FROM their Mobiline Phone Pals days, all TNT KaTropa had got was a championship in a short tourney (Centennial Cup) until coach Joel Banal came on board and steered the PLDT/Smart franchise to its first regular title in 2003.
A decorated coach in all levels of Philippine basketball, Banal ranked his PBA championship as among his sweetest feats as it was as memorable as it's stressful and as fulfilling.
"It was so difficult and it was amazing (when it was done)," said Banal during Tuesday night's Usapang Coach webcast presented by Filoil and Flying V and hosted by Rick Olivares.
Banal said it was quite a ride going through coach Tim Cone and his Alaska Milk team in a full distance of a best-of-five semifinal series then against coach Chot Reyes and his Coca-Cola team in the finale, with Talk n Text pulling through to win the 2003 Philippine Cup on the eve of the birthday of team owner Manny V. Pangilinan.
"It's like it's tomorrow's MVP's birthday and tonight was Game Six, and we won the championship. That's unforgettable and amazing," said Banal.
For Banal, that's the culmination of a personal grand slam as a coach after winning titles for Mapua in the NCAA and Ateneo in the PBL and in the UAAP.
As a member of the PBA family, he then joined the elite roster of those who have won championships as a player then as a coach.
"I never ambitioned that. I never set that as a goal. It's God's blessing," said Banal, a champion player with Great Taste in the 80s.
He can't forget their playoff ride where they squared off with Alaska in a do-or-die Game Five in the semifinals then had to fight back from 0-2 down in the best-of-seven finale versus Coca-Cola.
"We played Alaska in a best-of-five and we had two overtime games with them against Tim Cone. And who can beat Tim Cone?" said Banal. "It was so tiring, and I was so spent when we started the championship series against Coke."
The championship was a different struggle altogether especially with the team losing the first two games versus the Coca-Cola side led by Johnny Abarrientos, Jeff Cariaso, Rudy Hatfield and Rafi Reavis.
"But the organization won't give up. The management gave us all the support that we needed. They're saying: "We can still do this. We can't give them No. 3." That's the goal and we won four in a row," said Banal.
Asi Taulava, Jimmy Alapag, Harvey Carey, Bong Ravena, Vic Pablo, Patrick Fran, Donbel Belano and Mark Telan formed the core of the squad pulling off the breakthrough championship.
With that same nucleus, TNT would enjoy its own PBA era towards the end of the decade.(SB)