MANILA, Philippines – As Leo Austria turned to the left and opened the door leading him out from the post-game press conference to his awaiting San Miguel Beermen a few rooms down, he couldn't help but smile.
It was a smile that came off a 4-0 obliteration of the Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters in a semifinals where the Beermen pinned down their rivals and griped them to submission.
San Miguel won their 13th game in the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup Conference, and was on their way to their first finals appearance after more than a year's absence.
For the 34th time in the franchise's rich history, the Beermen were back in the final dance. It's aPBA record. No other franchise has made it to the finals more than 27 times.
The opportunity to add a 20th championship to their mantle is within arm's length; a window to add another championship tale to the history books.
This was a different Austria than from a few years ago during his final media session for his previous coaching gig. He looked happy and contented. No longer are there any talks of his dismissal or wavering support from the powers that be. He's finally free to do what he's always loved - the sole reason why he's a head coach in the first place - to teach the game, without any other distractions.
"God knows that I'm a hard-worker," Austria told Rappler following San Miguel's game 4, 100-87 win at the expense of the Tropang Texters. "This is my passion: to teach the players na hinahawakan ko (under me)."
Right now, Austria's teaching a number of men - some of them MVPs and All-Stars, how basketball fundamentals can lead to winning.
Share the ball, dump it to the big man at the post, rebound, run, defend, pass the ball again, don't get into petty, unnecessary fights. Know your role, and victory shall be served on a golden plate. The formula worked, as SMB lost only two games in the past 3 months and looks poised to continue winning.
When Austria was awarded the job to handle the PBA's Beermen in August 2014, he made sure to embed these qualities onto his players. "I told them at the start that I wanted to define the role of each and every one of the players," he said.
"We're trying to go back to the very basics of basketball. [So, if] anything that may arise during the game, we know what to do… any kind of situation that arises, we try to be ready."
"I'm happy for them because they embraced the system. Yung system ko. And pare-pareho kami nag be-benefit (My system. And we all benefited)."
He ran a similar pattern in his previous coaching job with the Adamson Soaring Falcons in the UAAP, where his team didn't have the resources rival schools had to recruit top high school prospects.
Despite the numerous challenges, with lack of talent being one of the most glaring during some seasons, the Falcons still had their fair share of great moments and successes with Austria at the helm – some of which may not be replaced nor duplicated anytime soon.
"In Adamson, it's really hard to win a championship or be in the finals because there are a lot of top teams. We performed well, and we challenged them, but we came [up] short because of the resources and lack of talent," Austria said.
"Come and go yan eh." (It comes and goes.)
Since the UAAP implemented the Final Four format in 1994, Adamson has made it to the playoffs 3 times - each of those occurred under Austria's tenure.
The players under his tutelage genuinely liked him and league-wide respect for him was always high, but even great relationships come to an end, and his with Adamson was not the prettiest of divorces.
"I sensed it at that time, because may feelings ako na they were not happy with me, and there was a lot of talk that I heard through some people. May mga kaibigan ako nagsasabi na mga member ng Alumni Association were trying to have a change dahil wala na daw akong clout from the alumni and Adamson," said Austria, who resigned from his spot following a 4-10 2013 campaign.
(I had friends who were telling me that members of the Alumni Association were pushing for a change because I no longer had clout from the alumni and Adamson.)
"I'm not going to insist myself to be their coach if there's somebody na hindi ko ma-please (that I can't please). And that's what I did [I resigned]."
The Falcon's futile year in 2013 (Season 76) was due more to their lack of firepower rather than the coach's performance. They only had Jericho Cruz (14.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG) as a reliable offensive option following the departure of guys like Alex Nuyles and Eric Camson.
But winning predicates over everything in the business of basketball – even in the college level – and Austria was collateral damage in the university's decision to rebuild.
"I think I'm right with what I felt at that time. Inunahan ko na sila (I preempted them choosing resignation over getting fired). But I was really confident at that time that, okay, many teams will try to get me."
And they did. Austria was already an active voice in the Petron Blaze Boosters' coaching staff, then coached by Gee Abanilla who is now SMB's manager, when he left Adamson. Many thought there was a good chance he'd become a head coach someday. It also didn't take long for Ateneo to come calling.
They didn't need him to become the Blue Eagles' head coach, but his opinions were valued enough that he was asked to be a major voice for the school's athletic programs – particularly for the high school basketball club. And even when he was offered the San Miguel coaching gig, ADMU was quick to give him their blessing to take the job and still retain his position in Katipunan.
