Basketball coach Leo Austria loves to talk. Asked one question by game annotators like Quinito Henson or by courtside interviewers like Erika Padilla, Coach Leo would go on a seemingly endless commentary until he is cut off by the interviewer. It does not matter if the post-game interview is in English; he is as garrulous in that language in spite of his poor command of it. Understandably, he was extremely effusive when his team San Miguel Beer beat the Alaska Aces for the Philippine Cup championship, giving Coach Leo his first Philippine Basketball Association championship ring.
The Beermen were leading by two points going into the five seconds of the championship game, but the Aces had the ball. Alaska’s best 3-point shooter JV Casio got a clean look at the basket from rainbow country and let go of a long shot for the game winner. But the ball hit the rim and bounced out. In the best tradition of sports competitions, whether here or abroad, Coach Leo paid the vanquished Alaska Aces the highest compliments right after the game. His words were not perfunctory as the Aces stretched the Philippine Cup Finals to the deciding 7th Game. Had Casio made the 3-point shot, the Aces would have been the champions. Following the trend of his kilometric homage of Alaska, I expected him to end by saying that the Aces were of championship caliber like the Beermen, unfortunately there can only be one winner. But Coach Leo’s penchant for verbosity and poor command of the English language made him say, “Unfortunately we won.” Of course, the celebrating San Miguel team executives and assistant coaches were stunned by the unfortunate statement of their expansive winning coach.
Maybe the San Miguel Beermen were not happy with the bonuses they got for winning the Philippine Cup crown. They put up lackluster performance in the succeeding conference, the Commissioner’s Cup. They lost their first game in the conference – to the lowly Kia Carnival, a bunch of 2nd and 3rd round draftees coached by one with no playing or coaching experience in any Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas-sanctioned tournament but a world boxing champion in eight divisions.
The next game was against sister team Ginebra San Miguel Kings, which had lost its first two games in the on-going Commissioner’s Cup. At the late stage of the game, the Beermen looked like they were going to send the Kings to their third straight loss. Such an eventuality would put in jeopardy the Kings’ quest for another championship trophy. It has been a long time since they won one.
However, in the last five minutes of the game, reigning Most Valuable Player Junmar Fahardo began fumbling the ball under the goal, turning over the ball to the Kings. Not only that, 5’8” LA Tenorio of the Gin Kings blocked 6’10”Junmar’s under-the-goal stabs twice. High scorers Chris Lutz and Marcio Lassiter turned cold, while the Kings, particularly the slow-footed Greg Slaughter, found free and easy passage to the goal. Suddenly the Kings were in the lead.
Philippine Cup Finals MVP Arwin Santos, who averaged 18 points and four 3-point shots per game in the last conference, spent much time on the bench in this game as his attempts even from the perimeter area were missing the mark, attempts that were 90% successful in the previous conference. He was sent in by Coach Leo towards the end of the game when Ginebra had a comfortable lead. He finally made a 3-point shot in the dying minutes of the game, when Ginebra was sure of victory.
If Coach Leo had said after the game with sister team Ginebra, “Fortunately, we lost,” no San Miguel executive or assistant coach would have been stunned. It seemed like that was the game plan.