Nenad Vucinic

The Bold Plan That Led To The Meralco Bolts’ First PBA Title

The seeds for the Bolts’ run to a first-ever PBA championship were sown over a year ago when management made a big decision about their coaching staff.

On May 8, 2023, the Meralco Bolts made a major decision that was equal parts surprising and not surprising. They announced that they were replacing longtime head coach Norman Black with lead assistant coach Luigi Trillo.

It was surprising in the sense that Black had been associated with the franchise for nine years and had led them to four finals appearances. Yet it was not surprising pretty much for the same reason.

After 14 seasons in the league, the Bolts had yet to break through and win it all. Black was just their second head coach, and the partnership had likely run its course. The former PBA import, the team announced, would remain with the team as a consultant.

There was one other appointment that the team announced. Nenad Vucinic, who had been with the team as a consultant the previous season and who had also served briefly as Gilas Pilipinas head coach, would now be elevated to active consultant.

In the PBA, “active consultant” is code for a foreign coach essentially assuming head coaching duties without officially assuming the title of head coach, since such a move is disallowed by the country’s labor laws.

So while Trillo, a champion coach in his own right, would be designated as head coach, Vucinic’s inputs would be considerable.

The man from Serbia

Foreign-born coaches have had it rough in the PBA. Aside from Ron Jacobs leading the national pool known as NCC to the 1985 Third Conference crown, they have not had championship success here. Tim Cone and Norman Black, both Americans, are champion coaches, but both had been in the country and been exposed to the PBA for quite some time before they got their coaching call-ups.

The list of foreigners transplanted here to help lead a PBA team includes names like Bill Bayno, Paul Woolpert, John Moran, Rajko Toroman, Todd Purves, and Mark Dickel. Of those names, only Bayno and Dickel were able to lead their teams to a finals appearance. Even Jacobs, when he was San Miguel head coach in the late 1990s, failed to win a title.

Oftentimes, there’s a culture clash. Other times, the competition is just too strong. Sometimes it’s a combination of both.

In this regard, Nenad Vucinic is in a class by himself.

Originally hired away from a Chinese professional club to help Tab Baldwin with the Gilas Pilipinas program, Vucinic eventually found his way to Meralco as a consultant. Perhaps because he got his feet wet as a consultant first, Vucinic had little trouble blending in with the Filipino basketball culture.

“Look, from the first day I arrived and being part of Gilas and SBP (Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas) right till today, I feel very comfortable here,” he said. “I feel very comfortable because the people are good. They have values and they’re trying to do the best they can.

“Players, whether it’s Gilas or Meralco, they’re soldiers. They listen to the coaches. They respect the coaches. They respect the hierarchy. I can tell you from my experience, I’ve been all around the world, that’s very difficult to have these days. There’s so much politics involved with players, their agents.”

After Baldwin was replaced by Chot Reyes, Vucinic hung around for a while with both Gilas and Meralco before deciding to leave the Bolts following the 2022-23 Governors’ Cup.

“I was helping coach Chot at the time. We had a good time. It was difficult because Chot was coaching TNT as well. There was some overlapping and all this. I gave it my best. I left after that season. That was two years ago.

“At the time, there was some politics around Gilas. I have to be honest. Tab Baldwin was the head of the program at the time. I came because of him. He’s my friend and I tried to help him. Then when he lost the job, I really wanted to go home and Coach Chot came to me and asked me to stay.

“I spoke with Coach Tab. He asked me to stay and help Coach Chot and Gilas because he really does have the Gilas program at heart as well. I stayed. Then there were some issues. There were some public things between Coach Taband Gilas.

“I said, I could not stay there anymore. I have full respect for the SBP, of course, for Gilas. I wish them all the best now. They’ve done an amazing job winning the Asian (Games) with Coach Tim. To win that championship, that’s a huge achievement. They’re on the right track.”

Even after leaving, though, a part of Vucinic wished he was back in the Philippines.

“I wanted to come back. I was already in a consulting role with Meralco. I really wanted to come back to be with Meralco. Thank God I got the call to come back. Even with my time with coach Norman as a consultant, I really enjoyed it. We worked really hard to do the best we could.

“Then, unfortunately, coach Norman wasn’t renewed. Coach Luigi stepped in. And for 12 months, we have really done a lot of work.

“The thing is, when the new face comes on, especially a new face from across the world… this team has been under huge pressure to get that championship. We struggled. I have to say, because you have to implement a new system with new coaches.

“It’s difficult. Credit to the players. They bought in.”

Adds Trillo: “I think for Coach Nenad, it’s just not about one or two games. I look at him and what he does. He builds programs.

“He really puts pressure on guys because he demands it. I’m proud the guys stepped up. We went through a lot of adversity, a lot of tough times.”

Trusting the process

The first conference of the Trillo-Vucinic partnership produced a quarterfinal appearance in the Commissioner’s Cup. The Bolts went 8-3 in the elimination round and up until the last two playing dates were in contention for one of the top two seeds.

