Austria uses 1991 Shell debacle to motivate San Miguel in finals turnaround

Coach Leo Austria said the Shell ball club that lost in seven games to Ginebra during the Finals of the 1991 PBA First Conference offers valuable lessons to present and future players.

The soft-spoken San Miguel coach could still remember that moment vividly, having been part of the disgraced Shell side that wasted a 3-1 advantage in the Finals, allowing Ginebra to snatch the championship in the process.

“At that time, we we’re leading, 3-1 in the series,” recalled Austria, then serving as a backup point guard to Ronnie Magsanoc.

“We had a lot of chances to win the game, especially yung Game Seven.”

Austria explained that a good defensive stop in the dying seconds of Game Seven would have sealed the PBA championship in the 1991 season-opening conference and denied Ginebra a chance to complete its comeback.

But a gutsy drive by veteran guard Rudy Distrito broke Austria and the rest of his Shell teammates’ hearts while the legion of Ginebra supporters erupted in frenzied celebration on May 19, 1991 inside the ULTRA (now known as Philsports Arena).

“I was part of the defense at that time. But we had miscommunication. Distrito made the shot on a fall-away attempt,” he said in Filipino.

“It’s frustrating because all our efforts were put to waste. It (the series) boiled down to one last shot, one last possession.”

While Austria said he couldn’t do anything about that 1991 debacle anymore, at least, he has learned to move on from that dark episode in his PBA career.

Now as a PBA coach, the 57-year-old former Rookie of the Year has a chance to somewhat exorcise the ghost of his past since the Beermen have forced a winner-take-all match in the Philippine Cup Finals after falling, 0-3 against Alaska in the series.

In fact, the San Miguel coach insisted that he has used his experience with Shell as a way to motivate his players on maintaining their composure no matter how daunting the task is.

“That’s (experience in 1991) very helpful because every time I come into this kind of a situation, I remember what Ginebra did,” he said.

“I keep telling them (Beermen) this was what I experienced as a player and as a coach and as long as you have a chance, just keep playing.”

On Friday, San Miguel used a solid fourth-quarter burst to manhandle a visibly shaken Alaska side, 100-89, to force a Finals rubber match.

No team in PBA history has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit.

But Austria hopes all their sacrifices would bear fruit come next Wednesday when the Beermen and the Aces face off in the final game of the Philippine Cup best-of-seven title series.

“Today, we are on the other side (of history). I hope we could complete it because this is history in the making,” stressed Austria, whose team also got a big emotional lift with the return of star center June Mar Fajardo starting in Game Five.

“We have to go all out.”

By Richard Dy