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In Your Face!

Let's talk balls.

  1. With These Beermen, No Contest

    Sam Miguel usually handles the PBA, but this time he let me have a go at it.

    It was over one of our regular dinners with Mr Libog that the subject of comparing the great San Miguel Beer teams came up.

    Coincidentally I just had an interesting exchange with the great Bill "William the Conqueror" Velasco the afternoon earlier about this same topic.

    Here's the deal: Which of the three great San Miguel Beer teams is the best, the 1989 Grand Slam team, the 2-Danny's team of the late 1990's to early 2000's, or the current 2017 team of June Mar Fajardo.

    Of course the discussions we had were much too free-flowing, so maybe let us set some "parameters" if we can.

    First off, it is easy to be tempted to look at individual players and their stats and just say this guy scored more, rebounded more, passed more, etc etc, and therefore he is clearly better than the other guy. We can't really do that. Remember, those stats were not made against each other, these teams never played against each other, so those stats were only for a particular point in the fabric of the basketball time-space continuum. They might be useful but they cannot be the be-all and end-all of this discussion. The same thing holds true for individual awards like the MVP trophy. You all know how I (and Sam) feel about the very concept of an MVP in the first place.

    Secondly, we have to look at them as teams, and from the particular eras in which they dominated. This must hold especially true for the 1989 team because of the presence there of Ramon Fernandez, the man widely recognized as the best Filipino basketball player ever. (More on this particular point later.) In 1989 Fernandez was a year removed from the last of his four MVP awards, and was no longer the stud he was from say the late 1970's to maybe the earlier half of the 1980's. He still had great game of course, but he was no longer at the peak of his powers here. This will be very important to keep in mind.

    Third, since this is 2017, we will compare these three great teams through the prism of current PBA officiating, so in terms of officiating we will look at this in terms of what is allowed, and no longer allowed by current PBA rules, such as the Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 distinctions.

    Fourth, and I cannot stress this enough, if you do not believe that both the game and the players have somehow or other evolved, at least from 1989-onward, then we can end this discussion right here.

    Fifth and last, let us pretend that all three teams could be put in a mini-tournament, triple round robin eliminations, so each team gets six elimination games each, with the top two teams facing off in a best of seven Finals.

    Bearing all of these in mind, let me get straight to the conclusion Mr Libog and I agreed on: the Finals would be between the 2-Danny's team and June Mar's team; the Grand Slam team would get its licks in but in the end would not have enough size and talent to knock off either of the later-generation teams.

    Let's get the admitted facts out of the way first.

    Mr Libog and I agreed that Allan Caidic, hands down, is the only one from the 1989 team who could still play the game as it is being played in 2017. Caidic is without a doubt the best damn shooter ever that this country has produced. Ever. Take all of the best shooters across all the generations and Caidic would be the best among that esteemed lot.

    June Mar Fajardo will go down in history as the best player ever, regardless of position. At his young age he will probably win at least a dozen more PBA championships, and maybe at least a half dozen more MVP awards. He has truly changed the game just by being here. You're talking about a 6-10, 260- to 270-pound player who has touch, good footwork, agility, and mobility, and can even run in transition. Yes, Fernandez displayed far more skill, coming close one season to averaging a near-triple double for an entire year. But Fernandez never changed the game the way Fajardo did, simply because for all his wondrous talent, Fernandez was a normal-sized Filipino big man, in that 6-5 to 6-5 range. Had Fernandez been at least 6-8, then maybe we'd have a different opinion. But Fajardo is completely different owing precisely to his sheer size, and he isn't the barely-skilled lumbering lummox that say Bonel Balingit, or Chris Bolado, or EJ Feihl, or Dong Polisitico were. Fajardo, far more certainly, is better than fellow skilled skyscraper types such as Marlou Aquino and Yancy De Ocampo. And let us not forget, he is not only tall and long, he is thick-bodied and massive. It is that complete package that has allowed him to amass the titles and accolades he has, and he isn't even 30 years old.

    "Dynamite" Danny Seigle will go down in PBA history as the best player never to win an MVP award. This is a very ...
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  2. What A Difference A Year or Two (or Three) Makes, Part 2

    (Continued from the previous)

    "May mga cases kasi talaga na ang galing-galing nung high school player pero it turns out he's just older than the kids he plays against, at nabibisto din naman siya pagdating pa lang niya ng Seniors," Mr Libog exclaimed.

