The once mighty and seemingly invincible Hong Kong Eastern Basketball Team could only look in disappointment after their bid for becoming back-to-back ASEAN Basketball League champions fell decisively at the hands of San Miguel Alab Pilipinas last Sunday.
Pain and anguish were visibly seen on each of the players’ faces when the final buzzer sounded at the Sta. Rosa Multi Purpose Complex as the Filipino crowd roared in jubilation. The proud defending champions had to step down from their throne and end their season short.
Last year, Eastern ruled the ABL. They were ruthless and unforgiving. They played with immense passion through the regular season all the way to their title-clinching Game 4 double-overtime victory against the Singapore Slingers. Not only did they win the title in their first year in the league, but they also bagged numerous individual awards.
Last Sunday was a different scenario. They were set to rule the league once again this year, but ultimately could not overcome the strong Philippines-based squad in the semifinals. The magic that they always relied on for nearly two seasons was nowhere to be found.
“I’m very proud of my players,” said a reflective and solemn coach Edu Torres after the game. “Probably the last month we dropped our performance a bit and we lost a bit of confidence. But I don’t have any complaints, they’ve been great. Like I told them in the locker room, great attitude, great team spirit.”
Torres was present during Sunday’s contest but was not able to attend Game 1 of the semifinals for personal reasons. He did not divulge why he missed time, but felt sorry he could not be with his team. And just as the professional that he is, he pinned the blame on himself for Hong Kong Eastern’s defeat in Game 2.
“What I can say is, when we win, it’s a team effort, but the first one you look to when you lose is the coach. If you don’t think that way, you cannot be a coach,” he strongly pointed out. “Whatever, whoever, it’s my fault first.”
Torres was adamant that he didn’t want to frown upon any of his players. Whether they shoot poorly or make a defensive mishap, nobody is pointing fingers in the Eastern locker room.
“I don’t have any complaints this season, not even today,” Torres added.
The head coach’s selflessness and leadership has certainly rubbed off on his players, including Heritage Import Christian Stanhardinger.
“I am proud to be part of the team, of Hong Kong Eastern. Everything was professional and it was a family,” Stanhardinger shared.
The Filipino-German, who has been playing stellar basketball all season long and is a frontrunning candidate for the Heritage Import MVP award, was also insistent that his heart and focus remains with Hong Kong Eastern and not on a future career playing basketball in the Philippines.
“After a loss like this, with all my heart believed that we can win the championship. I don’t want to talk about myself,” he firmly said after he was asked about his plans. “I’m very honored that I have a very close connection to the fans and the Filipino people and I cherish that, but I’m not gonna talk about myself, my future career.”
From the head coach to the team’s star power forward, their unselfishness and chemistry, and not to mention their great talent, were all set to propel them back to the ABL Finals. Unfortunately, this was not the case this season.
“We started really well, winning close games. During the last month we haven’t been the same team but I don’t have the answers right now,” said a baffled Torres. “Probably in a couple of weeks, in a month, we’ll know exactly if we did something bad or if all the teams were just better than us. I don’t know right now.”
In the meantime, Hong Kong Eastern will look to gather their bearings, reflect on their lost season, and look forward to coming back stronger.
“I’m sure the league is gonna get better every year. The future is nothing but brilliant,” Torres said about the league and the rising competition. “All I can say, the league is gonna grow up for sure.”