If you ask the players what is their one Rajko Toroman anecdote, they will be hard-pressed to answer that for there are many (as are the impressions). But if there is one story that they will lead off with, it’s that one night in Club Acapulco in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade.

During the team’s first trip to Serbia for training in 2009, Toroman gave them one night off to see the city. “Provided we be back in our hotel by midnight,” recalled Gilas skipper Chris Tiu while trying to stifle a laugh. The team did go back to the hotel before midnight but forward Mac Baracael suggested they go check out the nightlife a little more. So the entire team snuck out.

The night staff on duty all recommended on Club Acapulco, a trendy club situated on the ancient Danube River. The entire team along with their trainers hired several cabs to take them to the bar.

Unknown to the team, Toroman went back to the hotel to check on his players. When the coach learned they had gone out once more, he angrily stormed out in search of his gallivanting players.

After an hour and a half of drinking, with quite a few of the players tipsy, the Filipinos stood up to leave. There was practice the following day and they needed to get some sleep however little.

As soon as they stepped out, the first person they saw was Toroman who wore a face of muted anger. “Coach,” blurted out Greg Slaughter. “What are you doing here?”

Added Tiu, “We were stunned. All of a sudden, all the alcohol left our bodies. We were sober in a split second.”

During practice that morning, Gilas played at a higher intensity to make up for their transgression.

Over dinner now at California Pizza Kitchen, everyone now laughs at the memory. Toroman included.

“Coach, maybe this isn’t the last goodbye,” chimed in Dylan Ababou. “We will go visit you in Serbia.”

“And go back Acapulco,” segued Slaughter drawing howls of laughter.

“It’s hard to believe that five years have passed,” related Tanya Toroman, the coach’s wife.

Five years ago, when Rajko Toroman began coaching a young pool of college basketball players who would compose the Philippine National Team (or ‘Smart Gilas Pilipinas’ as it was affectionately nicknamed), their first cheer after breaking the huddle was, “Go, Dylan!”

That was in reference to forward Dylan Ababou; an insider joke concocted by forward Mac Baracael who despite his quiet demeanor is actually a locker room comedian with a gift for gab. However, that “cheer” died down real quick and was replaced by the "300"-inspired ‘Awoo’ that they carried on until Wuhan, the team's last campaign.

It was a stern Toroman the players all met that quiet evening at the Philsports Arena where Gilas Pilipinas first practiced. They were to both unlearn and re-learn basketball as they knew it.

And little did they know that day would change their lives forever. They got better physically and mentally and almost all of them would go to the PBA as first round draft picks. They went around the world, logged serious flyer miles, played some of the best basketball teams, and went to places like.. Acapulco. They came, they saw, they conquered, and they had fun.

Those experiences and memories were shared last night, Friday, November 29, over dinner  in honor Toroman who was packing his bags for good for Serbia the following day. In attendance were the Tiu brothers Chris and Charles, Ababou, Asi Taulava, Mark Barroca, Greg Slaughter, and JVee Casio (the players brought their spouses or in Ababou’s case, his mother).

Jimmy Alapag texted that he would be unable to make it as he just planed in from a relief mission in Tacloban with the Talk ‘N Text team. “It was an honor playing for you, coach,” texted Alapag. In a late night phone conversation with the captain of Talk ‘N Text, he related how it was a difficult circumstance coming over from three PBA finals and not having enough rest or practice with the national team. “I was coming into a program that was there for three years. It was going to be difficult. But there are no regrets. It was an honor to play for that team and coach Rajko. Some things you learn right away and some things in hindsight. I can say that of coach.”

Others like Marcio Lassiter already met up with Rajko a few days before. The first batch of assistant coaches – Allan Gregorio, Jude Roque, and Oliver Bunye – had said their goodbyes the day before.

The players talked about their respective campaigns. Barroca and Taulava shared their thoughts about a winless season. A warrior’s heart burns through them as they cannot accept the losing.

Taulava is extremely grateful for being on Gilas. “I was at my end, man,” he disclosed. “The reason why I have been able to come back and play good basketball is because of coach. Those practices sure whipped me into shape. He got me to refocus and improve my basketball sense.”