"Malaki ang natulong sa akin ng Ateneo, and I'm very thankful to them dahil i-nallow nila ako mag coach dito sa PBA," Austria said. (Ateneo was a huge help for me and I'm very thankful because they allowed me to coach in the PBA.)
"Now, I'm coaching San Miguel – one of the top teams in the PBA – and I'm with Ateneo – one of the top teams in the UAAP. I'm very fortunate and it's a privilege to be with those organizations."
Just a few months after taking the Beermen coaching job, Austria, who also had head coaching stints with the now defunct Shell (2004-2005), and Welcoat (2006-2007), now known as Rain or Shine, makes a finals appearance for the first time in his PBA career.
He is a terrific tactician, but even the best play-callers know they need talent to win basketball games. For him, he had that right away with reigning league MVP June Mar Fajardo and former MVP Arwind Santos at his disposal.
"There's a lot of talented players that I can transform into a competitive team and what more if you have Arwind Santos and June Mar Fajardo – probably the best center in the land today?"
However, talent can only get you so far in basketball. He didn't have that luxury while he coached Adamson, but San Miguel was a different setting with its inexhaustible resources and the players already in place. All they needed was direction after multiple early playoff exits in the 2013-2014 PBA season, and that's what Austria was brought in for.
His next assignment was to make sure his players bought in to his system - one that now has them feeling like they're not just part of a team, but a family.
"Mas buong-buo. Mas willing mag sacrifice yung iba," Arwind Santos (6) said about what's new with this season's San Miguel squad, and later added about his coach: "Dinidictate niya yung [mga] role namin, bawat isa."
(Our team is united and others are really willing to sacrifice. He dictates the roles for each of us.)
"Naiintindihan namin. Gusto namin yung binibigay saaming role." (We understood. We liked the roles he gave us.)
Santos, who is averaging 15.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.9 APG, and 1.3 BPG in the Philippine Cup, knows the importance of continuity and defined assignments for a team. He went through a roller coaster the past few seasons as his club traded players back and forth, while there were constant changes in the coaching staff in between conferences.
"What I did in San Miguel was to build a good chemistry, and it worked," Austria said. "Ipinakita ko sakanila na talagang pwede kami manalo." (I showed them that we can really be successful.)
SMB averaged 87.5 PPG on 42.5% FG shooting during their 9-2 elimination round. On defense, they limited opponents to 77.8 PPG on 38.2% shooting. In 4 semifinal games, they averaged 98 PPG on 49% shooting, while limiting TNT to 87.3 PPG on 38.6% shooting.
But their camaraderie extends beyond the hardcourt. Players wear headbands together. They participate in pre-game rituals that get them fired up. When one man goes down to injury or foul trouble, another is ready to step up regardless of how many minutes he plays. They have each other's backs, from heated verbal altercations on the court to lighter moments in the locker rooms.
"Mas makulit kami ngayon eh. Sobrang supportive," said Santos. "Malaking bagay yun sa isang pamilya. Pagka-masaya ka, madaling gawin yung pangarap mo."
(We're more playful now, very supportive. That's a big thing for a family. When you're happy, it's easier to reach your goals.)
San Miguel now awaits the winner of Alaska and Rain or Shine's semis series. The finals begin a little over a week after the new year, granting the Beermen the time to rest and recuperate before the finals, while their opponent will be fresh off a physical series of at least 6 games (Alaska currently leads 3-2).
Fajardo torched TNT for 28 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks in the series clincher. He is currently averaging a career-high 19.2 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 2.1 BPG, and 1.9 APG this conference to follow up his MVP campaign last season (16.7 PPG, 14.2 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.4 APG).
Santos' 3-point stroke looks deadly (38% this conference) – which perfectly complements Fajardo's post game – while his long wingspan is a menace to deal with defensively. Alex Cabagnot is coming off the bench to provide instant firepower, while Chris Lutz and Mario Lassiter are providing key contributions as well.
Rain or Shine or Alaska may pose a more potent challenge for SMB as opposed to Talk 'N Text because they have the big men to bother the reigning PBA MVP unlike the Texters.
But San Miguel is loaded with so many weapons, and their coach has helped instill a system that gets the best out of his team and puts them in great position to capture their first All-Filipino conference championship in 14 years, and their first title since the 2011 Governors' Cup.
A 20th franchise championship is within reach. And the head coach who entered his team's locker room with a lot cheers is a huge reason why.