    I then recalled that a coach from a well-known high school basketball program actually admitted to me something that has long been making the rounds in local high school basketball: Yes, he admitted, when a recruit comes to their program, and that recruit is either just the right age or a little younger for his curriculum year, they make him repeat a curriculum year and max out his age eligibility for junior division play.

    He went on to explain that this wasn't done willy-nilly, that there were practical reasons for doing so: First, their program wanted to maximize the recruit's available playing years, especially if he is a transfer who has to sit out a year to establish residency anyway. Let's say a recruit already finished Grade 8 in his previous school, and he was only say 13 years old, or a little young for a Grade 8 student. When he goes to their program, they talk the recruit into repeating Grade 8, and make that repeat year his residency year. That way they will still have the recruit for four playing years, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. By the time he is in his last year of junior ball he will already be 18, in this given case. There were even times they made recruits repeat two years if they were really young.

    Second, they recognized early on that a player who is older than average in junior ball can more easily take on younger players, even if those younger players are objectively more athletic and more talented than he is. Forget about the difference between a 17-year old and an 18-year old; imagine instead the difference between a 15-year old and a 17-year old. Only in the rarest of cases can a younger player whip an older player at the high school level.

    Third, there is of course that adjustment period needed for a player to get used to more organized, more regimented basketball, especially if he came from an unstructured or barely structured background, like say if he came from the countryside and there really wasn't a regular varsity tournament where he comes from. It'll take at least a year even for the most talented and smartest high school player to get used to a more rigorous system than the one he was used to.

    The bottom line, the coach therefore emphasized, is that it makes sense to use older players in high school basketball, just so long as you do not break the rules. If the rules of your tournament allow you to play high school ball up to age 19, then the perfect team, as far as this coach goes, is one where all of the players are 19, or at least half of them are 19 and the other half are 17 to 18. Pit them even against a team of sky walking, slam dunking, running and gunning younger players, and he will put even money on his older team every time.

    "Diyan na lumalabas nga 'yung big question: Kapag nakakaita ka ng player sa Juniors na obvious naman sa itsura pa lang na mas matanda kesa sa mga kalaban niya, at nilalamon niya mga kalaban niya, hindi ba dapat lang naman ganun ang mangyari? So maybe what we are looking at is not an elite player who will be a sure PBA star in the future. Maybe what we are really looking at is nothing more than an older kid beating the shit out of younger kids, in a manner of speaking of course," expounded Mr Libog.

    "Bigyan kita ng example. You remember when we went to watch Rey Nambatac mga six or seven years ago sa Buddha Care? Sino 'yung nakaagaw sa pansin natin? Kilala mo 'yon," he inquired.

    It took me a few seconds. "Si (Koko) Pingoy?" I asked-answered.

    "Correct. Si Nambatac ang pinuntahan natin, pero nakaagaw ng pansin natin si Pingoy. Guess who's older sa kanilang dalawa?" he asked.

    "Si Pingoy?" I asked-answered again.

    "Si Nambatac, by about a year. Pareho silang born 1994, pero Nambatac was January, Pingoy was December, pero parehong 1994," he said.

    "So magkaedad lang pala sila technically speaking, mas matanda pa nga si Rey," I said.

    "Correct. Coincidence kaya na silang dalawa 'yung pinakamagaling sa respective teams nila at that time? At that time they were both around 18, or sa case ni Pingoy pushing 18 na din siya," he said.

    "So nung nag-champion ang Letran under Ayo, legit 21 na si Rey. Nung time naman na nag-champion sa Fr Martin ang Team B ng Ateneo, 'yung first championship nila dun sa Trinity, turning 20 na din si Pingoy, and take note may mga imports siya that time," he added.

    I pointed out that Joma Adornado was on that title team too, as was Mikey Cabahug and a then under-residency Ponso Gotladera.

    "Yes they were. And how old were all of those ...
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  3. Coach This 3

    Can you imagine that? In Black's six trips to the UAAP Finals, only Pido Jarencio, at that time a rookie coach to boot, beat him for the championship. Yet I'm sure even the most diehard Jarencio fans would never say that Jarencio > Black as a coach. In his 5-Peat title reign, only Lawrence Chongson of UE, hardly mentioned as among the paradigms of great coaches, beat Black (by a big margin at that) in a game in the UAAP Finals. Again, I'm sure no one would ever say Chongson > Black as a coach.

