What makes a good beer?
Well, a good beer starts with a right blend of hops and malt — loads of it would do perfectly well. Some add a few spices for the perfect kick, while the time of brewing is essential to produce the right amount of sweetness and bitterness.
It is a craft refined by a master brewer.
Just like any beer manufacturer, it took years for the San Miguel Beermen to find the captain who could steer their ship, the chief that would craft the perfect product.
FIVE years ago, before Leo Austria took over the San Miguel Beermen’s coaching reins, a team called the Petron Blaze Boosters were laden with talent but were drowning in a plethora of issues on and off the court.
The fans dubbed it the infamous “Petronovela” – a period considered the dark days for the storied franchise.
With names such as Arwind Santos, Jay Washington, and Alex Cabagnot – all at the height of their careers — headlining the roster, the Blaze Boosters were loaded, at least on paper. But egos were getting in the way of cooperation, damaging the team’s cohesion.
The head coaching position was also in turmoil. San Miguel banked on the likes of Ato Agustin, Olsen Racela, Gee Abanilla, and even foreigners Rajko Toroman and Todd Purves, hoping that one of them would have the magic touch to turn things around for the team. Unfortunately, they all failed.
2012 to 2014 was a truly disappointing time for San Miguel and their faithful. Three semifinal appearances, but just one in the Finals; no championship runs, and all for one of the league’s most successful teams.
The beginning of the end for the Petronovela finally arrived in August of 2014, when Austria came along — someone that nobody had expected to turn the franchise into the dominant force they are today.
“Bago ako mag-take over this team, I’ve been the assistant coach of Petron. Nakita ko yung problema nila.
“Nawala ako sa team because of a new coach, si Todd Purves, they thought he could fix the team, but to no avail. Quarterfinals, nawala agad. That’s the time I was recalled by Boss RSA, he told me you’ll be the one to handle the team,” Austria shared.
The 58-year-old mentor had inherited a team overflowing with problems, but that did not stop Austria from rebuilding them and helping the players realize that it takes more than individual talent to win — that a team is more than the sum of its parts.
“A lot of talent ano. And lahat ng players, naghahanap ng playing time,” described Austria on his initial view of the team back in 2014. “So what I did was I developed their starters dahil hindi naman pwedeng palitan kayo ng palitan.
“I was able to define their roles in the team eh. Binuo ko yung core eh, yung mga starters. Then alam nung mga off the bench kung ano yung gagawin nila. And nawawala yung inggitan dahil alam nila kung bakit nasa loob sila o bakit nasa labas sila.
“Naintindihan nila, that’s why the team right now is parang isang family na,” Austria explained.
OVER the last three years, the players have adapted to the roles Austria has given them, especially the starters, who are now tagged as the league’s best starting unit.
June Mar Fajardo is and will always be the anchor of SMB’s offense; Santos, the 2013 MVP, makes his presence felt on both ends. Cabagnot is there to facilitate, but when needed the most, he will take over in crunch time. Marcio Lassiter has impeccable shooting stretches the floor that makes it harder for the other team’s defense. And then there is also Chris Ross, who has developed from a defensive player to one of the league’s most tenacious two-way ballers – a marked improvement that only took place when he joined the Beermen back in 2013 via a trade.
There are also the reliable bench players: Ronald Tubid, Gabby Espinas, and Yance De Ocampo, whose veteran smarts, earned from over a decade in the league, have always proven to be the best support for the fiery starting unit.
Managing various egos on a stacked team is considered one of the toughest jobs for a head coach, but Austria’s smarts have made it look easy. And now, having struggled and persevered, San Miguel have finally reached “superteam” status — and were vindicated on Sunday night as they secured a rare Philippine Cup three-peat, bagging the coveted Perpetual Trophy in the process.
And the players are nothing but grateful for the sweet victory they achieved, knowing that they have come a long way from the nightmare that is the Petronovela – all thanks to Austria’s guidance.
“Alam na ng bawat isa yung roles nila. Dati kasi may attitude na ako na titira, walang pasahan, mga ganoon,” Santos recalled.
“Ngayon hindi na ganoon. Kumbaga ang laki ng tiwala sa bawat isa. Kung tinira mo, sumablay ka, nagkamali ka, okay lang. Walang sisihan. Matatalo kami nang magkakasama, mananalo kami nang magkakasama.”
“He gives us confidence. He gives us a lot of freedom to do what we need to do on the court,” addressed Lassiter.
“It helps when we have excellent players. When we’re in that position, it gives us what we need to do on the court. Just having Coach believing in us and the management believing in us, it’s a big deal for us.”
“Nung Petronovela eh laging kapos, so sabi ko [noon], it’s okay,” said Tubid, who has been with San Miguel since 2013.
“Ganoon talaga ‘pag nagtatanim ka. Pagka-time ng harvest na, ayun na.”
“I don’t know if we have enough time for detail pero tiwala lang kami to each other and to our coaching staff and management,” said Cabagnot, one of the Petronovela’s stars.
“We just hung in there and had faith.”
“The core group of guys that we have now had really grown together. We’ve become brothers,” said Ross, the 2017 Philippine Cup Finals MVP.
“There was a time that we were so talented but we couldn’t win, and we got over that hump. It’s really a blessing from God. All the hard work we’ve put in and it just feels amazing.”
The ghosts of the past no longer haunt San Miguel. The players are now all on the same page, unlike five years ago; less drama, all ball. They have now won four championships so far, and they clearly intend to add more to their collection.
Now, is a Grand Slam on the way?
“Well, many people will think that, but it’s really hard,” admitted Austria. “We’re not thinking of Grand Slam because [despite the fact that] we’re the only team with the chance to win the Grand Slam, [we will take it] one game at a time.”