The new, fun, and improved Barako Bull Energy Cola
MANILA, Philippines - Whenever Coach Koy Banal’s practices are about to run a little too late, his assistant coaches make it a point to remind him of the clock.
See, while other PBA teams believe many hours of practice time is the way to best prepare their team for actual games, the Barako Bull Energy Cola have discovered that the shorter the training, the more concentration into drills and scrimmages their players have shown.
And most importantly, it’s made the atmosphere much lighter. The vibe is more fun - especially with teammates getting more time to bond with each other while having to worry less about doing extra suicides.
Here’s a not-so-secret about basketball: when a team is having fun, the wins usually follow. After all, the game was meant to be played for fun, regardless of the many narratives, pressure, and scrutiny professional basketball players typically deal with.
That recipe has worked for Barako Bull.
“We just make sure that when we start practicing, they’re going to give everything. We shortened the practice, and I like that,” Banal said after his team won their fourth straight game to start the Governors’ Cup on Sunday, May 24.
“Everybody’s happy, having fun in practice,” he said. “Hindi masaya kung mainit (it’s not fun when it’s hot), but still, they’re giving all out, even in practice. It became the habit.”
Banal’s practices used to last more than two hours in the past, but nowadays, those sessions have a time limit of an hour and a half.
“Sa practice, nag e-enjoy lahat. Very light yung approach ni Coach Koy,” says veteran Joseph Yeo, who Barako acquired from Ginebra in a trade a day before their first game of the conference. “Siya pa nga yung nakikipag biruan lagi.”
(Everyone enjoys during practices. Coach’s approach is very light. Most of the time, he’s the one coming up with jokes.)
Close to a month after the third conference has started, the Energy Cola have the best record in the PBA. They’ve scored at least 100 points in each of their games while limiting their opponents to below that number. They lead the league in scoring (102.8), rebounding (55.8), and second chance points (21.3).
And it’s not just like they’re beating up on weak teams. Besides Blackwater, they’ve already defeated 3 teams that made the playoffs last conference: NLEX, Talk ’N Text, and most recently, Meralco.
The fun climate around the team is a big reason why they’re playing more loose on the court. But their improved performance also comes from 3 other integral things.
The first is the hard work they put in each practice, which starts from their leader and most consistent local this conference.
“With practice, JC [Intal] probably practices the hardest out of anyone,” said import Liam McMorrow. “I practice very hard too, but, yeah, anytime you see that, it’s almost like you’re forced to do that.”
According to Banal, Intal “walks the talk” and his performance on the court has displayed that. The 31-year-old is averaging 15 points a game this conference while shooting 39% from downtown. For the season, he’s putting up 14 points and 5.2 rebounds a game - career highs.
“‘This guy is going so hard, why am I not doing the same thing?’” McMorrow said about Intal, whom he met in Las Vegas at the Impact basketball camp. “So everyone’s going hard in our practices and you can tell, when the local players started locking up on defense (against Meralco), when we started on our run, that was all generated on defense so guys are working hard, man. On the court, off the court.”
McMorrow is another huge - and that’s quite literal - reason why the Energy has tied their best start in franchise history. The 27-year-old is averaging 25.3 points and a league-leading 22 rebounds (10.3 offensive) a game. He’s given Banal a dominant presence in the paint who can not only put the ball in the hole, but even better, spread the floor for the team’s shooters.
Barako is shooting 32.5% from downtown this conference, which is a drastic improvement from the 21% clip the shot in the Commissioner’s Cup.
“It’s a choice other teams gotta make. We have knockdown shooters, so it’s either you’re going to double me and we’re going to have open shots, or you’re going to leave me alone and I’m going to score,” said the 7-foot-2 import. “So they have to make the choice and it’s really good for our shooters; it takes pressure of them.”
“I’m telling our guys, ‘Shoot the ball all the time. I’ll grab the offensive board if you miss. Just shoot it. If they’re going to double, shoot it, man.’ You should see them in practice; they don’t miss. So I’m just trying to get them more confidence to shoot. Even if they miss, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to crash the boards and get rebounds.”
“Parang hindi mo alam paano i sco-scout yung team namin,” said Yeo. “Tapos yun, we have a big import, kaya I think big advantage saamin yun.”
(It’s like you don’t know how to scout our team. We also have a big import, and I think that’s a big advantage for us.)
The third aspect is the team’s depth. In some games, Intal will catch fire, while in others, Yeo will take that responsibility. It was the case against the Bolts, when the former Ateneo superstar scored only 5 points while his former Lasallian rival finished with a season-high 28 points - his highest output in 5 years.
In some games - just like in their season debut against NLEX and win over Talk ’N Text - Dylan Ababou could go off for 17 or 16 points. When he’s not feeling it, RR Garcia takes a larger scoring burden like he did against Meralco, where he provided 14 points off the bench.
The Energy Cola has firepower all the way down to the 10th guy on their rotation, Justin Chua, who had 12 points of his own against the Bolts.
“This team, there’s a big potential. Madaming mga bata na talagang pwede mag [play] nang maganda,” said Yeo.
(There are a lot of youngsters who can play well.)
“Si Dylan, JC having improved tremendously, RR is in his usual self, Joseph, even James [Forrester] if I will give him a chance, he can deliver. Anybody can deliver,” said Banal, who later added:
“It’s just a matter of accepting, embracing our system, and that is: anybody can step up.”
Banal says that the new pieces of his team and experiences from last conference - where they started 3-0 but was eliminated after one game in the playoffs - have helped the team discover the “formula” and “combination” to their early success in the Governors’ Cup.
Their quick start doesn’t assure a postseason spot, but makes their hunt for one stronger. Though, as early as know, would it be overhasty to think of the Energy Cola as title contenders? History isn’t on their side. In their 13-year tenure in the PBA, they have 0 total championships and just one finals appearance.
Critics might even call it crazy.
“I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” said McMorrow. “I don’t think there’s any team that can really, I mean, most of the imports are not even matching up with me size-wise. Even the ones that do, the ones that are big players, I don’t think it’s a problem for us.”
“We take care of that, and our local players can take care of themselves, so I don’t think it’s crazy at all. It’s crazy because of the history of the team but I don’t think it’s crazy with the team we have now.”
“We will take this conference one game at a time, or one day at a time,” said Banal, who knows his club still has a lot of contenders like Rain or Shine and San Miguel left to face in their schedule.
“I like the way our players, the effort that they are giving in practice, they’re exciting. We don’t want to focus on Purefoods, on whomever we’re going to face later on; we want to focus on whom we’re going to meet first.”
And making the finals?
“Anything is possible. Who knows?” the head coach said.