BANAL AND TULAVAManila, July 1, 2003 By ALDRIN QUINTO (MALAYA) As far as Coca-Cola coach
Chot Reyes is concerned, Talk N Text counterpart Joel Banal is living a "charmed" existence.

"He's (Banal) having a charmed year. He's won the UAAP, PBL and now he's vying for a PBA championship," said Reyes yesterday. "We'll be doing everything to put a stop to that."

The Tigers defend their PBA All-Filipino Cup crown against the Phone Pals starting tomorrow at the Astrodome with no team having the clear advantage.

Coca-Cola advanced to the best-of-seven playoffs at the expense of Sta. Lucia Realty while Talk N Text withstood a gallant Alaska stand to score a 3-2 win in their semis series last Sunday at the Araneta Coliseum.

Indeed, Banal is eyeing a sweep of sorts. After steering the Ateneo Blue Eagles to the UAAP crown last year, he did an encore later on, guiding Hapee to the PBL title.

Both coaches, speaking at a news conference yesterday at the DunnBa Grill on Connecticut St. in Greenhills, refused to divulge their game plans and instead regaled the media with a repartee that went like this.

"No predictions," said Banal.

"Of course, every coach goes into a series thinking it will go the distance," said Reyes.

"I'm looking forward to it," Banal said.

"It's going to be very interesting," Reyes added.

Still, winning a second straight crown is in the back of every Coca Cola Tiger's mind, according to Reyes.

"It's a goal we set even before the season started. But more than that, it's getting better individually first. Then we'll grow as a team."

"I'd like to psyche myself into believing we have a big chance," said Banal. "'Yun kasi ang pangarap ko."

The two former assistants to Tim Cone at Alaska are all set to clash for the ultimate crown, but the more intriguing subplot to the series will be between Coca Cola's Johnny Abarrientos-arguably still the best point guard in the league today-and newcomer Jimmy Alapag of Talk N Text.

Former MVP Abarrientos, winner of several titles with Alaska, is raring to prove he still has what it takes after missing most of Coca-Cola's best-of-5 title showdown with Alaska last year due to a face injury. He said that even if he plays to his full strength, he may still be a bit slow in keeping pace with the youthful Alapag.

"Magaling siya (Alapag) at gagaling pa. Aminado tayo, mabilis talaga 'yan, bata pa. Pero sanay na tayo sa giyera. Siguro 'yun 'yung magiging edge ko sa kanya," said Abarrientos.

The witty point guard, who will turn 33 in two weeks, admitted he would have wanted to go head-to-head with Alaska's Mike Cortez for personal reasons.

"Ayoko namang maging ipokrito. Gusto ko sana talaga, ma-challenge si Cortez. Gusto kong ipakita sa kanila na kaya ko pang magpanalo ng championship," said Abarrientos, who was inexplicably released by Alaska two years ago.

The battlescarred quarterback, who won the MVP title in 1996, Alaska's grand slam season, is set to battle a mirror image of his self when he tackles the rookie from Cal State who is averaging 15.3 points per game and running third in the statistical points race this year behind teammate Asi Taulava and Coca Cola's Rudy Hatfield.

"Noon kasing bago ako, hindi ako ganoon ka-pressured. May Mr. Clutch ako (Jojo Lastimosa), maraming kakamping tumutulong. Siya (Alapag) rin ngayon, may Asi Taulava siya. May green light siyang tumira nang tumira.

"Noon lagi akong may underdog na ka-matchup. Ngayon siguro match na. Ayokong isipin na masyado siyang mabilis para sa akin.

"Hindi ko sinasabing hindi siya marunong dumepensa, pero sa tingin ko, kaya ko siyang opensahan," said Abarrientos.

Too bad that only Banal was there to face the press. He had ordered his troops to take a much-needed rest after their well-deserved win over the Aces.

While Coca-Cola is bidding to become the first team since Great Taste in 1985 to defend the All-Filipino crown, Talk N Text has yet to land a title in a regular PBA conference. The team, then known as Mobiline, won the 1998 side event dubbed the Centennial Cup.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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