From dead last to finals, Meralco not done until it reaches the top
Jimmy Alapag and Norman Black are no strangers to winning. In fact, they live for such moments.
Alapag and Black, the former import turned head coach, have 18 PBA championships between them including the 2013 Philippine Cup which they shared at Talk ‘N Text.
But after Black was transferred to Meralco in 2014 and Alapag returned from a seven-month retirement and joined the Bolts a year later, both icons, who are used to being at the pedestal throughout their celebrated careers, realized what the ground feels like when the team hit rock bottom after finishing the 2016 Philippine Cup last with a 1-10 record.
It didn’t take long, however, for Meralco to turn its fortunes around and eight months later, the Bolts finally broke through after booking their first ever trip to the finals with a semifinals upset of TNT.
READ: Duel of the Underdogs
“It’s bittersweet to be honest. Like I told you guys, you go 1-10 it’s embarrassing and it humbles you,” Alapag, who had 13 glorious seasons with Talk ‘N Text, told reporters after Game 4 of the semifinals. “Even for someone like myself who has been lucky enough to have a lot of success in the PBA, it’s been a process for our team and that part of me is just proud of the guys and so excited for them.”
It wasn’t the most ideal return for Alapag, and he admitted as much.
“Coming out of retirement and coming 1-10, I was probably trying to run away from you guys as much as I could because there wasn’t anything to say,” Alapag said, recalling those dreadful times two conferences ago. “If you don’t feel embarrassed by that, not just for the team but for your family and for the Meralco employees, then something’s wrong.”
“And it really forced all of us to look ourselves in the mirror and say we have to fix this. It’s just a credit to coach Norman, the staff, and all the guys in that locker room because we took it upon ourselves to fix it. That’s really where it started.”
Meralco was written off heading into its semis duel with the No. 1 team in the league in TNT. And the Bolts didn’t seem to belong in the same floor as the KaTropa in their series opener where they got blown out. But the unflagging Bolts didn’t fold and despite losing their star swingman Jared Dillinger due to a hamstring injury in Games 3 and 4, they defied the odds and pulled off three straight wins against a team that came into the semifinals having lost only once.
“Going into the series I don’t think very many people gave us a chance to beat Talk ’N Text with the way they’ve been playing. They literally dominated the entire conference,” Alapag, who is still going strong at 38, said. “It took a monster team effort from us to beat a championship team like Talk ’N Text.”
Black couldn’t be prouder and more relieved for his team’s accomplishment after a string of failures and blown chances. He recalled the time when he took over the team two years ago and how far the team has come.
“This is just a great feeling. I entered Meralco with the idea that hopefully, we can build the program up and have the program become successful. And we knew it will take some time` This year, I broke up the team and tried to start anew, and you saw the result in the first conference where we were horrible, we were terrible,” said Black, whose squad faces an equally hungry team in Barangay Ginebra in a best-of-seven championship series beginning Friday night.
The Bolts’ concerns had always been about maturity and the lack legitimate big man. But under Black’s guidance and Alapag’s leadership, the players blossomed. Cliff Hodgeslowly improved into a two-way player as shown in Game 4 where he exploded for a career-high 32 points and rookies Chris Newsome and Baser Amer adapted to the PBA style of play quicker than expected.
Meralco was also fortunate to land two quality imports this conference in Allen Durham and Arinze Onuaku in the Commissioner’s Cup. Both were able to plug the Bolts’ hole in the middle.
“But because we were able to latch on to two very, very good imports in the second and third conference and with the local players developing and improving as the year went on, this is the result. So I always admit that Allen Durham is the cornerstone, he is the foundation, but the local players have really stepped up, particularly Cliff Hodge in this game tonight,” Black said.
The Bolts reached a milestone in making the finals but make no mistake, they’re far from done.
“I told the guys after the game to just enjoy this. I’ve been lucky enough to have been in a lot of finals and you win some and you lose some,” said Alapag. “For these guys I told them to just enjoy it, enjoy every moment of it because it’s not guaranteed. There are a lot of great teams in the PBA and it’s not easy to get to the top of the mountain. We still have a tough task ahead of us but really just to enjoy this moment.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.