With Alaska marking its 30th year in the PBA this season, Aces head trainer Gus Vargas has seen a big part of the franchise’s transformation, has imbibed on the company’s time-tested values and has no doubt, contributed a lot in the team’s 14 league championships.
Vargas may not be a former basketball player, but for anyone who has followed the Aces since the franchise’s early years in the pro league, the long-time trainer and conditioning coach played a crucial role in the recovery of injured players.
Vargas’ first, big challenge
Vargas said his first involvement with Alaska happened sometime in the 1991 season, back in the days when the Aces, then known as the Milkmen were still in search for their first-ever PBA championship.
Alaska’s main local player was the high-flying Paul Alvarez, while a young shooting guard by the name of Jojo Lastimosa was just acquired that year.
“Nagka-problema sila (Alaska coaching staff) how to handle Bong (Alvarez) and coach (Tim Cone) had a target that time of reaching the semis sa third conference,” Vargas recalled as he sat with FOX Sports recently.
Vargas shared that the six-foot Alvarez ruptured his Achilles heel during Game Three of the 1990 PBA Third Conference Finals.
Since medical technology wasn’t as advanced back then, Vargas was brought by then Alaska assistant coach Chot Reyes to Cone to see how he could help fasttrack Alvarez’s recovery.
“Nagtuturo ako sa Ateneo nun sa physical education and kilala ko si Chot. He was involved with the Ateneo team and he was the assistant coach of Alaska,” said Vargas.
“We would see each other everyday din so more of acquaintance. And the time na-injured si Bong Alvarez, their trainer was not familiar in general injuries because he was more of a physical fitness instructor,” he added.
Cone, then in his third season as Alaska coach, targeted Alvarez’s return in the semifinals of the 1991 Third Conference.
With the help of Vargas who came up with sound rehab and training program, Alvarez, nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” was able to make the comeback as expected.
The former San Sebastian played a key defensive role against former Lakers backup guard Wes Matthews in the Finals, helping Alaska score a 3-1 Finals triumph over Ginebra as the Uytengsu franchise won its very first PBA championship.
“Nung time na yun, yung mga technology and procedure ng rehab di kasing advance ng kagaya ngayon so it took much longer time to bring back a player to competition. But we were able to make it in kasi ang target ni coach Tim, if makapasok sa semis, puwede na maglaro si Bong,” said Vargas.
“Then we reached the Finals and won the first championship and Bong became the Finals MVP, tapos di na ako pinaalis ni coach because I was with Ateneo pa that time and was just doing consultancy with Alaska.”
Tim Cone, his second father
The Alaska head trainer said after his team won its first championship, he eventually joined the Milkmen full time. And that’s where he started his long, fruitful journey with the franchise and a growing friendship with Cone.
For 23 years, Cone captained the Alaska ship, guiding the franchise to 13 PBA championships, including the Grand Slam crown in the 1996 season behind the core of Johnny Abarrientos, Bong Hawkins, Lastimosa, Jeff Cariaso and Poch Juinio.
“Si coach Tim, di lang siya father figure to me, but he’s also a friend and my immediate boss, being the coach. Malaking bagay si coach sa akin as a person,” he said.
Since Cone was a very relational person, Vargas said it wasn’t difficult to relate and eventually develop friendship with the American coach.
However, Cone’s decision to leave the franchise in 2011 caught him and everyone in the team by surprise.
Vargas said the multi-titled PBA coach’s decision to move away from Alaska and eventually transfer to the Purefoods franchise was “surreal” back then.
“Siguro the closest thing you can compare it (Cone’s decision to leave Alaska) to when we heard the news was iniwanan ka ng tatay mo or iniwanan ka ng friend mo. It was surrealistic at first,” shared Vargas.
“Ang tagal bago nag-sink in. It took a while kasi ang hirap tanggapin. And many of us felt the same way, like, ‘Why did you suddenly have to go?”
“Nung una, combination ng nabigla ka, surprise, disbelief, then, nag-numb ka, in denial and acceptance, the usual process when these things happen to you.”
Vargas said the only time he finally had some sort of a “closure” was when Cone chase him during one of the Alaska-Star post-game just before they entered their respective dugouts.
