ABL: The Brownlee Effect
Marco Benitez on Apr 11, 2018 10:09 AM
Justin Brownlee has powered Alab Pilipiinas to a 13 - 3 finish in the elimination round and a semifinals appearance in the ABL.
The all too familiar chant thundered thru the Fil-Oil Flying V Arena in San Juan, as Alab Pilipinas’ new world import started showcasing his moves and making big shots much like he had done the past two seasons in the PBA for the never-say-die squad.
Justin Donta Brownlee had been a fixture for the champion Gin Kings the past two seasons and had delighted fans with his heroics, none bigger than a game and championship clinching buzzer-beater over their corporate rivals on his first tour of duty here. But by some happy coincidence, savvy negotiations, and fortunate turn of events, he had somehow found himself wearing Alab’s red, white and blue for their sophomore campaign in the 8th season of the ABL – its most competitive yet.
Fortunate Turn of Events
Alab Pilipinas – then Tanduay Alab Pilipinas – was a team formed by the partnership of Virtual Playground and ABS-CBN to be a full-fledged participant of the Asean Basketball League (ABL) last season, and was bannered by local MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr., and eventually, phenom Kiefer Ravena, but bowed out in the semifinals to the Singapore Slingers, the eventual 2nd placer.
This season, they had revamped the squad, leaving just Parks and two other mainstays – Lawrence Domingo and Robbie Celiz – and had added a couple of more prolific world imports, Reggie Okosa and the fiery Ivan Johnson – who led the Talk n’ Text franchise to a PBA Championship in 2015.
But after a sub-par 0-3 start to the 20-game season, which included two tough losses to the defending champs Hong Kong Eastern, a lack of chemistry, and obvious low morale from the locals, team management led by head coach Jimmy Alapag and team owner Charlie Dy decided it was time to make drastic changes if they wanted to turn the season around.
A bounce-back win against the eventual last place team – the Formosa Dreamers – with Ivan Johnson sidelined due to a back injury prior to the Christmas break only strengthened their resolve that their current twosome of world imports wasn’t going to cut it if they want to make a serious run at an ABL championship.
Enter Justin Brownlee and Renaldo Balkman.
With the help of player agent Sheryl Reyes, who handled both players, Alab was able to secure the services of Brownlee – who wasn’t set to make a return to the Gin Kings until after the ABL season – and Balkman, the NBA veteran who, after an infamous turn of events a few years back, was currently banned in the PBA, but was eager to redeem his name in the hearts and minds of the Filipino fans.
The Dynamic Duo
The tandem of Brownlee and Balkman, wasted no time making an impact on Alab Pilipinas, who were currently at the bottom of the standings. Despite having approximately just a week of practice with their new teammates, the dynamic duo debuted for Alab against the Westports Malaysia Dragons, on January 3, the first ABL game of 2018, and immediately made their mark. From the moment Alab stepped on the floor, you could tell that there was a renewed sense of confidence, like they had just been given a clean slate to redo their campaign; but this time they knew that they were backstopped by two imports who were proven winners, both in their prime, and both eager and motivated to win. Brownlee had 29 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in his debut, while Balkman added 17 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks in an emphatic hometown win against the Dragons. This was the first time in an ABL game, where chants of “GI-NE-BRA! GI-NE-BRA!” rocked the Fil-Oil Arena in San Juan.
Despite never having played together on the same team, Brownlee and Balkman surprisingly displayed tremendous chemistry, as if they had been veteran teammates. They displayed an almost instinctive sense of how to play with the other, complementing each other’s game, and elevating that of their teammates.
Balkman would play down low, slightly undersized for the typical ABL center, but played much bigger and longer than his 6’8” frame. His long arms and uncanny strength allowed him to guard players taller than him, while his quickness and athleticism gave him a distinct advantage over the opponent’s usually lumbering 5-man.
Brownlee meanwhile, displayed the complete package. Filipino fans were all too familiar with his scoring ability, the smoothness of his game, and his penchant for hitting big shots. With him, the game looked easy, nothing was forced, and his explosiveness and athleticism, when displayed, quickly reminded everyone of why he was a best import awardee and played on a completely different level.
Renaldo Balkman, all tattooed and sporting his prolific corn-rows, ignited fans with his fist-pumping, blowing-kisses-to-the-crowd blue-collar inside game. He was Fire.
Justin Brownlee, expressionless save for a shy grin, was methodical, graceful, assassin-like in his efficiency, and showed no emotion except after a booming triple or a thunderous jam. He was Ice.
Fire and Ice. This was the dynamic duo now dressed in Alab Pilipinas kits and slowly turning the tide to what would have been a so-so campaign. Their teammates knew it. The crowds that packed their games felt it; and everywhere they went, it was electric.
Hottest Team in the League
With Brownlee and Balkman getting more and more accustomed to their teammates and Coach Jimmy’s system, Alab Pilipinas went 10-1 in their next 11 games to become the hottest team in the league from January to March. Alab – now renamed San Miguel Alab Pilipinas – closed the regular season 13-3 with this dynamic duo to bag the no. 3 seed with a win-loss record of 14-6. They even actually could have finished in 2nd place, had Hong Kong Eastern defeated Chongson Kung Fu on the last game of the regular season; but it was not to be.
