by Dennis U. Eroa
While everybody was going crazy as Chris Ross buried a killer trey, Leo Austria, with the action-star looks, remained calm and composed at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, knowing that the final buzzer confirming San Miguel Beer’s return to the top as 2022 PBA Philippine Cup champion was still to sound.
Austria, a proud son of Sariaya in enchanting Quezon province, just nailed his 6th All-Filipino title, solidifying his stature as one of the country’s brightest minds in coaching. The Beermen upped their haul to 10 All-Filipino titles.
Austria, fit and strong at 64, actually has nine PBA titles. But this year’s Philippine Cup must be ranked higher above the rest since his last title came in 2019.
And there’s more to come to the illustrious San Miguel Corporation franchise with Austria steering the ship in the unpredictable PBA waters.
Despite another victory ride amid deafening cheers, Austria, just like in the past, did not take an inch of credit for the rise of the Beermen in the 7th game against a determined TNT Tropang Giga, who got big numbers from role-model Jason Castro, to stay in the thick of the fight.
When interviewed by the hungry media, Austria didn’t think twice, crediting his star-studded lineup for the victory which capped a roller-coaster campaign including a nail-biting finish in the semifinals against TNT sister team Meralco.
In a nutshell, Austria, a sure winner if he will enter the political field in Quezon, was saying the abundance of San Miguel Beer talents made him look good. He went on to express his gratitude to the coaching staff composed of Peter Martin, Ato Agustin, Dayong Mendoza, Boyzie Zamar, Jorge Gallent, and Biboy Ravanes, utility staff, sports head Alfrancis Chua and owner Ramon Ang for their whole-hearted support.
Take note. Only an extraordinary coach can whip a talented team into one cohesive unit. Like a chef, Austria needed to masterfully mix his ingredients to come out with a memorable dish. Mind you, other coaches also boasted of a lineup full of superstars but they came up short.
But Austria’s ability to react quickly to a given or sudden situation separated him from the rest. Always cool even if the Beermen were sometimes on the losing end of referee’s whistles, Austria’s a perfect example of a man with a mission.
Austria’s magic was evident as San Miguel let go Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot. He squeezed the best out of Mo Tautuaa, Rodney Brondial, and Robbie Herndon. He was also instrumental in shuffling the backcourt composed of Jericho Cruz and Simon Enciso, especially when Ross was injured during the eliminations.
The three-time Coach of the Year acknowledged that he needed to understand the temperament of his players to come out with a deadly team ready to pounce on the mistakes of their foes.
June Mar Fajardo showed awesome form after a career-threatening injury, Marcio Lassiter was on target, Vic Manuel muscled his way to points and CJ Perez was wonderful to watch when he attacked the rim.
Manuel and Perez won their first titles and thanked Austria for giving them the confidence and minutes to contribute.
“I let them fool me at first,” a smiling Austria said on how he handled the superstars. A victim of uneducated netizens who floated the idea that his days as SMB coach were numbered, Austria believed that the latest win will bury all the rumors.
“There were so many doubters,” Austria said.
A former PBA Rookie of the Year, Austria knows that it’s very hard to stay on top. The Beermen and Tropang Giga will see action anew at the East Asia Super League and the veteran bench tactician remains thirsty for more victories.
He is presently tied with Reyes and Jong Uichico with nine titles and is in a position to overtake Norman Black with 11. Tim Cone is way ahead with 24 championships while the legendary Baby Dalupan of the Crispa fame collected 15 titles.
San Miguel has a total of 28 titles followed by Magnolia, Barangay Ginebra, and the now defunct Alaska with 14 titles each.
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