Late in Game Two of B-MEG’s semifinal series against Barangay Ginebra, with momentum swinging the Llamados’ way and their diehards inside the SMART-Araneta Coliseum roaring in delight, a pumped-up Josh Urbiztondo pitched a full-court pass ahead to Peter June Simon, hoping to score a homerun that would break the backs of the Gin Kings. The only problem was, Simon wasn’t looking, and the play resulted in a turnover for B-MEG, leaving the door open for a Ginebra uprising.
James Yap quickly rushed to Urbiztondo, telling his point guard to settle down. “Sabi ko sa kanya, easy lang,” Yap told InterAKTV. “Dapat, sa sureball lang tayo.”
A game earlier, it was also Yap who was at the ear of teammate Marc Pingris telling him to calm down. Pingris had gotten into a scuffle with Ginebra center Enrico Villanueva, and was called for a flagrant foul for second motion. The Llamados’ energy guy was still hot under the collar before heading to the B-MEG bench, and Yap had Pingris in an embrace to keep his emotions from flaring up once more.
Throughout his decorated career, Yap has never been known as a vocal leader. Even prior to the season, shortly after taking over the team, B-MEG coach Tim Cone said he did not expect Yap to play that role for the squad.
“He just has so many responsibilities off the court, being the face of the PBA,” Cone said. “It’s not fair to ask him to be the leader for the team.”
For most of his tenure in the PBA, Yap has often deferred leadership of the squad to veterans like Roger Yap, the team’s former starting point guard. But Roger left the team early in the Commissioner’s Cup, and his departure left a void in the team’s leadership.
“Malaking bagay yung kawalan ni Roger, kasi siya talaga yung leader namin noon,” said Yap.
Roger’s departure was just the latest in a long line of changes to a B-MEG roster that has undergone flux over the past two years. Only four members from the franchise’s last finals appearance in the 2009-10 Philippine Cup remain with the team: Yap, Simon, Pingris, and Rafi Reavis.
“Naiintindihan naman namin yun, kasi sa PBA, professional, madaming nagbabago talaga,” said Yap. “Sa aming natira, pinagtulung-tulungan na lang namin na i-share yung experience namin sa Purefoods noon sa B-MEG ngayon. Tulong-tulong lang kami sa pagiging leader.”
That a collective leadership has emerged for B-MEG is by design, according to assistant coach Koy Banal, the only current member of the coaching staff who was part of the last Purefoods champion team. “What Coach Tim preaches is that the team should lead itself. Everyone is free to speak up and take the lead.”
To be sure, Yap isn’t the only member of the team who has taken on a leadership mantle. Joe Devance, a versatile 6-foot-7 forward who doubles as one of the most outspoken personalities on B-MEG, has organized a unique ritual for the team prior to games, wherein the players stand together, jump around, and perform a chant instead of a traditional serious huddle — a move that helps the players ease tension and start the game relaxed. Veteran point guard Jonas Villanueva, recently back from a serious knee injury, has been relied upon by Cone to bring order into games during crucial situations, and he has performed admirably as a court general in a backup role.
But the difference has been most pronounced in Yap, the team’s longtime superstar. A quiet, soft-spoken guy, he was always just content to play his role as B-MEG’s top gun. The two-time PBA Most Valuable Player has had one of the worst conferences of his career when it comes to shooting the basketball, but he has quietly made his mark in other aspects of the game.
With B-MEG in a do-or-die situation against the Meralco Bolts in the quarterfinals, Yap led the Llamados in assists in their Game Two win. In the highly-physical Game Three, he came through with 10 rebounds, a conference-high.
“James sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for the other things he does,” wrote Cone on his Twitter account after the series. “More than scoring, he loves winning. He’ll do what it takes to win.”
According to Banal, the dip in Yap’s scoring — and his increased involvement in other facets of the game — has had more to do with Cone’s system than with anything else. There is stark constrast, according to Banal, between how Cone handles the team now and the way things used to be under former coach Ryan Gregorio.
“They’re both great motivators, and they both emphasized teamwork,” said Banal, who also served as an assistant under Gregorio. “But with Coach Ryan, we always relied on James Yap, Kerby Raymundo, and Peter June Simon to score, so our plays were about setting them up. With Coach Tim, it’s an equal-opportunity offense.”
“That’s why now, you see James getting six assists, PJ getting five assists, leading the team. Before, they couldn’t do that, dahil sila na yung titira eh.”
The strategy to have other players involved has paid dividends for B-MEG. At various games in the tournament, players such as journeyman center Yancy De Ocampo and rookie backup point guard Mark Barroca have had big games off the bench to lift the team to victory.
According to Banal, who has been with the franchise since the start of Yap’s second season in 2005, the embrace of the new system is a sign of maturity for the B-MEG star, who just turned 30 last February.
Yap, for his part, just has one thing on his mind as he prepares for a finals showdown against the mighty Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters that begins on Monday.
“Wala na talaga akong pakialam kung hindi man ako yung maging leading scorer,” he said. “Basta ang importante lang sa akin, manalo yung team ko.”
» Ahead of finals, Luigi Trillo gets encouragement from old Alaska coach Tim Cone
» James Yap apologizes to San Mig Coffee teammates, fans for missing final game with back injury
» Alaska makes return to finals, this time without old maestro Tim Cone