by Tito S. Talao
Game Tomorrow (Mall of Asia Arena)
8 p.m. – Rain or Shine vs San Mig Super Coffee
Manila, Philippines – Rain or Shine coach Yeng Guiao, who owns and breeds racehorses, likes Smarty Jones. But he won’t mind playing the role of Birdstone.
In June 2004, all of US thoroughbred horse racing flew to Belmont Park in New York to witness history as Smarty Jones, a chestnut-colored stallion who earlier won the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby, attempted to become only the 12th Triple Crown champion – and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Smarty Jones had the lead going to the homestretch of the punishing 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes as the record crowd of 120,000 roared. But suddenly from nowhere, Birdstone, a 36-1 long shot, came charging from behind and surged past to shatter what would have been the crowning glory of Smarty Jones’ quest for horse racing immortality.
“I love long shots,” says a chuckling Guiao two days before the Elasto Painters battle the Grand Slam-seeking San Mig Super Coffee Mixers in Game One of the PBA PLDT Home Telpad Governors’ Cup Finals at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“They’re the spice of life. Every now and then, they’d come around and surprise you. That’s what makes life exciting.”
At 8 p.m. tomorrow, Rain or Shine and San Mig Coffee kick off their best-of-5 championship series, with the Mixers, who won the Philippine Cup and the Commissioner’s Cup, looking to become only the fourth team in PBA history – and the first since Alaska Milk and Cone in 1996 – to complete a three-conference sweep.
The E-Painters hope to thwart it.
Guiao says neither design nor ambition will fuel them when they take on the spoiler’s role against San Mig Coffee.
“It’s just a natural consequence,” he says. “If we are to write our own history, continue winning championships and the consistent level of play that we’ve shown so far, then we have to stop them. But that is not our primary objective or goal. We’re just trying to look at it in a different perspective, a more positive one.”
Playing the part of the little guy, Guiao says, is what appeals more to their nature.
“We’re very much the underdogs in this series,” he says. “People had been saying that whoever wins between San Mig and Talk ‘N Text (in the semis) will eventually be the champion. Maybe they’re right. But then we have the chance to prove them wrong.”
Guiao knows the great odds facing them as they try to disprove the cynics.
“It’ll be like stopping a rolling boulder down the mountain,” he says. “There’s no chink in their (Mixers) armor. They’re bigger, more experienced, and they have the momentum of a Grand Slam possibility behind them. They have the advantage on and off the floor ”
The E-Painters’ edge lies somewhere else, Guiao says.
“This what I’ve stood for in my career in the PBA – to fight as an underdog and to come out winning,” he says. “This is the kind of scenario that we relish.”
Containing San Mig’s frontline – Marqus Blakely, Marc Pingris, Joe Devance, Ian Sangalang – will be Rain or Shine’s biggest problem, especially after their deficiency in that area was exposed during the series with big and aggressive Alaska.
“We have the material to match up at the wing, but defending the post will be a concern; we just have to cope,” Guiao says. Against the Aces and their bigs – Sonny Thoss, Henry Walker, Vic Manuel and Gabby Espinas, the E-Painters found themselves trailing, 2-1, in the series. But they caught a break in Game 4 when Walker was ejected for throwing an elbow at Paul Lee, Espinas broke a foot and point guard Jayvee Casio slipped on a wet spot and nearly tore a knee ligament.
Both Casio and Espinas sat out the do-or-die Game 5 last Saturday, along with Thoss (back spasms), and yet the Aces held their own for nearly 48 minutes before running out of options, 97-93.
Now Rain or Shine faces an even more formidable opponent that is healthy, well-coached and well-motivated.
“For sure, the bigger burden is with us,” says Guiao. “Although me pressure on them, they have already accomplished so much this season. This is just icing for them. Even if they don’t win the Grand Slam, they’re still a great team. They’re already great as they are.”
This early, does he already have a prediction as to how the series will end?
“Game Five…Rain or Shine, siempre,” he says, laughing.
Could it be Smarty Jones and Birdstone all over again? Off the starting gate, Game 1 could provide a glimpse.