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PBA: Duel for the ages

Jong and Yeng

Call it a duel for the ages.

When Yeng Guiao and Jong Uichico shake hands today in the pre-Finals press conference of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup, they will be renewing a bitter rivalry that broke out during a bygone era in Philippine basketball when opposing players genuinely disliked each other and fans from both sides spew venom before, during and after each championship game.

Back then, the 2001 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals, Guiao strategized for the Red Bull Thunder while Uichico schemed for the San Miguel Beermen. Broadcaster Noli Eala, who did the Game 1 TV commentary with Quinito Henson, was two years away from becoming the PBA’s sixth commissioner and Chito Salud, the current commissioner, was still in the private sector.

Guiao now handles the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, seeking his seventh PBA championship and second for the franchise, while Uichico, in the finals after seven years (Barangay Ginebra San Miguel) and the first time with the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, hopes to capture his ninth title while handing TNT its seventh overall. Eala had since returned to corporate life, with the PBA in the hunt for its ninth commissioner, while Salud, who announced his retirement two months ago, has been named the league’s first president and chief executive.

Willie Miller was Red Bull’s top pick from the draft that year and veteran Ato Agustin, the 1992 PBA most valuable player, was a decade away from coaching Petron Blaze to a championship. Only three SMB players remain active from that season, with Danny Seigle reunited with Uichico on TNT’s latest bid for glory.

Paul Lee, Rain or Shine’s spectacular point guard, was 12 years old when Guiao and Uichico last clashed with a PBA crown at stake and was six years away from catching the eye of University of the East Red Warriors coach Dindo Pumaren. Jayson Castro, TNT’s amazing playmaker, was 15 and three years away from teaming up with Gabby Espinas in giving Philippine Christian University an NCAA championship. Both are now leading contenders for the Best Player of the Conference award and hold the key to restarting their respective coach’s stalled winning run.

Theoretically and realistically, TNT and ROS weren’t even around that time.

Talk ‘N Text was not known by that name during the first two conferences, with Smart Communications taking over the Mobiline Phone Pals franchise and affecting a brand change only prior to the third conference of the 2001 season, the Governors’ Cup. Rain or Shine team owners Terry Que and Raymond Yu, meantime, were still dominating the Philippine Basketball League scene with one title after another and were five years away from contemplating a big leap to the PBA, leading to the purchase of the Shell franchise.

But the rematch that is 14 years in the making is finally on. And both coaches ought to be famished.

It has been three years since Guiao last won a title after leading ROS past the B-Meg Llamados and Tim Cone in seven games during the 2012 Governors’ Cup Finals. Uichico has been experiencing hunger pangs a little longer, not having wrapped his hands around a championship trophy since 2008 when Ginebra defeated the Air21 Express in Game 7 of the finals.

As distant as the names Tony Lang and Nate Johnson are – Lang, the former Duke standout, suited up for Red Bull and Guiao that year; Johnson, the ex-Louisville star, reinforced San Miguel and Uichico– their memorable matchup will provide colorful background and comparison to the forthcoming head-to-head between ROS’ Wayne Chism and TNT’s Ivan Johnson.

Chism, from University of Tennessee, has a laid-back playing style reminiscent of the former Blue Devil stalwart, while Johnson, who moved from one college to another in search of a scholarship and a coach who will let him play through some anger management issues, prefers a more aggressive approach in the same vein as the ex-Cardinals mainstay.

How their coaches plan to get the best out of them should determine the direction the best-of-7 championship series will take.

But the main focus will be on the long-ago dance partners.

Contrary to popular belief, Guiao and Uichico, painted as the antithesis of the other, are hewn off the same rock. Both are passionate and driven and go to great extent to motivate their players and win games.

Though one may be more vociferous in expressing his discontent with officiating, both don’t suffer fools gladly and are similarly inclined to get on an erring official or player with the same intensity.

Older and wiser now, they are the yin-and-yang of Philippine basketball coaching, forces seemingly contrary to each other but actually complementary.

Guiao got the better of Uichico that year, with Red Bull beating SMB in six games. It’s been a long time coming and most of the circumstances surrounding their last showdown 14 years ago had been forgotten.

But revenge, someone once said, is a dish best served cold. If not Jong Uichico, then Danny Seigle is bound to remember – for Talk ‘N Text’s sake.