Toroman similarly noted how Barroca has come a long way from his banishment from FEU. The championship that eluded him in the UAAP is now in his resume with San Mig Coffee in the PBA. The coach is proud of Barroca who has been starting for San Mig of late; it is a sign of his emergence as a basketball player. The young point guard beamed at his 'father's' approval.

Casio has won a championship with Alaska in his second year in the league (he did go to the finals with Powerade in his rookie season with Lassiter). When he came to national prominence with La Salle, it was as an heir to gunner Renren Ritualo. Under Toroman, Casio became a terrific point guard whose speed and leadership had become markedly improved.

But the current toast are the four Gilas alums in Barangay Ginebra – Ababou, Japeth Aguilar, Baracael, and Slaughter. The players talk about Slaughter’s drop steps and spin moves in the lane. That wasn’t in anyone's scouting report. His slam dunk on GlobalPort’s Jay Washington was celebrated tonight. "Fulfilling your potential," underscored Toroman. The Big Fella replied with an aww-shucks grin.

When it seemed that Slaughter wasn’t going to be selected to the Gilas Pilipinas squad for the FIBA Asia (in spite of his playing well), he decided to concentrate on his studies. When the final lineup was bared, the seven-footer was still stung and began to work out. The Big Fella was on a mission.

Slaughter hears everything. He knows how he wasn’t intended to be the original choice of Barangay Ginebra. Were it not for the campaigning of Mark Caguioa and LA Tenorio, he might have been in another PBA jersey come opening night.

The result of his refocus are double doubles in three games and all of them wins.

Toroman was more than a coach. He was like a father to the players. One of them developed a drinking problem. To help him kick the habit, the coach visited him every night at home to check up on him if he was sober. "You have a great opportunity to become someone," he admonished. "Basketball isn't forever. Put your life in order and make the most of it."

There was obvious love at that table. Tanya Toroman admits that the coach feels pain over his unceremonious sacking from his endeavors here in the Philippines. But the proof is in his players currently plying their trade in the PBA. Just the other day, the person who has been delivering the purified water to the Toroman’s pad bade them goodbye. He asked for their address in Serbia so he can send them a post card on Christmas and New Year. "That made me cry," admitted the coach's wife.

New Year’s. This will be the first time in five years that the coach will be home for the year-end celebration. It is a bittersweet feeling for the Toromans who have fallen in the love with  the Philippines. "The country," noted Taulava. "matched his thirst for basketball."

On a cool Friday evening, around 10:15pm, the small party finally exited California Pizza Kitchen. In the very last huddle of the coach and his longtime players, they posed for one more photo to the amusement of onlookers.

There was no “Go, Dylan!” or “Awoo!” after that.

Just a handshake and some manly hugs. And as ever, the coach whispered into their ears encouragement in their PBA careers.

Still the coach until the very end.

Coach Rajko welcoming JVee Casio upon arrival.

Some trivia about Smart Gilas Pilipinas.

It was Rico Meneses who came up with the name of "Gilas" for the men's national basketball team and "Perlas" for the women's national team.

It was Noli Eala's idea of starting off every team practice with the singing of "Lupang Hinirang". 

For the first batch of Gilas PilipinasRajko Toroman, Butch Antonio, Allan Gregorio, Djalma Arnedo, Jude Roque, Jimbo Saret, Albert Rolle, Chris Tiu, JVee Casio, Mark Barroca, Aldrech Ramos, JR Cawaling, Mac Baracael, Dylan Ababou, RJ Jazul, Rey Guevarra, Greg Slaughter, and CJ Giles. And the men of the SBP: MVP as well as former SBPers Noli Eala, Joey Bautista, and Rico Meneses.

For me Smart Gilas was my first long-term assignment outside the Ateneo Blue Eagles. It was one I dived into wholeheartedly and passionately. I have reams and reams of notes on that team that I'd love to put into a book. One day. And tell the whole unexpurgated story of a great basketball team.

1 comment:

  1. Still the best for me after ron jacobs... ang layo kay chot