MANILA, Philippines – Before Leo Austria took over as San Miguel head coach in August 2014, the franchise was embroiled in drama so prevalent and frustrating, the team's fans gave it a name – "Petronovela."
It is a term that still draws shudders from fans of SMB, who remember the years from 2012 to 2014 as some of the most difficult in recent history for the franchise.
The team, then known as the Petron Blaze Boosters, could not build on a championship run in the 2011 PBA Governors' Cup. Instead, everything seemingly fell apart for a talented squad that featured the likes of Arwind Santos, Jay Washington, and Alex Cabagnot, all in their primes or on their way there.
The coaching situation was in almost laughable disarray: Olsen Racela replaced Ato Agustin, their champion coach, only for Rajko Toroman to come in as an "active consultant," as well.
Along the way, the team disappointed. Three seasons without a championship is long for any franchise, but especially for the winningest ball club in the history of the PBA. Former ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) champion coach Todd Purves was brought in, ostensibly to fix the club's problems but he, too, failed.
This was the situation that Austria came into when he took over in 2014. No one could doubt San Miguel's talent: Santos, after all, had won the MVP trophy in 2013, and the team was still regularly tapped as a contender despite its obvious chemistry issues.
"Bago ako mag-take over this team, I've been the assistant coach of Petron. Nakita ko 'yung problema nila," said Austria on Sunday.
Austria has engineered a complete turnaround of San Miguel, leading the Beermen to four championships in seven conferences. They iced their latest title on Sunday, beating Ginebra in five games for a third straight All-Filipino title.
San Miguel has regained its reputation as a PBA powerhouse, and the Beermen consistently live up to the billing. The road to get there, however, was difficult.
Austria started it by being brutally honest with his players, several of whom can be considered franchise cornerstones in their own right. However, SMB had the biggest and the best cornerstone in the league, and Austria was going to unleash him.
"The first thing I did is to talk to the key players, and I told them na my priority is for June Mar Fajardo to get the ball at the post," Austria revealed.
"From then up to now, nag-stick kami doon dahil it seems na all the teams na nakakalaban namin, ang pino-problema nila ay si June Mar. So why take the problem of our opponent?" he asked rhetorically.
The coach made Fajardo the center of the offense, and it is a tactic that worked wonders. Fajardo has won three straight MVPs, and San Miguel surrounded him with players that compliment and benefit from his size and skill set.
"My players understood what I meant during that time. And I was able to define the roles of the players, and naintiindihan nila. That's why the team right now is parang isang family na," said Austria.
Austria's ability to define roles for his players – and get them to fulfill them to the best of their ability – has been the key to ending the drama that used to surround the franchise.
Two players who were stars in the Petronovela teams – Santos and Cabagnot – have both accepted different roles this time around. Santos will likely never win another MVP trophy, but he remains one of the best defenders in the league and a reliable option. Cabagnot is more of a playmaker, but during the closing stretches, he turns into San Miguel's deadly "Crunchman."
Along with Santos and Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter spaces the floor to allow Fajardo to operate, and stretch opposing defenses to their limit. And Chris Ross, SMB's floor general, keeps the show going and makes life hell for the other teams' point guards.
A team that used to look like a combustible experiment turned into – in Austria's own words – an orchestra, with players who are completely in tune with each other, thanks to the roles that their coach have set for them.
"Alama na 'yung bawat role ng bawat isa," said Santos, who had no qualms about taking a backseat to Fajardo. "Dati kasi, may mga attitude na, 'Ako lang titira, walang pasahan.' May ganoon."
"Ngayon, hindi na ganun. Kumbaga, ang laki ng tiwala sa bawat isa. Kung tinira mo, sumablay ka, nagkamali ka, okay lang, walang sisihan. Matatalo kami ng magkakasama, mananalo kaming magkakasama," he added.
Ronald Tubid, SMB's first guard off the bench, has been in San Miguel all throughout the painful process. He looks back at their "Petronovela" period as a time of growth for the team, and believes they are now reaping all the benefits.
"Noong Petronovela, laging kapos," said Tubid. "Sabi ko, it's okay. Ganoon talaga pag nagtatanim ka."
"Pagka-time na, harvest na. Ayun na."
Ross, who was named Finals MVP of their All-Filipino Cup triumph, also lauded Austria for being the "missing piece" for San Miguel throughout the whole process.
"Coach Leo, he might have been the missing piece that we needed," Ross said. "He let us do what we had to do, and he brought discipline to the team, that's what he did. He's kind of like an old school guy, he brought a lot of discipline to the team, and we needed that."
"A lot of the guys on the team needed that, and a little bit of discipline goes a long way, so I thank coach for that," he added.
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