HE helped build the team from scatch, put the pieces together one by one, and painstakingly turned the PBA's perennial whipping boys into a worthy darkhorse that fans love to watch.
But just when he feels Air21 is just one or two pieces away from becoming a legitimate title contender, coach Franz Pumaren faces the prospect of having the ballclub torn apart or handed over to a new team of coaches as the resurgent PBA franchise is put up for sale.
Pumaren, though, is taking everything in stride amid Air21 governor Lito Alvarez's admission to Spin.ph on Wednesday night that he is in the final stage of negotiations with the Manny V. Pangilinan-controlled NLEX for the sale of the franchise.
It is simply the nature of the business, Pumaren shrugged.
“Kami naman siyempre, gagawin lang ang trabaho namin. Our job description is to take the team to the higher level, 'yun gagawin namin. At yun ang pilit naming ginagawa,” said Pumaren, a five-time champion coach with La Salle in the collegiate leagues.
“Whatever happens outside the hardcourt, wala na kami run. Wala rin kaming karapatang sumama ang loob.”
But even if he is not saying it, there is no mistaking in Pumaren's voice that he longs for the opportunity to take this team to the next level after overseeing its amazing transformation to a title contender over the last three years.
“May chance for a championship ang team na ito. Kita mo naman ang puso na ipinapakita ng bawat players. It shows with how we have been giving other teams a hard time,” Pumaren told Spin.ph.
“Ilang piyesa na lang kulang nyan. And with the pick that’s waiting for us in the coming draft, I am sure malaki chance na lumakas pa lalo ito,” he said, pointing to Air21’s precious pick which can go as high as third or fourth overall depending on the final tabulation of the teams' performances.
A shot at a championship looked so remote when Pumaren first handled the team in 2011.
“When we started this team noong 2011, walang laman ito. Remember, nag-hold pa nga kami ng tryouts. We just developed the players, then we made critical trades,” he said.
The trades Pumaren and Alvarez pulled off led to the arrival of the team's current core of Joseph Yeo, Mark Cardona, Sean Anthony, Enrico Villanueva, Jonas Villanueva, Eloy Poligrates and MVP contender Asi Taulava.
“Sino mag-aakala na with proper movements, makukuha namin ang mga 'yun in just a short span of time,” said Pumaren.
On whether he will get the chance to take this team farther remains to be seen, although NLEX already has a pool of coaches led by Boyet Fernandez from its team that dominated the PBA D-League the past two seasons.
Asked if he is expecting himself to be absorbed by the new owners, Pumaren could only shrug his shoulders.
But in the eyes of Taulava, the team’s resurgence and their ‘refuse to be average’ mindset can be attributed to the hardwork, patience and faith of their coaching staff headed by Pumaren.
“You all know where our boys came from. I need not tell you, coz most of them weren’t given the chance in the previous teams they played for, and that includes me,” said Taulava.
“But coach Franz, he just gave us the confidence and the belief that we can be as good as we believe we can be,” added the 2003 PBA MVP.
While Taulava and other marquee players are already assured of spots in the team once the sale to NLEX comes through, the 41-year old superstar is hoping the other ‘unsung heroes’ of the team like the coaching staff and other players will be given priority by the next team owner.
“It’s beyond our control. But I just hope the unsung heroes of this team will have their time in the assessment board for the next team bosses, if ever there is a sale coming,” said Taulava.
“This team is built on brotherhood and trust on one another. We accepted the fate of the team with open arms. Here’s hoping that they, too, will give proper attention to the whole team,” he added.
Meanwhile, former Powerade Tigers governor JB Baylon is optimistic that the next management of the franchise will retain several players and the core of the coaching staff as it goes through a transition period.
“I think, it will be best for NLEX to retain some key personalities of the Air21 team, to minimize the effect of disruption from the takeover and sale,” explained Baylon, whose Coca-Cola franchise also underwent the same process after it was sold to GlobalPort two years ago.
“The primary factor is to try to keep the spirit intact, (because) any takeover is disruptive. If you are talking about Air21, they did well these past two conferences. If not for two or three games, they could have been up there (in the standings),” added the former PBA vice chairman.
With a huge basketball machinery, Baylon believes the MVP group has a battery of coaching talent, but like in the sale of big companies, proper transition should be implemented.
“NLEX may have their own pool of coaches, who have the same philosophy of basketball as their other controlled teams, they would move coaches around for uniformity of philosophy of basketball,” said Baylon, now the vice-president for corporate affairs of NickelAsia Mining Corporation.
“If I am the buyer, I would keep the core of the old team for transition and put some of my men to slowly incorporate the direction of the team.”