As the final buzzer of Game 4 sounded that marked the end of the 2017 PBA Commissioner’s Cup semifinal series between San Miguel Beer and sister squad Purefoods Star Hotshots, it nonetheless signified a return of the Beermen to familiar territory. Something that the franchise has stomped its class for several seasons running: The PBA Finals.
Although the Beermen have been a fixture in the championship round of the PBA for some time already, the midseason conference has been a misnomer of sorts for a team that prides itself with multiple titles since joining the professional league several decades ago.
This, since San Miguel has been experiencing a championship drought for almost two decades in the Commissioner’s Cup. The last time that the Beermen won it all was in the year 2000, when they dispatched the now-defunct Sta. Lucia Realtors in 5 games.
It can be said that it is a long time coming for San Miguel, especially when they currently boast arguably the league’s most formidable line-up in recent history. A roster that boasts of several cagers capable of starring in all major individual categories and citations to mythical teams and even the MVP.
Still, a team needs a steady hand to steer the ship even with an impressive crop of players on its roster. That is where seasoned bench tacticians step in, as they are not only tasked to make the most out of the talent at their disposal, but to also do this in a consistent manner towards carving their (and the team’s niche) in basketball lore.
For the San Miguel Beermen, this is where Leo Austria comes in. Impressive as he was in his young stint with the team as he was able to steer the franchise to four PBA crowns in only three seasons manning the sidelines plus the one ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) title that he won for SMB during their days in the regional league, the one diadem that has eluded him so far is the midseason conference’s grand prize.
Since being handled the reins as San Miguel’s head coach, Austria was unsuccessful in winning the Commissioner’s Cup title. But he is making significant strides as seasons go by.
From failing to make the playoffs of the tournament during his first season as the Beermen’s mentor in 2014-15, the former playmaker towed his team to a first-place finish at the end of the elimination round the following year. However, this feat proved to be short-lived as San Miguel was booted out of the semifinals by eventual champions Rain or Shine.
Again showing improvement from the previous season, Austria and the Beermen took one step closer towards ending this drought as well as annexing another championship to their legendary status on the hardwood with the team returning to the Finals of the Commissioner’s Cup, its first since 2001.
It can be said that for a team that has made several Finals appearances, wandering into the championship series of the midseason conference may seem alien to the Beermen given that they have failed to barge the grandest stage for many conferences running.
But the good thing about this situation is that they have Leo Austria at the helm, and the man has delivered each time the Beermen made the Finals under his watch. Also, one thing going is that Austria is not the only one staving for the title as the franchise has yet to won a Commissioner’s Cup title in the era of June Mar Fajardo, hands-down the most dominant local player in the PBA today.
Should fortune favor its way to San Miguel anew, it paves the way for the team to have another crack at a Grand Slam, which no other franchise in PBA history has been able to duplicate so far. And if Austria somehow manages to achieve this feat, then it may make for a strong case for him to be acknowledged as one of the greatest to have patrolled the sidelines in the PBA.