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Unexpected Paths: How Nenad Vučinić found himself back in Meralco

Nenad Vučinić wasn’t supposed to be with Meralco, let alone become a PBA champion coach.

But fate had other plans for him.

“I felt very comfortable here. The people here are good, they have values, and they’re trying to do their best in their plans, whether it is with Gilas or Meralco, their soldiers,” shared the well-traveled Serbian-Kiwi coach.

Initially, Vučinić was called up by his good friend Tab Baldwin to serve as his lead deputy for Gilas Pilipinas.

But on the eve of the 2022 Lunar New Year, a turn of events drastically altered the course of Philippine basketball.

The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas announced that Baldwin had ‘stepped down’ from his post as Gilas Men program director.

Seeing his mentor treated this way, Vučinić wanted to leave the country just a month after going on board.

“At the time, there were some politics around Gilas. I have to be honest. Tab was the head of the program at the time. He wanted me to help him. He’s my friend, and I tried to help him,” he recalled.

“When he lost his job, I really wanted to go home.”

2021-FIBA-Asia-Cup-Gilas-vs-India-Chot-Reyes-x-Nenad-Vucinic Unexpected Paths: How Nenad Vučinić found himself back in Meralco Basketball News PBA  - philippine sports news

Returning Gilas head coach Chot Reyes, however, needed someone to assist him.

He believed Vučinić was the right man to serve as his right-hand man.

After all, Vučinić was a former head coach of the New Zealand Tall Blacks and had coached numerous clubs in the Chinese Basketball Association.

After careful consultation with Baldwin, Vučinić accepted the offer.

“Coach Chot came to me and asked me to stay. I spoke to some and said, ‘We don’t do that.’ But I spoke to Coach Tab, and he asked me to stay and help Coach Chot because he really has the program at heart,” continued Vučinić.

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Vučinić temporarily served as head coach of Gilas during the second window of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers.

He also had a side gig as the active consultant for the Meralco Bolts.

Everything seemed fine from the outside. However, seeing Baldwin no longer pursuing his dream of leading Gilas Pilipinas to a World Cup deeply affected him.

“I stayed there, but then there were some issues between them and Coach Tab, and I could not stay anymore,” he shared.

As the Bolts’ campaign in the 2022 Philippine Cup ended, Vučinić decided to bid farewell not just to Gilas but also to Meralco.

“From my experience traveling around the world, it’s very difficult to find this kind of environment. There’s so much politics involved with players, their agents, and even fans,” he furthered.

“Here in the Philippines, I had an opportunity with Gilas where I was helping Coach Chot at the time. We had a good time, but it was difficult because coaching two teams was catching up as well, and there was some overlapping.

No Bridges Burned

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Despite his abrupt departure, Vučinić never said anything negative about Meralco and Gilas, even recalling his short stint with praise.

“I understand the pressure of the fans about basketball. But every issue seems to be a big issue but it shouldn’t be like that. There’s a bit of relief. Obviously, now, I have a lot of good memories of the Philippines. I hope to be back in the future for some different role,” he said during an interview a month after leaving the Philippines.

SBP president and Meralco governor Al Panlilio offered nothing but praise for the professionalism shown by Vučinić during his six-month stay in the country.

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“We had a good conversation. We did say that if there’s any opportunity in the future that we can still work together. We’re looking forward to that,said Panlilio.

“He just has some commitments that he wants to go after now. But as I said, he said he is willing to come back anytime in the future.”

Just four months later, Vučinić returned to Meralco and Meralco alone to serve as assistant coach to Norman Black.

Vučinić’s Vision

2024-PBA-Philippine-Cup-Finals-Game-6-Meralco-def-San-Miguel-Nenad-Vucinic-1 Unexpected Paths: How Nenad Vučinić found himself back in Meralco Basketball News PBA  - philippine sports news

After missing out on the playoffs during the 2022-23 Commissioner’s Cup, Meralco finished the 2023 Governors’ Cup in the top four, only bowing to TNT in the semis.

Something had to change, though.

Vučinić insisted that the Bolts participate in more games and tournaments.

The buildup for PBA Season 49 saw Meralco join the 2023 Doha International Basketball Championship.

When Ginebra backed out of the East Asia Super League, they stepped up to join it as well.

“Over the course of the year, our coaching staff takes pride in what we’ve achieved. We practiced really hard and knew we were in great shape. There’s been a lot of discipline and various video analyses, but overall, it’s been a challenging year for us,” said head coach Luigi Trillo.

The Commissioner’s Cup saw Meralco fall in the quarterfinals to Phoenix Super LPG. But they knew the results would come.

The Philippine Cup, however, did not start as planned.

The Bolts were 4-4 heading into the final stretch of the elimination round, including a sorry loss to bottom-dwelling Converge FiberXers.

“I think someone mentioned that with three rounds to go in this conference, we were second to last. I took a screenshot of that time; we were second last, with Converge being the last team that hadn’t won a game. We were at the bottom, and the players could have easily turned their backs, and the coaches could have done the same,” he reflected.

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“If we had lost the next game, we probably would have finished second to last. But we won three top games against Phoenix, Magnolia, and San Miguel, who was unbeaten going into the playoffs,” he furthered.

“From then on, we were very difficult to play against, and that’s a credit more than anybody to the players who stuck with it and believed in what we were teaching.”

On Sunday, behind Newsome’s heroics and Vučinić’s game planning, the franchise’s 14-year wait ended.

And after everything that happened in the past two years, he could not help but be grateful.

“After that season two years ago, I wanted to come back. I was already in a consulting role with Meralco, and I really wanted to return,” he said.

“Thank God I got the chance to come back.”

For Gilas, Vučinić is at peace, knowing that the program is in good hands under the stewardship of Tim Cone.

“I have full respect for them and wish them all the best now. They’ve done an amazing job winning the Asian Games, and to win that championship is a huge achievement. They’re on the right track, though they have tough Olympic qualifications ahead,” he said.

“Expectations are high, sometimes too high. It’s going to be a tough tournament, and I hope they can do their best and compete well.”

For Meralco, though, Vučinić, a usually stoic man, showed a smile as he plans only one thing.

“It’s going to be a long party.”

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