    The point I am trying to make is not to sing praises about the greatness of Black, or Tommy Manotoc, or Franz Pumaren, or Louie Alas, or the late Ron Jacobs. Many people, much greater than I, have already done that.

    Instead, what I submit is that, perhaps there really is no such thing as great coaches, so much as there are great talents put together on great rosters.

    Think about it. With the possible exception of Brown and Detroit versus the Lakers in 2004, and Ayo this season in the NCAA versus San Beda, the more talented rosters with the more talented players in aggregate, have won championship battles. And even in these two instances, the talent Brown and Ayo had respectively was nothing to sneeze at.

    Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the Wallace boys were all star-level players, who had always been dependable, consistent producers on whatever team they were on. Ben Wallace was not much of a scorer, but his defense and board work were all star caliber, almost Dennis Rodman-like.

    Mark Cruz outplayed the more fancied Baser Amer in the NCAA Finals, using speed and a quicker pull-up. Running with Rey Nambatac and Kevin Racal, and even McJour Luib and Jomar Sollano, Ayo's boys proved to be the match-up from hell for the Red Lions who relied almost exclusively on their size and power advantage with 6-8 import Ola Adeogun and 6-4 forward Arthur Dela Cruz.

    Yes, a good coach would know how to maximize the talent he inherits from a predecessor, and then build his own roster over time. But again, it is not necessarily about just grabbing every all star available (see Jail Blazers of previous entries). It takes maybe two or three superstars, and a bunch of interchangeable, hardworking role players. Black did that first with Rabeh Al-Hussaini, Nonoy Baclao, and Chris Tiu. Later on he had Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Kiefer Ravena. Pumaren had Don Allado, Renren Ritualo, and Mike Cortez. Koy Banal and later on Bert Flores leaned on Arwind Santos and Mark Isip, with Denok Miranda and later on Jonas Villanueva.

    It does not necessarily come down to brilliance in the X and O, so much as brilliance in recognizing what will work best, and then building your roster to achieve that. Coaching becomes easier when you have the elite talent making your favored system working. "Maghanap ka ng magagaling na players, para dumali ang trabaho mo. Isipin mo naman, papano kung ang sentro mo 6-1, na may katabaan, mahina tumalon, mabagal. Kesehodang may good fundamentals 'yan, lalamunin 'yan ng 6-5 na atleta na malakas, kahit hindi magsing-ganda fundamentals nila. Matuturo mo pa skills eh, pano punwesto sa box out, pano mag-ball denial, pano mag-hook shot. Anong turo gagawin mo para maging five seconds or less ang baseline to baseline? Anong turo gagawin mo para maging 36 inches ang vertical ng isang player na 12 inches lang ang kaya?" expounded one longtime UAAP assistant coach and scout.

    I recall how Koy Banal, then the FEU head coach, discovered Arwind Santos. FEU went to Pampanga to take part in goodwill games. They played a Pampanga street ball team that featured the wiry Santos. He promptly made mincemeat of Leo Avenido, at that time the FEU star and one of the best players in the UAAP. Santos, a pedicab driver, without any formal, structured training and coaching, made mincemeat of Avenido, a well-trained UAAP star. Did Banal become less of a coach because he could find no solution for a natural talent like Santos? Santos is now a bona fide PBA superstar and an MVP. Does anyone even know what has become of Avenido?

    Eric Altamirano was a champion coach last year. This year he lost two of his starters, and his chief backup at center, and he went 7-7, barely making the Final 4. He was hailed as a genius last season. Has he suddenly become a fool this season?

    Juno Sauler was a champion coach two seasons ago. Again, he lost a lot of key personnel, and he went 6-8 this season, not even making the Final 4. Was he a genius two seasons ago and suddenly a fool now?

    Black's Meralco squad is the worst team in the onging PBA conference. Are we to hold this conference as the ultimate judgement of Black's entire coaching career?

    Baldwin, Pumaren, Ayo are in the UAAP. Will they automatically be three of the Final 4? I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.

