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PBA: Let the good times roll

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San Miguel Beermen now in line for Grand Slam II.

There was one special moment during the final minutes of the San Miguel Beermen’s successful journey to a third straight PBA Philippine Cup title and the permanent owners of the beautiful Jun Bernardo Perpetual Trophy.

Finals Most Valuable Player Chris Ross, Best Player of the Conference June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos and Marcio Lassiter were embracing each other like a band of brothers while waiting for Alex Cabagnot to complete his two foul shots.

That togetherness symbolized how the Beermen, playing great basketball with their crisp ball movement, have come a long way from being a talented team that was always in turmoil.

“Yung team namin ang masasabi ko walang inggitan e, sobrang willing mag-sacrifice ang bawat isa,” said San Miguel forward Arwind Santos.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost three years since the Beermen have ended the era of “Petronovela” – the soap opera-inspired description of the franchise’s constant defeats in the playoffs coupled with numerous coaching changes and player dissatisfaction.

The Beermen, then carrying the name of the Petron Blaze Boosters, were always in contention for the championship with a roster led by Santos, Fajardo, Lassiter and Cabagnot, but would always fall short during the games that mattered.

Not even the change of name back to San Miguel didn’t result in the return to its winning ways in 2014, prompting the company to go with another direction. They let go American coach Todd Purves and made assistant Leo Austria the next man to try and turn around the fortunes of the once-proud franchise.

Austria, like the Beermen, also had something to prove. He had been considered as one of the best coaches outside of the PBA, winning titles for Shark and Welcoat in the Philippine Basketball League and with San Miguel in the ASEAN Basketball League, and gave Adamson three Final Four appearances in the UAAP.

He wasn’t as successful during his pro stops with Shell and Welcoat, prompting some to raise their eyebrows whether if he was up for the task. Three years later, very few people are still skeptic.

“The first thing I did (after the appointment in 2014) was to talk to the key players, and I told them that my priority is June Mar Fajardo, to get the ball at the post. From there up to now, nag-stick kami dun because all the teams na kalaban namin ang pinoproblema nila is June Mar,” Austria said.

“So why take the problem from our opponent? And my players understood what I meant during that time. I was able to define the roles of the players and naiintindihan nila. That’s why the team, right now, is parang family na.”

Austria is 4-and-4 in the finals, his latest victory coming at the expense of the crowd-favorite Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and coach Tim Cone – perhaps the greatest tactician of this era – a feat he described as the highlight of his career.

Ross, whose defensive plays in Game 5 capped off his second Finals MVP plum in the Philippine Cup that capped off his rise from a struggling guard in the pros, described Austria as the missing piece.

“It was a process,” Ross said. “Even before we had coach Todd…he was amazing for us…coach Todd kind of lay down the foundation for us about teamwork and stuff like that. And when coach Leo took over…he might have been the missing piece that we needed. He let us do what we do, and brought discipline to the team. That’s what he did.

“That’s kind of an old-school guy, he brought a lot of discipline to the team and we needed that. A lot of the guys at the team needed that, and a little bit of discipline goes a long way. And I thank coach for that.”

Added Santos: “Ngayon alam na ng lahat yung bawat role. Dati kasi may mga attitude na ‘Ako lang titira’, walang pasahan, mga ganun. Ngayon hindi na ganun. Parang ang laki ng tiwala sa isa’t-isa. Pag tumira ka, sumablay ka, nagkamali ka, okay lang, walang sisihan. Mananalo kami ng magkakasamaw, matatalo kami ng magkakasama.”

Santos, Fajardo, Ross, Lassiter and Cabagnot gathered anew for one final huddle, giving each other reminders and encouragements. It was San Miguel leading 87-83, 1:04 remaining in the fourth and Ginebra holding possession with 2.2 seconds left in the shot clock. In the old days, a meltdown was still a possibility Santos would block Japeth Aguilar’s three-point try at the shot clock buzzer. Ross would score a difficult reverse layup on the ensuing play, and the Beermen were able to bring home the Perpetual Trophy.

Who would imagine such momentous feat would be achieved after Petronovela?

What do you think?

Written by Jonas Terrado

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