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A trivia question during a break in the PBA Board of Governors planning session in Seoul a week ago went something like this:
“Apart from Leo Austria of San Miguel Beer (3rd year), Alex Compton of Alaska (3rd year) and Norman Black of Meralco (3rd year), who among the present batch of head coaches in the PBA can claim similar longevity with his ballclub?
Nope, not Tim Cone nor Yeng Guiao, who are, in a sense, neophytes in their current jobs.
Answer: Also on his third season in the pro league, duking it out with the big boys since 2014, is, believe it or not, former Ginebra San Miguel stalwart Leo Isaac of the Blackwater Elite.
No trick question there. As of today, Isaac, who played nine seasons with Ginebra alongside Robert Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz and Chito Loyzaga and has been coaching Blackwater teams since 2011 in the D-League, is one of three long-serving mentors for his present-day ballclub.
With coaches going through a dizzying season of hiring and firing, Isaac, in effect, enjoys a head-up even on Cone, a double Grand Slam winner only on his second year with Barangay Ginebra, and Guiao, a seven-time champion hired away by NLEX from Rain or Shine just last month.
Cone, the winningest coach in PBA history, joined Ginebra only at the start of last season from Grand Slammer San Mig Super Coffee. Guiao, on the other hand, has yet to make his official debut with NLEX.
So who else has Isaac one-upped?
Recently appointed to head coaching positions are Nash Racela for TNT KaTropa, replacing Jong Uichico; Chito Victolero for Star, in lieu of Jason Webb; Caloy Garcia for Rain or Shine, taking over from Guiao, Ariel Vanguardia for Phoenix after Koy Banal, and Franz Pumaren for Globalport, in place once the UAAP season is over although he has already been calling the shots for the Batang Pier during the Governors’ Cup.
Of course, there’s boxing icon and Philippine senator Manny Pacquiao, who, technically, is on his third season as playing-coach of Mahindra (formerly Kia). But wearing different hats has kept the pride of Sarangani away from the PBA for extended periods of time, with his ballclub’s assistants, the latest of whom is Chris Gavina, filling in and essentially assuming the role of head coach.
That leaves Austria, Compton and Isaac on top of the heap, with one glaring difference: Both Austria and Compton have been in the finals at least four times in two seasons; Isaac, in stark contrast, has finished no higher than 10th place in his six conferences as an expansion team coach, with three 12th place ranking.
With four titles to his name, including the historic ‘Beer-acle’ in last year’s Philippine Cup Finals, Austria could be with San Miguel forever, while Alaska governor Dickie Bachmann has indicated the Aces are staying with Compton until he finally breaks the ice.
Under ordinary circumstances, it would have been the perfect reason to wield the axe or lower the boom on an underwhelming head coach. But this is no ordinary circumstance, and Blackwater owner Dioceldo Sy is no executioner.
“No, we’re not changing our coach because that would be unfair,” said Sy. “He has no material to compete [in the Elite’s first two seasons] and we’re not about to fault him for that. Coach Leo did his best with what he has and we recognize that.”
Sy said there was little the Elite could work with since they were not allowed to bring along amateur players when they made the big leap.
“Unlike Rain or Shine which had player concessions (3) when they came in, we had none,” said Sy. “And still it took them six years to win their first championship. So we’re on track.”
Injuries to center JP Erram, acquisition Mike Cortez and import Eric Dawson, and the shocking death of 29-year-old forward Gilbert Bulawan (cardiac arrest), took its toll on the team last season, said Sy, who also put in perspective their decision to trade the No. 1 draft pick last season.
“We lost the chance to draft Mo Tautuaa, yes, but look who we got? Art dela Cruz, who turned out to be a revelation,” said Sy.
“And now we have [2016 top draft picks] Mac Belo and Raphael Banal. Me materials na kami. I think we’re ready to reach as high as No. 7 in the Philippine Cup.”
Forbearance aside, Sy said they will be making an overall assessment of the ballclub after the first conference.