Road to the Championship

On: 06 March 2008

After the acquisition of the Presto franchise in 1993, many expect the Sta. Lucia Realtors to carry their winning tradition in the amateurs to the premier professional basketball league in the country. For nine years, Team Manager Buddy Encarnado, tinkered and assembled and broke down bits and piece of the franchise, putting them back together in the hopes he had hit upon the right elements to get his green machine revved up and roaring.

Sta. Lucia had all sorts of chances to come up with a championship-caliber squad in the past but gave up the likes of Allan Caidic, Rene Hawkins and Bong Alvarez, saying "we are not out here to buy a championship."

It was even involved in one of the most celebrated "Fil-Sham" cases in the league, when it suited up Rob Medalla Parker at the height of the overseas recruitment frenzy, and this forced the team to suit up a totally homegrown team for many years just to be able to forget the experience.

In 2001, the Realtors struck gold when, powered by a high grade engine of an import named Damien Owens, won their first Philippine Basketball Association crown – the Governors Cup at the expense of the highly fancied San Miguel Beermen. Coached by Norman Black, the Realtors drop the curtain on Game 6 of the series, which highlighted by a long-range bomb by Chris Tan at the buzzer.

However, the promise of another championship run came to a sudden and abrupt halt after that, forcing Encarnado to return to the drawing table to push for more experiments. What is worse is that the prestigious All-Filipino title, the most coveted title, would remain elusive, and it would take the Realtors representative to the league board another seven years of tinkering, breaking down and assembling to put a special edition machine that bore the backbone of its lone precious past and the gears and pistons of a brand new future. The Realtors had to contend with some lopsided trades and weather the criticism about its draft choices.

When the smoke cleared, only three players from the 2001 Championship line-up remained – Dennis Espino, Marlou Aquino and Paolo Mendoza.

In 2004, Nelbert Omolon was picked on the first round by Sta. Lucia in the PBA draft ahead of Wesley Gonzales, Gary David, Paul Artadi, Carlo Sharma, Manny Ramos and Willie Wilson. He was the eighth overall choice in the draft that starred Rich Alvarez, James Yap and Marc Pingris.

In 2005, the Realtors got Alex Cabagnot as the 2nd overall pick in the PBA draft ahead of Dennis Miranda, Jondan Salvador, Mark Cardona and Niño Cañaleta. At first, Cabagnot showed a lot of promise as he led all rookies during his rookie year in scoring (10.3 points per game), assists (4.7), steals (1.1) and minutes played (28.1). He was third in the league in the assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5) behind Jimmy Alapag and Johnny Abarrientos. However, Cabagnot carried a lot of baggage with him that rankled the feathers of the Sta. Lucia management.

Cabagnot returned to the United States after the 2006 Philippine Cup, disobeying a direct order from Encarnado to stay put. While in the US, the Quezon City-born Cabagnot reportedly suited up in the Las Vegas Summer League, which incurs a fine of P10,000.00 for each game that he played there.

This act was his second infraction in two years. Shortly after being tabbed by the Realtors in the draft, the southpaw left the country, purportedly to pursue his studies at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. Later on, it was established Cabagnot was simply at a loss on what his contract with the Realtors would be.

In 2006, the Realtors broke its longtime self-imposed ‘No-Fil-Am’ policy by drafting Kelly Williams in the PBA Rookie Draft. Undoubtedly the most talented player in the batch, the Realtors found a gem in this Oakland University alum with his innate athleticism and skills. Williams’ addition to the Realtors camp adds youth and quickness to the aging frontline of the team. Williams’ versatility gives the team a lot of options as the 6-6 2007 national team pool member can play big or small.

"To be able to form this winning team, I can now say we may really be destined to be champions," said Buddy Encarnado, the team's representative to the PBA board since its entry in the league in 1993.

The drafting of Williams was followed by the elevation of former player Teodorico 'Boyet' Fernandez from an assistant to head coach, replacing Alfrancis Chua before the 2007 PBA Fiesta Cup.

After that came two important trades – the first coming at the middle of the 2007 Fiesta Cup, and the second one before the opening of the 2007-2008 Philippine Cup.

Not a few scoffed at the Realtors' decision to give away Kenneth Duremdes, the 1998 Most Valuable Player; playmaker Cabagnot and power forward Ricky Calimag to the Coca-Cola Tigers last April 2007. In return, the Realtors got hustling playmaker Miranda, seldom-used center Manny Ramos, and a second round pick in the 2008 PBA Rookie Draft.

During the off-season, the Realtors made another move, shipping forward Mark Isip and three-point specialist Cesar Catli to the Tigers for spitfire guard Joseph Yeo.

"Some trades looked one-sided," Encarnado agreed. "But we had to do something drastic."

