One of the many surprises the ever-generous PBA bubble has gifted everyone this early is the resurgence of the Blackwater Elite, who seem to have found a new identity under head coach Nash Racela.
Viewed more as a team looking to turn its fortunes around through a slow and bumpy growth process, Blackwater put the league on notice in the ongoing 2020 Philippine Cup and have already racked up impressive wins against NorthPort and NLEX to go up 2-1 in the standings.
The Elite, who rode a productive bench unit and another huge third quarter wave to beat NLEX on Saturday, would have remained unblemished at 3-0 if only they were able to sustain a furious second half attack against coach Tim Cone and Barangay Ginebra on Thursday.
Ginebra's poise came through in that 103-99 win against Blackwater, but it wasn't the first thing that Cone discussed when he took the podium to address members of the media after the game. Instead, he chose to open his press conference by lauding Racela, who almost successfully authored a plan that would have given the Gin Kings their first taste of defeat in the season.
"I thought Nash was a great coach when he was coaching TNT. I was always impressed by the way his teams shared and the way they read the defense," Cone noted. "They had a big third quarter, but I'm just really impressed in the way they read the defense, and they reacted really well, made the right passes. We were scrambling most of the night."
Racela recognizes the praise sent his way by the only coach with two Grand Slams in league history.
"It's something that I really appreciate, coming from a veteran coach in Tim Cone, the winningest coach in the PBA," Racela said Saturday after his Elite tallied a 98-88 decision over NLEX in a win that was more lopsided than the score suggested. "The next morning after our game, I actually was able to talk to him in the pool area (at Quest Hotel). I heard some positive things from him, and that really gives encouragement as a coach."
If Racela was bright enough as a coach to merit praise from someone like Cone, then why was he left without a job in the league for more than two years?
Racela said he simply "lost interest in the PBA" after his last stint -- a two-year tenure with the TNT franchise -- ended abruptly.
"I would not deny that after I got kicked out of Talk 'N Text, in a way I lost interest in the PBA," said Racela. "I wasn't watching the games for at least a year, even if my brother Olsen was coaching in Ginebra. I wasn't really watching the games."
A long-time TNT assistant coach -- he won six titles with the franchise -- as well as a one-time champion mentor with Far Eastern University in the UAAP, Racela was first elevated to the post in 2016 to replace Jong Uichico.
TNT then weathered the departures of longtime pillars Ranidel de Ocampo and Larry Fonacier and made the finals once under Racela, who steered the team to a runner-up finish in the 2017 Commissioner's Cup against the San Miguel Beermen.
Racela also led the franchise to the quarterfinals and semifinals twice each but saw his first PBA head coaching job cut short just six conferences in after he was put "on leave" by TNT owing to a dismal 1-4 start in the Governors' Cup.
After his exit from TNT, Racela worked away from the PBA and took jobs as an assistant coach in the UAAP with FEU and in the MPBL with Iloilo.
But the pull of the PBA couldn't keep him away from the league for too long. When Racela saw the chance to assist the Blackwater franchise in starting a new chapter, he leapt on the opportunity.
"What really helped me was the coaches and players that we have. They have been helping me a lot, giving inputs. It's not just me who makes decisions, it's a collective decision. That's how I build a culture in a team. The contributions and decisions are collective," he said.
Being familiar with coaches and PBA players, both with the Elite -- four players and two draftees are ex-Tamaraws -- and all over the league also helped Racela get comfortable coaching again on the biggest stage.
"Most of them I know as players. I think the team tendencies are the same, these are the same coaches. A lot of them I coached against in college -- the new coaches, I mean -- and in the D-League. Some players are familiar with me in the PBA and some of them I saw in the MPBL. So those are the things that really helped me be slowly comfortable with coaching again in the PBA," he explained.
Racela will surely continue to get the credit he's due so long as a Blackwater team continues to defy projections, but the 48-year-old coach said he's not here just for all of that.
"Though I'm not really looking for those praises from other people, I appreciate it when I hear it once in a while," he said. "(But) I know who my greater audience is. We play, we coach, we live for the audience of one, and that is God. Whatever anyone says, it doesn't really matter to me. I will be thankful, I appreciate it, but at the end of the day, I'm accountable to God. And that's something na alam ko within me."