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Austria, Compton go back a long way

ALASKA coach Alex Compton (left) and San Miguel counterpart Leo Austria shake hands during yesterday’s PBA press conference. (Tony Pionilla)

For two seasons in 2006 and 2007, Leo Austria, then the head coach of fledgling Welcoat Paints, and his assistant coach/import Alex Compton waged a near futile war against the PBA’s powerhouse teams, staggering through a 7-29 win-loss record and never coming close to advancing to the playoffs.

They went their separate ways after that, with Austria, the 1985 PBA Rookie of the Year, coaching the Adamson Falcons and then San Miguel Beer in the Asean Basketball League, and Compton, a product of Cornell University in Philadelphia, joining Powerade as an assistant to Bo Perasol before hooking up with Alaska with Joel Banal and later Luigi Trillo.

Seven years later, the two reunite, not in one team but on the same battlefield as they reap the fruits of their long struggle, leading their respective ballclubs – Austria with the San Miguel Beermen and Compton with the Alaska Aces – in the PBA Philippine Cup Finals starting tomorrow at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at 7 p.m.

“We had great times back then. No regrets. Kahit di kami nananalo ng marami, desente naman ang naging performance namin; puro close games,” said Austria, who claimed wins over marquee opponents like San Miguel and Talk ‘N Text.

Compton, who suited up as reinforcement for Welcoat (now Rain or Shine), said Austria could have been Coach of the Year in one of those two seasons.

“Although we didn’t have guys who could put the ball in the basket, as an expansion team we performed quite well and that’s because of Coach Leo’s ability to maximize talent,” said Compton.

With the past behind them, the two coaches look to the future starting with the championship showdown marked by a first in four conferences that doesn’t have Tim Cone, Norman Black or Yeng Guiao making an appearance.

Compton took over from Trillo two conferences ago, while Austria came aboard during the off-season.

The San Miguel franchise is back in the finals after the 2012 Governors’ Cup where as Petron Blaze, the Boosters lost to the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers in five games, while Alaska won the Commissioner’s Cup via a four-game sweep of Barangay Ginebra San Miguel the following year.

During yesterday’s pre-Finals press conference at the Sambokojin Grille & Restaurant in Libis, Quezon City, Austria and Compton held court over a field they had run roughshod over in an 11-game eliminations, a quarterfinal playoffs and a semifinal series.

“Matagal na namin kayo hinihintay,” Austria told Compton by way of welcoming his former assistant coach to the Finals. The Beermen were seeded outright to the semis where they waylaid Talk ‘N Text in four games, while Alaska routed NLEX and Meralco in the playoffs and then survived Rain or Shine in six grueling games in the Final Four.

The long layoff, Austria said, is a cause for minor concern since the Aces will be coming to the championship “in fighting condition” even as he admitted the break allowed them to rest and heal some injuries.

“But whatever, all stats and records are now set aside because this is a different ball game,” he said.

That should include Alaska’s 66-63 victory over San Mig in the elimination when the trade that brought point guard Alex Cabagnot over from Globalport for Sol Mercado had yet been brokered.

Asked whether he is the answer to Alaska’s dreaded pressure defense, Cabagnot hedged on his reply.

“We have lots of players who can also handle the ball,” Cabagnot said. “Their pressure defense in the finals is a key factor but Coach Leo is preparing for that.”

The statement drew a quick smile from Austria, who clearly didn’t want it let on that has been burning the midnight oil studying Alaska’s vise-grip defense.

Compton, on the other hand, made it clear Cabagnot is at the center of their defensive radar as well.

“He’s great off the pick ‘n roll and great at shooting threes; he’s a big problem,” he said.

Talk veered to the double-teaming defense 6-foot-10 SMB center June Mar Fajardo inevitably drew throughout the league, an option Alaska could choose not to exercise with 6-foot-9 Sonny Thoss and 6-foot-9 backup center Sam Eman manning the frontline.

Austria nonetheless believes the Aces will stay away from a single coverage on Fajardo as much as they can.

“I believe they will double him because he’s a force to reckon with and they will do everything to stop him,” he said. “Unless June Mar isn’t playing well.”

Although Compton joked that he plans to use Eman as a “point guard,” Thoss provided San Miguel an idea of how Alaska would probably deal with the big fellow inside.

“He’ll be a handful,” said Thoss. “But the good thing about it is that this is a team sport. We need five men, not just me. It would take all of us.”

Compton ultimately followed Thoss’ lead.

“We promise not to double June Mar…every minute that he’s on the bench,” he said, drawing laughter all around.

Also present during the press con were Alaska players Calvin Abueva, Cyrus Baguio, Tony dela Cruz and JVee Casio, while joining MVP Fajardo is 2013 winner Arwind Santos, Ronald Tubid and Chris Lutz for San Miguel.

In attendance as well were PBA chairman Patrick Gregorio of Talk ‘N Text, SMB alternate governor and league vice chairman Robert Non and SMB team manager Gee Abanilla.

Abueva, whose energy and rebounding strength have no match at SMB on a one-on-one basis, said that as much as he wishes Fajardo a championship, having won one already as a rookie, he continues to crave for more.

“Naka-una na ko pero siempre gusto ko pa rin manalo,” the 2012 Rookie of the Year said, to which Fajardo replied: “Sayo na yung BPC (Best Player of the Conference), sakin na yung championship.”

The two coaches differed on the value of Game 1.

“I don’t believe too much in the importance of Game 1. It depends on who gets the four (wins),” said Compton.