Rajko Toroman still remembers one of the first things he did when he came over to Manila a decade ago. He watched a UAAP match between bitter, long-time rivals Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University.
And he saw how a young Chris Tiu had played then.
“When I came to Manila first, I watched the game Ateneo-La Salle,” recalled the seasoned mentor through an email exchange.
“I was not impressed with the way he was playing.“
Toroman had been coming off a coaching stint with the Iranian national team when he flew to the Philippines around 2008. He arrived in this country to begin a new job, which was to be the head coach of the then-newly-formed Gilas Pilipinas.
That very first Gilas program saw a collection of the best collegiate players from the UAAP and NCAA – very much like the Northern Cement team back in the 1980s, who won the 1985 Asian Basketball Confederation title.
Tie was onne of the pioneer members of Gilas. And when Toroman worked with the player that he hadn’t been impressed with initially, his perception changed. “When I started to work with him, it was totally different,” he said.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Toroman named Tiu as Gilas’ team captain. For the decorated mentor, Tiu was the best player for that position, as he saw how dedicated the heady floor general was and how much of a leader he is on and off the basketball court.
“Chris was very dedicated to the program,” the Serbian coach said. “His commitment was amazing. He was workaholic and he was an example for each player about behavior, discipline on the practice and out of the practice.
“He was best captain of the team I ever had. He was helping me a lot.”
Aside from those characteristics, what had Toroman so impressed with the 5-foot-10 Tiu was the way the former Xavier Stallion plays the game, despite not being gifted with athleticism and strength like his contemporaries.
“He was undersized, he was not quick, he did not look strong, but he was so clever,” praised Toroman.
“His basketball IQ was so high. He was great tactically and he was very tough. These are the reasons why he was special.
“I was always joking that if some scouts will come on our practice to see our players first, they will cut Chris, but if they see him during the game it will be different,” added Toroman, whose Gilas placed fourth in the 2011 FIBA Asia.
Toroman has been in basketball for a long while, and he has handled so many players. But in his rich experience, the now 63-year-old bench strategist said that he only has two players whom he calls his “basketball sons.”
“I have two basketball sons in my coaching time: one was Samad Nikkha Bahrami from Iran, and second is Chris.”
Tiu played the entirety of the Toroman-era Gilas until 2012. After serving flag and country, he decided to go pro, and he was nabbed by the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters as the seventh overall pick of the 2012 PBA Annual Draft.
But now, after six years in the pro ranks, Tiu is looking to hang up his sneakers for good. The 33-year-old cited reasons such as commitments to his businesses and to his family as to why he is contemplating retiring early.
Tiu played what might be his last game last November 3 at SMART Araneta Coliseum – home to some of his best battles. He scored a career-high 30 points to lead his Rain or Shine to a 97-91 victory over the NLEX Road Warriors.
Toroman was then informed about Tiu’s plans, and he himself isn’t surprised. “No, I am not surprised with that,” he said.
“Because he has a lot other things to do in his life. He is opening a new chapter of his life and I believe that he will be even more successful. Everything he touches was or will be golden – school, basketball, business,” Toroman added.
Assuming that Saturday really is his last dance, Toroman is grateful that he was able to work with someone like Tiu.
“I had a privilege to work with him and to be his friend. I would like my grandson to have a personality and character like Chris. That shows how [much] I respect him. My message [for Chris] is just continue on the same way.”
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