They also caused a lot of heads to turn during last year's Rookie Draft when they selected as the third overall pick Fil-American guard Ryan Reyes, until that point of untested quality.

"Nobody thought we'll take Ryan Reyes. Management wanted JC Intal," Encarnado said, adding that the brothers of team owner Exequiel Robles were impressed with the former Ateneo stalwart.

A summer camp in Boston with Kevin Barbosa during the off-season worked wonders for the team. Encarnado and Fernandez said the team's training in the US during the off-season and the best-of-seven semifinal series against Alaska Milk helped the team in its championship drive.

"The Boston training was a wake-up call for the boys. We realized there that we still have a lot to learn. Si Marlou at Dennis napatakbo noong training," said Fernandez of his two veterans, among eight Realtors trained by renowned American coach Kevin Barbosa.

"A lot questioned my wisdom to include in the US trip veterans who are about to retire. It turned out my decision was right. Kevin Barbosa was able to get the best from Marlou and Dennis," said Encarnado.

After a series of experimentation, the Realtors reaped the fruits of their labor.

The Realtors lost their first two games in the 2007-2008 PBA Smart Philippine Cup coming from their US training, but they bounced back into the groove of things and gain automatic entry into the semis on a stirring ride highlighted by a streak of eight straight wins for a 12-6 win-loss card in the elimination round.

This is the first time for the Realtors to achieved an all-time franchise best eight-game win streak, a first outright semis berth, an all-time most 12 wins in the eliminations and eventually first-ever best-of-7 semifinal.

All these were made possible by the physical and honest defensive system adopted by the management to suit the changes in the league rules. Changing the distance of the three-point line from 22 feet to 20 feet and six inches; giving the defensive player more leeway; the ‘free ball’ rule to eliminate lucky bounces in the rim and changing the rectangular three-second area to the trapezoid were all expected to create an explosion of scoring and defensive stops in the league.

According to Encarnado, "We adopted defensive running system. We got players who have the stamina and natural talent for running and playing go-go basketball."

The defensive running system did indeed work wonders for the Realtors. After the elimination round, they are the no. 1 team in points allowed with only 89.7 points per game. They are numero uno in steals with 8.7 per game. They are the best in assists allowed with only 15.9 per game. They also force their opponents to commit the most turnovers with 22.8 per game.

A slow and deliberate team of before, the Realtors was transformed to the quickest team in the league (No. 1 in fastbreak points) while the lax and unaggresive team was transformed to the most efficient offensive team by committing only 15.9 turnovers per game, the least in the league.

The newly acquired players blended beautifully with the electrifying sophomore forward Kelly Williams, twin towers Dennis Espino and Marlou Aquino, veteran Paolo Mendoza, and rising star Nelbert Omolon.

Denis Miranda emerged as the no. 1 player in steals while combo guard Ryan Reyes is no. 1 in assists-to-turnover ratio. Joseph Yeo also revitalized his career at the Realtors camp, where he averaged 11.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1 steal in 23.5 minutes of action in the elimination round.

Sta. Lucia's focus on defense was so evident that even though Kelly Williams is only no. 7 in scoring in the league with 16.7 points per game in the elimination, and they don't have anybody in the top 10 in 3-point shooters, the Realtors are still winning.

"The enthusiasm of the new players gave the extra boost. Knowing that they have new, sensational rookies and teammates, the veterans believed they can make a big thing out of this," Encarnado said.

As a follow-up to their good performance in the elimination, the Realtors beat the Aces in the semifinals after a grueling 7-game series.

Mainly riding on the impressive showing of Williams, the Realtors geared up for their first ever All-Filipino Finals appearance since joining the league in 1993. Williams' example by deed and the numbers that he produced inspired his teammates to follow his lead.

“Kelly has been consistent in his game. He’s playing great,” noted SLR coach Boyet Fernandez of Williams, who averaged 21.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2 assists in 44.3 minutes in the semis. These numbers are far above the figures he produced in the elimination round (16.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 36.6 minutes of action per game).

For Encarnado, the semifinal series was the turning point for the team and proved that they are ready to be in the title series.

"Actually, I don't give much importance on the eight-game streak. To me, what's more important was for us to have survived Alaska Milk in the semis. That Alaska series was character-building that helped prepare us in the finals. I don't think we can make it all the way without going through Alaska," said Encarnado.

"Alaska is methodical, disciplined and has good character. Looking back, it was probably the Alaska series being stretched to seven games that probably gave our players so much poise and confidence. For anybody to beat Alaska in seven games... truly they must be having that kind of confidence," Encarnado added.

However, the semis series has its share of controversies such as Alaska Aces coach Tim Cone’s handshake stunt.

With Game 2 already in the bag, Williams punctuated the win with a thunderous slam dunk. With the dunk, Cone felt Williams just rubbed their wound.

Cone termed the act "lack of class" and disrespect for him and his team.

