Started from the bottom, now Meralco's in the PBA Finals
MANILA, Philippines – Eight months ago, coach Norman Black entered the post-game press room just once in more than 3 months.
It was the Philippine Cup, and as usual, every winning coach during the eliminations proceeds to the press room for post-game interview. But Black and his Meralco Bolts had won only a single game all conference long and they lost all of the other 10.
"Every time we’re in a situation like this – like last conference and now this – I always think back to the first conference. That humbles me very quickly," Black said on Saturday, October 1, when Meralco moved just one win away from the PBA Finals.
"We were 1-10 and we were at the bottom. I always remind the players that they’ve come a long way since then."
The Bolts have gone further since that presscon.
Two days later, Black and his relentless Meralco team defeated the vaunted TNT KaTropa in game 4, 94-88, and finally advanced to the 2016 Governors' Cup Finals – the franchise's first in its 6-year existence.
At the press conference following that huge win, Black again went back to that Philippine Cup and marveled at the incredible 180-degree turnaround they've accomplished.
"I'm really happy for the team, for the players," he said. "I think we've come a long way since the first conference, where we really were pretty bad and I'm happy to finish the year on a good note."
Veteran guard Jimmy Alapag, whose leadership and wisdom was vital to Meralco this season, felt the Meralco players carried that setback with them every day and drew strength from it.
"When you finish 1-10 – it was the first time in my career that we’ve ever finished dead last – it humbles you," the former TNT star said, carrying his daughter with one arm.
"If you don’t feel embarrassed by that, not just for the team but for your family and for the Meralco employees, then something’s wrong. And it really forced all of us to look ourselves in the mirror and say we have to fix this.
"It’s just a credit to coach Norman, the staff, and all the guys in that locker room because we took it upon ourselves to fix it. Guys got in the gym and really re-focused. That’s really where it started."
The same was true for forward Cliff Hodge, whose career game came at just the right moment Monday night.
"I mean, that first conference was an eye-opener. We lost a lot of close games and after that conference, we all got in the gym and we decided that we're gonna switch this around," Hodge recalled.
"So that second conference, we got all the way, almost a minute into the finals, so we've just grown as a team. That's what it is. It's the whole team, it's not even me."
Meralco, one of 3 Manny V. Pangilinan-owned PBA teams, joined the league in 2010 after purchasing the Sta. Lucia franchise.
It's been a slow but steady rise with one coaching change and many a disappointing early playoffs exit.
The Bolts have had a total 13 playoffs appearances and 5 semifinals stints.
Black took over as head coach of Meralco in 2014 after returning to the PBA from the UAAP and coaching TNT to a Philippine Cup triple crown in 2013.
Black, a man used to carving out consistent success on the court such as his 5-peat exploit with Ateneo and his Grand Slam with the Beermen in 1989, had to pick apart Meralco and rebuild the pieces from the ground up.
"I entered Meralco with the idea that, hopefully, we can build the program up and have the program become successful. And we knew it will take some time," Black recalled the journey so far.
"In our first year, I basically coached the team that I had. This year, I broke up the team and tried to start anew, and you saw the result in the first conference where we were horrible, we were terrible.
"But because we were able to latch on to two very, very good imports in the second and third conferences and with the local players developing and improving as the year went on, this is the result."
Import-laden conferences normally benefitted Meralco greatly because of its lack of a true local big man.
Black has always valued his imports for they plug his team’s gaping hole at center and more importantly help them with rebounds.
This season has been no different. Meralco flourished all the way to the semifinals – and came within a win away sa well from the finals – with Arinze Onuaku in the Commissioner’s Cup.
Allen Durham is doing the same good things for Meralco in the Governors’ Cup. But Black also credits his local players for their growth.
“I always admit that Allen Durham is the cornerstone, he is the foundation, but the local players have really stepped up, particuarly Cliff Hodge in this game 4.”
Alapag likewise sees the immense effort the team put in to reach this point for the franchise.
“Guys just came together and everybody played their part from guys like Bryan Faundo, and Cliff (Hodge), and (Chris) Newsome, and Baser (Amer). The list goes down,” he said. “That’s really what it took. It took a monster team effort from us to beat a championship team like Talk ’N Text.”
Alapag, who had been to hundreds of battles in his PBA career, settled down his eager teammates and offered his wisdom as they prepare to face Barangay Ginebra in a best-of-7 series on Friday.
“I’ve been lucky enough to been in a lot of finals and you win some and you lose some. For these guys I told them to just enjoy it, enjoy every moment of it because it’s not guaranteed,” Alapag shared.
“There are a lot of great teams in the PBA and it’s not easy to get to the top of the mountain. We still have a tough task ahead of us, but really just to enjoy this moment.”
Black sat at the podium Monday night visibly taking in the moment. He would pause from speaking every few minutes. Meralco quite literally started from the bottom this year, and now they’re here in the finals.
And although there were no questions asked, Black would find his voice on his own, speaking up to express his myriad of emotions.
"This is just a great feeling," Black said, as if a weight had been lifted off his chest. – Rappler.com