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Leo Austria on the fortune of playing with and coaching top flight centers
story and picture by rick olivares
During the meet and greet with San Miguel Beermen fans yesterday at the Robinson's Galleria in Pasig City, head coach Leo Austria sat next to the Philippine Basketball Association's reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player JuneMar Fajardo. When a fan was given a chance to ask Austria a question, she asked if Fajardo could continue his dominance in the league.
"JuneMar," said Austria. "We haven't even seen his best."
The crowd roared.
"I am not kidding. He can still do a lot more."
Austria knows a thing or two about playing with top flight centers.
During his playing days with Shell where he won Rookie of the Year honors, he won a title in 1990 with this bull-strong slotman by the name of Benjie Paras.
When he began coaching in the old Philippine Basketball League with Welcoat, he had the good fortune of coaching Rommel Adducul who had to go the PBL route after the old Metropolitan Basketball Association folded. Adducul won four NCAA titles with San Sebastian before taking his act to the MBA. When he joined Welcoat, he teamed up with another pair of frontline studs in Eddie Laure and Marc Pingris to lead Welcoat to the title.
At the start of his collegiate stint in 2006, Austria nearly made the UAAP Finals when he got a previously underachieving Ken Bono to raise his game several notches higher to lead the Adamson Falcons to the Final Four where they were stopped by a JC Intal-led Ateneo team. Bono took home the collegiate league's MVP plum but he later famously said he'd trade the award for a chance to win a UAAP title.
While it is only with Adamson where he did not win a championship, Austria built a team that became a championship contender for many years. The team slid back into mediocrity when he left. The Falcons previously had to deal with infamy as they finished with a pair of winless seasons until Austria resurrected the squad.
In his return to coaching in the PBA (after some seasons with Shell and Welcoat), Austria guided the Beermen to an Asean Basketball League title in 2013. The Beermen who were playing at that time in the PBA as Petron Blaze, put up a wholly different franchise to compete in regional basketball. Austria had Asi Taulava playing the five (he also handpicked current SMB third-string point guard Jeric Fortuna to run the one-spot) en route to a three-and-oh championship over the Indonesia Warriors. For his efforts, Taulava was feted the ABL's MVP Award that campaign.
And now he has Fajardo and two PBA crowns.
"I played as a shooting guard and it was easy for me to do my job because we had Benjie (Paras)," recalled Austria. "He opened the floor for myself, Ronnie Magsanoc, Calvin Tuadles and other perimeter shooters because he attracted double teams. Plus, Benjie could pass out of trouble."
"I have always said that to be successful in basketball, it would be nice to have a center who can dominate because he will make life easier for everyone. JuneMar, I first saw when I was coaching Adamson and we were in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League," shared the coach of that first encounter with Fajardo who eventually became his player. "He was raw but the upside was obvious. That time, he would also shoot from the outside sometimes taking three pointers himself. While I know he can do that, we in San Miguel have plenty of outside shooters who are better than him. At the post, there isn't anyone we have who is better so as much as possible he plays close to the basket."
"That too is the advice given to me by Lakay," noted Fajardo in reference to former Beerman star center Danny Ildefonso. "The close you are to the basket you can get easy points and lots of rebounds. You also give your teammates a chance to get open."
"He is a thinking player. Very smart. And more importantly, very coachable," pronounced Austria. "I am excited to bring out the best in him and I think we haven't even seen JuneMar at his best."