    Great coaches ...
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  4. Coach This 2

    Where were we?

    Oh yes, coaches.

    Generally fans have this idea that the coach is the guy who crafts plays, shuffles substitutions, calls timeouts, gets in game officials' faces, during games.

    This is where these same fans get the mistaken notion that anybody with a modicum of game know-how could become a full-time basketball head coach.

    I am friends with actual coaches who have been doing this thing for years, a few of them have been at this coaching thing for decades, a number of them have even won major championships across the various levels of basketball competition in our country and in international tournaments.

    One common thing they tell me is that at least 80% of coaching happens away from the arenas and stadiums. 80% of the job of a coach is in practice, practice planning, breaking down game video, scouting, evaluating and trying to get good talent to play for them. Anything else that the fans get to see during games is probably the least work coaches have to do, because all of the real work happened during the offseason, or during the days leading up to a game.

    "A lot of people do not realize that coaching really is a full-time job, and it is not for dilettantes, it is something you constantly do, and you have to know your stuff," said a long-time Gameface member who used to coach a small Quezon City school. "Ensayo pa lang paplanohin mo mga drills, scrimmage, mga itatakbo ninyong sets, depende pa 'yan sa scouting report mo sa kalaban ninyo. Hindi 'yan kaya ng kung sino-sino lang," he exclaimed.

    Arguably however the one thing that seems to be most important to the success of any coach is getting the talent he needs to put together as strong a roster as he possibly can. And this is made easier if you are a winning program. "When we first came in back in the 1970's nobody wanted the job, because the team was so awful. Nalaman namin unang-una wala pala sa kondisyon ang mga bata, so imbes na ensayo, we got them into tip-top shape. Katwiran namin, how can we play a game that demands a lot of running and jumping if we get tired easily? Awa naman ng dyos nung nag-take over kami within one year nag-champion ang team," explained a long-time coach with multiple high school and international titles.

    When they won it became easier for talented players to come to their school and play for their team. "Dere-derecho na 'yon. Kahit hindi kami mag-recruit, lahat ng magagaling na bata gusto sa amin mag-aral at maglaro. You cannot win without talent. Papano ka mananalo kung lahat ng players mo 5'8" lang na mga lampa at mababagal? Tapos kalaban niyo lahat 6-footers na malalakas at batak sa laro? Hindi chicken or egg 'yan. You try to win first, because when you win mas madali na recruitment. And when you have the best player, you win more, you keep getting the top recruits, ganun lang 'yon," he added.

    And therein lies the crux of the matter. As with any other sport, in basketball, generally talent is directly proportional to success. Talent here means the talent of the players, over and above the talent of the coach. The coach does not play, and there is only so much he can do with a poor roster. He might make them competitive, but turning them into champions only happens in Hollywood.

    Again, look back on the last 10 UAAP and even NCAA champions. With the possible exception of this year's Letran Knights, all the other champions had the superior talent.

    In the NCAA, San Beda's title reign was interrupted only twice, this year and in 2009, when the San Sebastian Stags dethroned the Red Lions after a grand slam title reign. Even then, those Stags had Calvin Abueva, Ronald Pascual, Ian Sangalang, all of whom are legit PBA players now.

    In the UAAP, the Ateneo had five of the last 10 championships during their 5-Peat title reign. FEU owns two of those title, first in 2005 during the Arwind Santos-era, and now in 2015 in the Mac Belo-era. La Salle had that 2007 title, while Santo Tomas took home the 2006 title with a mature, talented, tall, and athletic crew led by then "veteran rookie" Jervy Cruz, Jojo Duncil, and Dylan Ababou, again all three are legit PBA players.

    Exactly how much of a factor were the coaches in each of those title teams? Could any other coach have handled those teams and gotten the same result?

    It might be instructional to look into the case of San Beda. Eight of the last 10 NCAA championships belong to San Beda, with the aforementioned Grand Slam, and their own 5-Peat title reign cut by Letran this year. They went through the following coaches: Koy Banal, Frankie Lim, Ronnie Magsanoc, Boyet Fernandez, and this year Jamike Jarin. Magsanoc in fact sat in a one-season "interim" capacity only, bridging the eras of Lim and Fernandez. So five different coaches win titles with basically the NCAA team that ...
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  5. Knights Shine

    It took me quite a while to get around to writing about the epic (no other word would suffice) Finals Series of the NCAA Season 91 senior division basketball tournament. I was lucky enough to have been able to cover all three games, and this was truly one for the ages. As my friends and I have discussed over the last few days, this championship is arguably the best we've seen in the last 10 years. Allan Gregorio, a basketball lifer who also covers the NCAA as part of the TV Panel, perhaps said it best when he wished that two trophies could be given, one for each team. It was that kind of a series.

