Luigi Trillo comes full circle
MANILA, Philippines – The moment he was carried on his team’s shoulders for his first championship ride in the 2013 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, Luigi Trillo was no longer a John Doe.
Silly, insignificant, even naïve, as it may have looked like to outsiders, it was a moment that mattered. Trillo had finally reached the end of the long, dark tunnel he had been treading for the past year.
In that journey, Trillo’s identity was always a point of contention. He was either Alaska’s renaissance man or another casualty in the post-Tim Cone era that tried and failed to make a difference.
He inherited a franchise that was expected to continue on its decades-long legacy as a winning team and a dominant force in the PBA. The problem, however, was its legacy had been anchored on legendary coach Tim Cone.
Cone recently tied coach Baby Dalupan as winningest coach in the PBA with 15 championships – 13 of which he won with the Aces, highlighted by a Grand Slam in 1996. The American basketball savant piloted Alaska for 22 years. So when he left, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of Alaska—until Trillo came along and breathed life into the franchise again.
Early out of the bird’s nest
Unlike most coaches, Trillo did not play professionally at first. Trillo was out of the bird’s nest quite early at 22 years old when he first got the offer to coach for a private school for boys called Southridge in 1997.
“I just realized I had a passion for basketball,” he says as injuries he sustainted playing for La Salle erased the possibility playing in the PBA.
After Southridge, he became a co-coach with George Gallent in the junior Philippine Basketball League (PBL). He then got an offer as an assistant coach for the Cebu Gems in the now-defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA), where he went straight to the finals in his first year.
In 2000, he joined the Adamson Soaring Falcons and, at 23 years old, became the youngest head coach in the UAAP at the time. His inexperience showed as the Soaring Falcons did not win a game in the first two seasons.
“Those first two years were really trying times for me because, remember, you're inheriting a team that's in last place and then we had to recruit,” Trillo explains the early parts of his 4 and a half years with Adamson.
“But you know I really treasure those two years because those were what fueled me, my competitive nature.”
His hard work resulted in a UniGames title for Adamson. Although his time with Adamson wasn’t the brightest of years, it still remains just as significant to Trillo because it made him “realize how tough coaching was.”
It was during this time that he met Cone.
“Coach Tim Cone was a neighbor of mine. He used to take his walks and we bumped into each other,” he recalls. And in one of those walks, Trillo shared his coming opportunity with Adamson. Little did he know another opportunity would beckon.
“Then he [Cone] asked me right there, 'if you coach Adamson would you like to be an assistant with Alaska?' So I said, wow, best of both worlds,” he says, smiling at the memory.
Trillo juggled learning about coaching through the UAAP and with the Alaska franchise. After Adamson he became head coach of the Cebuana Lhuillier Gems in the PBA Developmental League.
After being an assistant coach for Alaska for so many years, Trillo’s breakthrough finally arrived.
Down the unbeaten path
One of the biggest surprises in the PBA came in 2011 when Cone announced that he would be parting ways with the Alaska franchise he had built for two decades.
His departure left Alaska in the hands of coach Joel Banal. Alaska then struggled in the following season-opening All-Filipino Cup conference. And by April of 2012, Banal resigned, opening up a door of opportunity for Trillo.
Trillo was appointed interim head coach for the PBA’s last conference in 2012. “I was excited. I thought I could make a difference and I knew it would be tough because I entered in the third conference,” he shares.
Trillo debuted as Alaska’s coach with a 9th place finish and only two wins—one of Alaska’s worst finishes in its history.
“Those were tough times,” Trillo says. But it only pushed him to the brink of another breakthrough.
“I had the opportunity to discuss and reflect with Mr. Uytengsu and he decided to give me that two-year deal.”
The breakthrough did not come without a hitch, as fans waited to pass judgment on whether Trillo would lead Alaska to the light or deeper into the abyss.
“I knew what I was coming into. I was excited about it,” he says.
“Guys can get caught up in that [meeting expectations]. The more you dwell on that, it's not helping you,” Trillo explains. “Obviously, I understood where I was coming from and what happened in the past. I focused on just working hard and surrounding myself with good people, and making sure that I have my own identity.”
One conference later and after a major roster change, Trillo steered Alaska to its first championship since Cone’s departure, and gave Alaska a new identity.
“Defense,” he put it simply. “We won our championship that conference, we came in, we were the no.1 in terms of field goals, limiting guys percentage-wise. You go down the line defensively we were no.1 in limiting points to a team. And to me that was huge.”
Trillo also wrote himself into Alaska’s history as the coach who paved the way for the second highest winning percentage in the team's years in the PBA. Cone owns the top spot with the 1996 Grand Slam team.
As a coach, Trillo imprinted on Alaska the identity he had developed in his coaching journey.
“We try to be as detailed as we can,” he explains. “To me I'd like to be—obviously, there's a new way of coaching—but a bit old school in what we do. I'm the type to stop practice and really explain stuff. We want to be thorough.”
That kind of attention to detail stems from Trillo’s days as an assistant coach, which he says prepared him for this opportunity.
“It was interesting. I did all the dirty work, tried to fit in, and did the video. I think that got me prepared for today. But those days are my most fond days because you grow as a coach.”
Trillo’s immediate impact on the Alaska franchise was rewarded during the recent PBA Press Corps Awards when he was named Coach of the Year.
“It's just so special for me and my family because I took the hard road coming here. I didn't take any shortcuts. And I've had the good times and the tougher times.”
The award was like the cherry on top of his achievements. “This is just so special to be mentioned with the likes of Norman Black and Tim (Cone) and it's just such an honor. I feel so blessed.”
On to cementing an identity and a legacy
Moving forward, Trillo hopes to continue down the path he has single-handedly created for himself. The ultimate goal, according to him, is longevity.
“I just don't want to be one coach, one time, one championship. Or just because it's here, it's a fad, it's Luigi and then he's gone. I'd like to stay long. Longevity to me is key.”
He adds: “Some guys come in and out of basketball, that means they're not as consistent. And to me, staying in the PBA a long time, if I'm here 5 or 6 years from now, that means I'm doing pretty well.”
Trillo also wants to leave a legacy that’s reflected both in the X’s and O’s and in his identity as a person.
“I hope that more than just a coach, [I will be remembered as] being a true friend. Hopefully, being known as, on and off the court, the same guy.”
In the heat of the chase toward achieving his goals, Trillo finds that taking 20-minute walks is also part of who he is.
“Sometimes I just take a 20-minute walk, or I might just want to watch a nice DVD which I have in the house,” he shares how he takes a break from the demands of his job. He speaks fondly, too, of how time with his wife Ria, a talk show host, and four kids is the main axis by which his life rotates on.
“Off the court I just need time to myself, time to be with my family members, time with my wife,” he reflects. “I realize now you can't get caught up in it too much. You break down. And I think that completes me.”
Luigi Trillo has morphed into his own person and, together with Alaska, ushered in a brand new era—one that’s shaping up to be just as colorful as the first one. – Rappler.com
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