But a crucial loss sent them tumbling down to the fifth seed, and they were eliminated by the Phoenix Fuel Masters in the quarterfinals. Still, it was the farthest the franchise had gone in the Commissioner’s Cup in six years.

In the Philippine Cup, initially, it looked like the Bolts would take an early vacation after they stumbled to a 1-3 start. Then things hit rock-bottom when the team lost to the Converge FiberXers, who were 0-8 heading into the game and hadn’t won since December.

That stunning loss sent the Meralco Bolts down to a 3-5 record and on the brink of elimination.

“We were second (to the) last,”  Vucinic recalled. “You can go back. You can take a screenshot of that time. We were second (to the) last. Converge was last. We lost to Converge, the team that hadn’t won a game. We were down at the bottom. Players could have easily turned their backs on coaches. Easily.

“If we lost the next game, that would have been it. We would have probably finished second (to the) last. We won the three tough games including against San Miguel, who was unbeaten, and entered the playoffs.

“From then on, we were very difficult to play against. We stuck with it and believed (in) what we were teaching them.”

“Character all around,” Trillo added. “You credit the players, too, because they responded. It took a lot from them to get out of that hole.”

The Bolts easily took care of sister team NLEX Road Warriors in the quarterfinals, but then had to go through the no. 2 seeds Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, the team that had beaten them in all four of their previous finals appearances, in the best-of-seven semifinals.

After falling behind 3-2, the Bolts rallied to oust the Kings, capping their run with a masterful win in Game 7.

“Ginebra was a hard one,” Trillo said. “It took a lot because they’ve been through a lot of series with Ginebra. We had to preach about poise, about staying composed, doing certain things.

“Coach (Nenad) instilled that. We knew coming into the San Miguel series, we also had belief in them. We needed to show that, too.”

The manner by which the Bolts decisively defeated the favored Beermen is nothing short of impressive. Except for Game 4, where they admittedly were flat, Meralco was simply the better team for most of the series.

Prior to the finals, the Beermen were averaging 107.5 points per game. In six finals games, the Bolts’ defense held them to just 91.7. In the four losses, that number fell to 85.3.

“We had to do a lot of things,” Trillo said. “San Miguel is a deep team. Thankfully, we came out victorious in the six games.

“They’re a deep team. They’ve got a lot of pride in what they do. They have a lot of history there. We came in and what we’ve done over the period of time of one year, our coaching staff takes pride in that.

“We practiced really hard. We knew that we were really in shape. There’s a lot of discipline and things that we did in terms of what we would do.

“Overall, it’s a tiring, hard year for us, but I’m sure we’re pleased with the results. It’s the first championship of Meralco. We’re thankful and grateful for that.”

Black magic

Seated a few rows behind the Meralco bench, Norman Black couldn’t immediately make it to the hardcourt to celebrate with the Bolts after June Mar Fajardo’s desperation triple missed at the buzzer. In his new role as consultant, he no longer was allowed to sit on the bench during games.

But make no mistake, Black was every bit as important to this historic first title as Vucinic and Trillo. After the Bolts finally won it all, no one was happier for the team than their longtime coach.

“Yeah, it’s finally nice to give a championship to Meralco,” Black said. I’m really happy for the players, especially those who have been here a long time. I think I’ve been around for 10-11 years already.

“The guys that were here when I got here were (Chris) Newsome, (Cliff) Hodge, Anjo Caram. Anyway, I’m happy for the management.

“The bosses, the employees who have stuck by us all these years. It’s just a great feeling, particularly for the players. I’m happy for them.

“They work hard every single day. I really think that Coach Luigi, Coach Nenad did a great job of handling the team and leading us to the championship.”

Black said he still attends practices every day when his schedule permits, as he also has new roles with the San Beda Red Lions and the SBP.

“I normally work with the big guys. I work with our rebounding. My job now is more specific than it was before when I was handling everything.

“I sometimes have to miss because I have San Beda, and I also have the SBP. I just came back from Davao today, actually. We had clinics in the province for the grassroots program.

“I’m also busy doing some other things, but I’m in practice every day. I’m part of the team.”

‘Don’t stop believing’

In practically all his public appearances, Nenad Vucinic has always exuded a stoic, serious persona. He rarely smiles during games, and until after Game 6, had never really sat down to chat lengthily with the media.

And even during his post-game media session, he was serious for the most part. That is, until someone asked him about what was in store for Meralco’s future.

“The future for Meralco,” he said before breaking into a grin, “is a party. A huge party. After we finish the party, then we may talk about it.”

And indeed, after their media obligations were done, both coaches joined the team for a raucous celebration. And as the players sang along to Journey’s classic song “Don’t Stop Believing”, they also made sure to subject Vucinic to a champion coach’s ritual by pouring drinks over his head.

And while center Raymond Almazan gave him the sweetest bear hug from behind, Vucinic simply soaked it in. Never mind that his cell phone bore the brunt of the alcohol-filled waterfall. The Meralco Bolts were PBA champions now, and that’s all that mattered.

Banner images from PBA Media Bureau.

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