Fernandez said he sees nothing wrong with what Williams did. "We are all entertainers here. People come to see Kelly dunk and he gave the people what they wanted," he stressed.

When the Game 2 buzzer sounded, Cone refused to shake hands with Fernandez. However after they lost the 7-game semifinals series, Cone did kiss and make-up with Fernandez.

The Finals series between the Realtors and the Purefoods Tender Juicy Giants was expected to be a close match with no team enjoying a tremendous edge. The Realtors and the Giants are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league on defense and No. 8 and No. 7 on offense.

The Giants are averaging 94.16 points for the conference, while shooting 42.3 percent from the field. The Realtors are norming 93.76 points on a 40.8 field goal marksmanship.

Purefoods has the edge in rebounding but Sta. Lucia is better in assists, steals and blocks. The Giants are logging 53.20 rebounds, 15.4 assists, 5.8 steals and 3.2 blocks a game as against the Realtors’ 47 rebounds, 19.6 assists, 8.2 steals and 3.6 blocks per outing.

The Realtors battle cry in the series was the team's belief that they could pull it off. To stress the point, players, staff and supporters all wore T-shirts that bore the word "Believe" in capital letters.

There were also those who were cynical about a championship series involving a team that had the reputation of being bland and not being used to winning ways. But Sta. Lucia proved everyone wrong and credit should be given to the coaching staff and management.

Their belief paid off as the Realtors stormed to a 2-0 lead in their best of seven series against the Giants. Sta. Lucia's youth brigade wore down Purefoods with its stamina, agility and tough defense to bulldoze the Giants. Williams’ put together a two-game double-double effort to negate the output of the Giants’ 1-2 punch of Kerby Raymundo and James Yap.

The Giants eventually tied the game to 2-2 and forced a winner-take all Game 7, but the series-long brilliance and maturity of team captain Dennis Espino cannot be ignored. Tabbed as the team's cornerstone since being picked first in the 1995 draft, Espino shone brightest in Game 7 as he scored a game-high 29 points, 22 in the second half and 10 in the fourth when the team surged ahead for good from a 79-80 deficit.

Often overshadowed by Kelly Williams' usual double-double performance,
"'Cap' proved he is really the captain of this team," said Fernandez, who had never won a title before as a player in 1993 to 2005. He is now part of league folklore since the tournament was only his second conference as coach of the team.

Overall, the Realtors played with so much cohesion, committing just four turnovers in the rubber match to equal the lowest-ever mark in a Finals game in league history.

“Credit goes to my players for working so hard for this championship,” Fernandez said. “I also give credit to Purefoods, they also did a good job.”

The 4-3 victory in the best-of-seven championship series, fashioned before a record 18,167 paying fans who packed the Araneta Coliseum, gave Sta. Lucia its first All-Filipino crown and only the franchise's second since joining the league in 1993.

However, just like the Alaska semifinal series, the match-up was slightly marred by some controversies. The first one involved the confrontation between Fernandez and Giants’ Roger Yap after the latter tried to provoke Williams to play dirty in the dying minutes of Game 2.

Fernandez was cooled down by his coaching staff and management officials during the incident, them realizing that there was no point fighting after the Realtors had just defeated the Giants 112-101 to snatch a commanding 2-0 lead.

Also, Giants coach Ryan Gregorio kept on complaining in the media about the way the calls seemed to favor their opponents. He claimed that the 3 D’s (dislodge, displace, dispossess) should be consistently called by the refs all throughout the game and not only in one quarter.

Thirdly, James Yap was meted a one-game suspension and fined P20,000 for his foul on SLR’s Joseph Yeo in Game 3 after PBA Commissioner upgraded the referee’s flagrant foul 1 to 2. Yeo was also slapped with a flagrant foul 2 for hacking a driving Noy Castillo in the last 17.4 seconds of Game 4 and promptly ejected. Flagrant foul 2 meant that both Yap and Yeo will miss Game 5 of the series.

Lastly, the series slightly marred by wrongly timed lunch meeting between commissioner Sonny Barrios and Sta. Lucia team owner Exequiel Robles and team manager Buddy Encarnado after Game 3.

Despite the distractions in the series, the Realtors went through a total of 32 games to win the top prize in the tourney, a fitting cap to a season-opening campaign that listlessly got off and established many franchise firsts.

"Allow us to enjoy this moment for about a week," Encarnado begged with a smile when asked during the post-game interview what the Realtors plan to do for an encore.

"We're just so happy to win this. Then maybe we can start thinking about the next conference."

Even if Encarnado does not want to make their plans known, one thing is sure though, the players of Sta. Lucia Realty “Believed” that the in-your-face, 48 minutes of hard-nosed defense helped them win the All-Filipino Championship and will helped them again in the capturing another Championship in the future.

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