    In the end the Letran Knights ended a dynasty that many thought would continue well into the near future, defeating the San Beda Red Lions 85-83 in overtime in the winner-take-all Game 3 last Thursday, 29 October.

    Letran took the series opener on 23 October, 94-90, in a game that turned into a shootout in the last period. San Beda evened things up at 61-68 in Game 2 on 27 October, relying on their vaunted team defense and the hard work of sophomore forward JV Mocon.

    Kevin Racal, now a rookie for the Alaska Aces in the PBA, was the star in Game 1, exploding for 28 points and waxing hot from three-point range. He also led the Knights in the title-clincher in Game 3 with 23 points. Even as the 6-1 Racal pulled out all the stops though, it was the diminutive pointguard Mark Cruz, at all of 5-6, who would be named Finals MVP.

    Cruz, younger brother of ex pro and UP Fighting Maroon Marvin, provided critical scoring and playmaking support to Racal. He used his unmatched foot speed and ability to carve up opposing defenses to provide a steady driving presence for the Knights of rookie coach Aldin Ayo. His fast driving game put a lot of pressure on the San Beda defense, since he was a lot faster than any Red Lion guard. Keeping him in front and away from the driving lanes was not something the San Beda perimter could easily do.

    Jomari Sollano was another revelation in the series for the Knights. Generously listed at 6-4, probably closer to 6-3 in his sneakers, the newcomer provided relentless and well-played defense against 6-8 Nigerian import Ola Adeogun, the man chiefly responsible for anchoring the stout San Beda interior game. With his perimter shooting and ability to catch-shoot off the feeds of Cruz, Sollano was a match-up problem for which Red Lions head coach Jamike Jarin had no solution. Adeogun had no choice but to leave the paint whenever Sollano got the ball, leaving the San Beda defense vulnerable to the slashing and short-shooting of Cruz, 5-9 guard Rey Nambatac, and 5-7 guard McJour Luib.

    Ayo played the mismatches so well in Letran's favor, it seemed Jarin had just been completely bamboozled and discombobulated. "We just played to our strengths, which is speed and shooting, kasi alam naman namin na hindi namin kayang sabayan ang laki at lakas ng San Beda sa loob," Ayo explained in one interview. It was that speed that also allowed his Knights to jam passing lanes, and steal passes from the weak side angles. Once they got the ball it was off to the races, and the Red Lions just could not keep up in transition.

    Letran actually looked like it had the title all wrapped up in regulation of Game 3, erecting an eight-point spread 75-67 with time down to under two minutes in regular play, thanks mainly to back-to-back three-pointers by Racal. But San Beda hunkered down on defense, and Baser Amer, a first round PBA draft pick, completed a steal off Luib and raced down court to force overtime at 75-all. Letran still had the last possession to try and win it all but could not get off a good shot.

    In the overtime, it became a war of attrition, with big shot after big shot coming from either side;s stars, Racal and Cruz for Letran, Amer and Adeogun for San Beda. It would be the unheralded Sollano however that would finally ice the game and the title for the Knights. Sollano nailed a baseline jumper to give Letran the lead for good at 83-82. He added a freethrow to make it 84-82.

    Letran also benefited from a double lane violation called by the left sector referee near the baseline. This happened with Sollano's second freethrow from the previous play. Sollano still had the ball in his hands when slow motion replays showed a Letran player entered the lane first. But Adeogun, with the ball still unreleased and in Sollano's hands, also entered the lane, thereby resulting in the double lane violation, as Sollano missed that freethrow. Under the current rules, that resulted in a jumpball, and a referral to the possession arrow. That arrow was pointing in favor of Letran.

    As critical as the call was, it was the right and proper call, and the videos would prove it. San Beda team manager Jude Roque, usually a reserved person, was so upset with the double lane violation that he went ...
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