The paradigm shift in the team since their first four games was completely evident, as the positive attitude reverberated from the starters all the way up to the last man on the bench. Where once there was a tentativeness that stemmed from fear of not getting their world imports enough touches, now there was trust and confidence that their world imports had their backs, and even made sure that everyone on the floor got their own fair share of opportunities to contribute.
Morale picked up, and it showed in the way they played on the court. From averaging around 18 assists in their first four games, Alab finished the regular season averaging close to 21– Brownlee himself was the team leader with 6.1 dimes per contest. This was what made them so successful during that stretch, the fact that their best players on the floor - Brownlee and Balkman – were so unselfish that they were willing to do what it took to win, that included playing defense, and giving their teammates the opportunities to shine.
Big Brothers on the Team
Justin Brownlee’s (and Renaldo Balkman’s) effect on the team is probably most evident on how Bobby Ray Parks and Lawrence Domingo have played since Brownlee’s arrival. The reigning local MVP (Parks) struggled early in the season, trying to find his game in a system where either world import demanded the ball from the perimeter or in the post.
In their first 4 games, Parks averaged just 13.5 ppg, with 17 being his highest output. Since then, he has had multiple 20+ point outings, and even scored a season-high 31 points in their victory against eventual no. 1 seed Chongson Kung Fu last Jan. 31. It seems evident that he’s more relaxed, in control, and efficient; no longer having to force himself to be the first scoring option, but knows he can influence the game by defending the opponent’s best player, setting up his teammates, and only when needed does he take over offensively.
More so with Domingo; the team’s heritage import was evidently lost during those first four outings. In the first 3 losses, Domingo posted numbers of 2pts-4rebs; 5pts-2rebs; 2pts-1reb. It was only in the 4th game, a win vs Formosa, which Ivan Johnson sat out with an injury, where Domingo’s output rose to 6pts-8rebs. But since then, Lawrence Domingo has been arguably the best player off the bench as Alab’s 6th man. He’s provided the energy on defense and rebounding, and has made a living on weakside cuts and offensive putbacks. In fact, in his last 3 games, he has been averaging 16.3ppg and 6.3 rpg.
According to Alab assistant coach Mac Cuan, Justin Brownlee, as well as Renaldo Balkman have had a totally positive effect on the team. Whereas previously, criticism and blame were handed out in a condescending manner, resulting in players feeling isolated and shutting out feedback; now Brownlee for instance would talk to his teammates in a big brotherly type of way, offering sincere advice and teaching points on how a teammate could improve. It makes a world of difference when the best player on the team sincerely reaches out to teammates to help them improve their game. And while the effect has been most evident on Parks and Domingo, it is obvious that the rest of the team has responded in a good way to this kind of approach.
There’s probably no better example of how Justin Brownlee affects this Alab team than their last two games – their quarterfinal matchup vs the ever-dangerous, Saigon Heat. In the first game, Brownlee had 5 dimes in the first half as he was being doubled by Saigon’s defense in the post. He constantly found the open teammate – Dondon Hontiveros, Oping Sumalinog, and even Celiz – on the opposite side for the wide open jumper. He finished the game with a 22-11-8 statline on 9/13 from the field, including a monster one-handed alley oop from Balkman on the break that got everyone on their feet.
In the closeout match, he again put on a show, finishing with 18pts, 13 rebs, 3 asts, 2 steals, and another fastbreak highlight reel, this time eluding multiple defenders and finishing with left-handed flush that rocked the CIS Arena in Saigon to its foundations. There was even an instance in the first half when he sacrificed his body jumping into the stands to save a ball from going out of bounds - exemplifying his willingness to do the little things.
In both games, he was dogged by Akeem Scott, Saigon’s best player and toughest defender, who played him physical wherever he was on the floor. But Justin Brownlee never flinched, he never let his emotions get the better of him. He did some talking, but that’s when he was standing up for a teammate. His game did all the talking that was needed, as Alab swept the Heat in two games and move on to the ABL Semifinals.
After the game when asked how he kept his composure throughout his battle with Saigon’s world import, Brownlee had nothing but praise and respect for his competitor. And when asked what he thought was the effect he had on Alab’s campaign, in typical Justin Brownlee fashion, he was quick to deflect praise, and even credited his teammates and coaches, for trusting him and Balkman and giving them opportunity to come in and put their imprint on the team and their teammates, as it has allowed them to perform better on the floor.
Justin Brownlee finished the regular season with averages of 21.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.8 spg and 1.7 bpg. But more than the numbers, he and Renaldo Balkman have taught this team what it takes to put together a winning culture – from taking and making big plays, to the smallest intangibles that do not show on the stat sheet, and even how teammates are supposed to treat each other and carry themselves on and off the court.
Now it’s up to all of them to put everything together and face their biggest challenge yet – the reigning ABL Champs.
Justin Brownlee and the rest of Alab Pilipinas begin their semifinals series against Hong Kong Eastern tonight 8 p.m. on S+A, S+A HD and via livestream.