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PBA: No more unfinished business

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With Ginebra having ended 8 years of title drought, what’s next for the Kings team manager and SMC sports director?

It has been some time now, but Alfrancis Chua, team manager of the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings, still remembers the celebration – and his heart sinks.

“It was a really sad day,” says Chua, the Kings head coach three years ago.

Relishing none of the moment, Chua goes back to the agony of seeing injury-ravaged Barangay Ginebra getting swept by the Alaska Aces in the 2013 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals, ending the Kings’ magical run in the playoffs – surviving twice-to-beat Rain or Shine in the quarters and clawing back from a 2-1 deficit to thwart Talk ‘N Text in the semifinals.

Sputtering along on a leaking gas tank after the eliminations with injuries to rebounding import Vernon Macklin (thigh) and star player Mark Caguioa (knee), the Kings had but a few liters left by the time the best-of-5 series got rolling.

“We did everything we could to get there,” says Chua.” But then pag dating don, wala na talaga. V-Mack was already getting injected with pain killers; swollen na yung hita and he can hardly move. Tapos wala rin si Mark.”

The Aces, meanwhile, were in full force, powered by prolific import Rob Dozier and a relentless rookie named Calvin Abueva.

In the end, the Kings bowed out, but not with bowed heads even as Alaska, under Luigi Trillo, celebrated its 14th championship overall and first in the post-Tim Cone era.

“Lumaban naman, di nga lang nakuha,” Chua says. “Kung baga, mission accomplished although unfinished business. Ang hirap ng dinaanan para makarating sa finals so parang yon na ang accomplishment namin. Sentro namin si Billy Mamaril pero kahit maliit kami, naipakita ng mga players na kaya nilang pumasok ng championship.”

The next three years came and went in a blur of events: Chua resigned on the first day of practice for the next conference, got summoned to the office of San Miguel Corporation president Ramon S. Ang and was prevailed upon to stay put and assume the role of team manager, assigned the dual role of Ginebra representative to the PBA board of governors, and later on given the title of SMC sports director.

“I thought my PBA career was over,” says Chua, “I had my plane ticket for the States to visit my mother the next day after I spoke with Boss RSA, and I had intended to stay there for an extended period. I needed to rest; I was so tired after the series. I also planned to go back to my business.”

Instead Chua stayed in the States for just two weeks and flew home right after to start his new job as team manager of Barangay Ginebra.

“Yung kasabihan na ‘pag sumara ang pinto, me bubukas na bintana?’ Hindi bintana ang bumukas nong sumara yung pinto kundi gate – isang malaking gate,” Chua says, laughing.

Though basically unfamiliar with the nuances of managing a team, having been a player and coach throughout his years in basketball, Chua, a marketing major at University of Santo Tomas, quickly adapted.

“I was able to adjust; me marketing aspect din kasi ang pag-manage ng players. It’s like you’re selling a product,” he says. “And, of course, I had the best mentor in my boss.”

But it was touch and go for a while.

Going back to coaching the Kings, before Cone made the jump from Grand Slam champion San Mig Coffee, actually entered his mind, says Chua, because close friends were pushing him to give it another try.

“I believe it was halfway last year when a lot of guys were telling me to come back to complete an unfinished business, and I might have thought of it a little,” says Chua. “But the other side of me said I could do better with my current job, focusing on the needs of the players and on how to improve the team. Also, I know that there are a lot of good coaches around so I put aside all thoughts of going back.”

And so that’s where he was on the team manager’s seat, a few feet from where Cone stood at the sideline, when Justin Brownlee took the inbounds pass from Sol Mercado with the score tied in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the Governors’ Cup Finals against the Meralco Bolts last Oct. 19, where he froze when the Kings import did a Steph Curry and nonchalantly hoisted a three-pointer a clear two arms-length from top of the key, and where he leaped from after the shot rose over the defense of Allen Durham and beat the buzzer by a split second for the PBA championship that took eight years to deliver.

And as confetti spurted up from ringside machines, huge speakers blared out “We Are The Champions” while 20,000 people sang along, and a breathtaking sight – thousands of white light shining from thousands of cellular phones trained down to capture the moment on center-court – made the heart skip, Alfrancis Chua looked around and shook his head.

“Mission accomplished na rin,” he says now. “I may no longer be the coach nong nag-champion ang Ginebra but I was there; I’m still part of the whole amazing experience.”

With Justin Brownlee making it all happen.

“He’s just a complete player; ang galing talaga,” says Chua.

The Kings team manager was asked where Vernon Macklin, his import back in 2013, stacks up compared to the Kings’ magnificent reinforcement last season.

“Both are very good players and I love them both; parehong mabait at tahimik lang,” says Chua after a pause. “They were perfect for their time. Comparatively, well, Justin, of course, can shoot, and not just free throws. He can also defend.

“V-Mack naman, he provided the foundation for our team back then. Sabi nga niya non, ‘Don’t draw a play for me, coach, I’ll just rebound.’ V-Mack gave us a chance to go to the finals for the sake of our fans; Justin, when his time came, made us believe Ginebra can be a champion again after all those years.”

And the Fast and the Furious?

“Wow, I just had to thank them both during the post-game celebration sa court,” says Chua. “Jayjay Helterbrand and Mark Caguioa, exceptional those two. I don’t know if you saw Mark crying in the court in Game 4 dahil gusto talagang manalo. Si Jayjay naman, di gaanong nagagagamit. Pero nong naka-shoot ng minsan, nag-deretso na. Kung di lang sa kanila, I believe, malabo ang championship namin. Di lang nila binuhay yung fans kundi yung buong team; everybody just got inspired.”

So what’s next for the SMC sports director, other than maintaining the balance and strength of all three PBA teams in their stable?

“E di Petron volleyball naman (Philippine Superliga),” Chua says, laughing once more.

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