“He said, ‘hey buddy!’ Iyun kasi ang tawag niya sa akin, but it took months before namin napagusapan yun. But (since then), up to now, we’re still very close.”
Strong family culture
But perhaps, one reason why the University of the Philippines alumnus lasted this long with the Alaska franchise was due in large part to the organization’s strong family values.
“It’s probably like having another family that’s equally supporting and caring, like compared with my real family,” he said.
“And I think it all starts with my big boss WSU (initials of Wilfred Steven Uytengsu). They are very family-oriented and they treat people in every team just like people in a company as family kasi sila yung type ng team owners na anytime, anywhere, they greet you. So that value permeated sa team.”
While he didn’t elaborate, the clean-shaven team trainer said during his down moments in the family, the Alaska franchise was also there to help him overcome his challenges, which bolstered his ties with management.
“Those things that happened everyday with coach Tim back then and the players, overall, it’s been a magical ride. At di ko namalayan dumaan na lang ang 26 years,” said Vargas, as he waxed nostalgic.
Heading into his third decade
Now in his 25th year with the team, Vargas said he just can’t believe that he has lasted this long with one team in the PBA.
He has witnessed the highs of the team when Alaska won multiple championships with Cone, before winning another one when the American’s understudy Luigi Trillo steered the franchise to a title in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup.
Vargas also saw the low moments when Alaska went on rebuilding mode during Cone’s over 20-year coaching stint.
But these days, while Vargas attends to some of the players’ needs at the gym, he admitted he still can’t believe that the era of Abarrientos and Co. is over.
“It’s like you really have to give it much thought kasi parang, ‘Wow! Hindi na pala sina Johnny ito at sila Jolas,’” he said. “Kasi you get so immersed with work of taking care of the players. so yung transition from one player to the other nagkaka-overlapping na, pero it’s the same culture day in and day out. Nagi-iba lang ang mga personalities.”
Today’s generation of Alaska players may not be operating under the triangle offense, a system that Cone worked to perfection for over two decades.
Yet, Vargas said what he witnesses everyday in practice is a collection of players, who are athletic, young, and mixed with some individuals with veteran smarts and experience.
“Nag-evolve na rin kasi yung sport and I think alongside with it, siguro mas athletic yung mga players ngayon and the game becomes faster, more physical and also, the changes sa rules eh para mas bumilis yung games, mas exciting,” he shared.
He cited that Calvin Abueva, Alaska’s energetic forward, has impressed him a lot because of his seemingly tireless approach to training and practice.
The “Beast”, he said, has been misunderstood due to his no-holds-barred plays, but what people don’t really know is he’s a different person after all.
“Si Calvin, I love training Calvin. Hindi siya sumusuko sa mga pinapagawa ko. I think putulan mo na lang siguro ng paa niyan,” he said, laughing.
“But he likes working out and the challenges in the gym kasi kapag nakikta niya yung kasama niya na nage-enjoy sa pinapagawa ko, he jumps in din sa pinapagawa ko and he tries to do it seriously,” he added.
“Hindi kasi nakikita sa labas eh. Ang nakikita lang nila yung ginagawa niya sa court, but in the gym, he works hard.”
Vargas said the former PBA Rookie of the Year doesn’t say no to challenges during workout.
“Nakakatuwa siya (Abueva) i-train. Masipag siya, then ginagawa niya lahat at di siya nagre-reklamo and di siya uma-ayaw but the trainer must also know how to hold back and when enough is enough.”
An integral part of the team
Alaska’s veteran slotman Sonny Thoss admitted that the Aces won’t be prepared physically if not for the brains and hardwork of Vargas.
“He takes care of all of us. He makes sure we’re in the best shape possible in the upcoming conference because when you hurt, he’s the man to see,” said Thoss.
The 6-foot-7 Thoss said when he suffered from plantar fasciitis over a year ago, Vargas oversaw his therapy to ensure he full recover from that injury.
“He does what he has to do. He attends to the player’s need, sort out the injury and try to help him come back asap, and me, I have to get rest after, got my therapy done with him and strengthening. He’s really a big factor for the success of the team,” he added.
Today, Vargas continues to serve the team with great passion, along with assistant team trainer Mike Braga and team doctor Facundo Sun, living up to the Alaska mantra of #wenotme. – Richard Dy
Follow this writer on Twitter: @richava