FOX Q&A: Chito Narvasa the coach, banker & now PBA Commissioner

Chito Narvasa had big dreams upon assuming the position as the ninth commissioner of the Philippine Basketball Association.

And he also knew he has big shoes to fill, especially since he’s succeeding Chito Salud, whose 5-year tenure as commissioner of the PBA brought Asia’s first professional basketball league to new heights.

When Salud took over in 2010, the PBA reverted to the original three-conference format, founded the PBA D-League in 2011, exceeded the P200 million gross sales on gate receipts for the first time ever in 2013, expanded the league’s membership teams to a record 12 with the entry of Blackwater and KIA (now Mahindra), before the league opened its 40th season by holding it at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan, witnessed before a record-smashing 52,612 people.

Mean feats indeed, for Salud, and a tough act to follow for Narvasa.

This season, Narvasa is serving his first year as commissioner of the PBA. He knows the task at hand is big, especially as the PBA ventures into the Internet Age in the 21st Century.

He knew he had to deal with tons of challenges, from improving officiating, how to constantly achieve parity among teams, how to keep the pro league relevant to the younger, tech-savvy audience, and a whole lot more.

Just recently, FOX Sports sat down with Narvasa as he shares his thoughts, his background in basketball, his “outsider’s” perspective (having worked in the banking sector for many years), his “on-the-job” training last year under Salud, before formally performing his function as the league commissioner on August 23, 2016 during the PBA Annual Rookie Draft, and finally, laying down his vision for the PBA.

FOX Sports:  While you’ve had your moments as a basketball coach during the 1990s, did your father (the late former Supreme Court of the Philippines Chief Justice Andres Narvasa) have an influence in terms of your passion for the sport?

Commissioner Narvasa: We grew up also playing basketball. That’s what I always remember. They (his parents) were always supporting us during games from NCAA junior level hanggang college and and after college iba na eh, we started supporting our younger brothers.  But my father was a very good athlete.  I think he was even better than us. Ang nangyari lang dun, masyadong malakas siya uminom at malakas manigarilyo, and when he was being asked to play for his school sa varsity at UST, pero hindi niya daw kaya because of his health and demands of studies.

But one thing I remember growing up was discipline talaga, that everything you engaged in you really have to pour your heart out. And you have to understand the rules, abide by them and play by them. Yun lang ang kanyang mantra eh, napakadali eh di ba? Yun lang ang gagawin mo. So disiplina, in terms also of huwag ka manigarilyo, masama iyan sa katawan. Huwag ka magpupuyat.  Huwag ka iinom. All the things he used to do, he told us not to do (laughs). And kami naman, tatay mo eh, paniwalang paniwala kami, that’s why even up to now I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I carried that all throughout.

FOX Sports: After your collegiate basketball career in the 1970s, what happened? Did you pursue basketball even after your Ateneo days?

Commissioner Narvasa: I actually went to New York to work there for 5 or 6 years during the 1980s, from 1984 to about 1990.  So I was already working in New York in a bank.

FOX Sports: How did you end up coming back to the Philippines and dabbling into coaching? Could you share to us how you started your coaching journey in the PBA?

Commissioner Narvasa: When I was settling down here (in Manila), meron kaming maliit na negosyo ng asawa ko. Meron siyang furniture shop so tinutulungan ko siya. And then I got a call from Chot Reyes and si Chot used to be my player when I coached Ateneo in college, if I’m not mistaken that was about 1979, 1980 or 1981.  I couldn’t remember because that’s too far away. But then he called me and sabi niya, ‘anong ginagawa mo?’ Sabi ko, ‘wala eh, nag-iisip nga kung anong gagawin.’  And sabi niya, ‘puwede ka mag-coach?’ Sabi ko, ‘Chot, bakit?’ He was appointed as head coach nun of Purefoods, naghahanap daw siya ng assistant. Sabi ko, ‘Chot, ang huling coaching job ko kayo pa iyun. 1981 yata, more than 10 years ago. Anong alam ko riyan? I haven’t touched a ball. I haven’t taught anybody dahil afterwards, umalis na agad ako diyan.’  Sabi niya, ‘di bale, basta’t alam kong alam mo kasi basketball player ka talaga at naging coach ka, I need you here.’ Sabi ko, ‘o sige, pag-usapan naming mag-asawa’.

Tapos, okay naman yun sa asawa ko dahil wala naman akong ginagawa. So that’s where I started. And in 1993, yung rookie year niya (Chot Reyes) at rookie year namin, I came from the outside eh, walang nakakakilala sa amin, but that first conference, all-Filipino, nag-champion kami. Eh kasi magagaling na rin mga players niya at talagang nagulat ako at that time, magaling na rin si Chot.  Ang laki na ng ginaling niya. He was really dedicated. Iba na rin yung transition niya that I saw from a student, a player, into a coach.  And the PBA is what everybody wants to be. Kaya sabi ko aba, sige, punta na tayo ng PBA.

FOX Sports: What happened after your 2-year stint as Chot Reyes’ assistant at Purefoods? How did you end up serving as head coach of Shell?

Commissioner Narvasa: Two years kami nagsama (ni Chot Reyes at Purefoods), champion kami twice yata if I remember right, then naghahanap ng head coach ang Shell and I received a call from them. It was during the time of Mr. Ely Santiago and Mau Vergel de Dios and they said they were looking for a head coach and I was being considered as one of them. So if I was interested, can I come for an interview and all those things. 

Sabi ko why not?  I have nothing to lose, but sabi ko that time, ‘Mau, baka di pa ako handa, kino-consider niyo ako, I might not be the right person.  But siyempre, minsan lakasan lang loob ng lang eh.  So one way or the other, it led to that, naging head coach ako ng Shell, and ang nangyari dun, after 2 and half years, nabalik ako sa Purefoods.  So  I ended my (coaching) career at Purefoods. That was 1998, I remember.

FOX Sports: What happened at Shell? What was your coaching philosophy? Would you consider that your highlight in your career as a PBA coach?

Commissioner Narvasa: Kasi at that time, we had illegal defense (the PBA was years away from adopting the FIBA rules), bawal ang sona (vernacular for zone defense) eh so I tried to make it as simple as possible.  And sabi ko we think of so many complicated plays, eh isa lang ang puwedeng depensa. Hindi ka puwede mag-sona, do-double ka, kailangan hintayin mo talaga makatanggap ng bola sa poste, so you’ll always be left behind. And then, people always wanted to do it on a one-on one basis, kasi yung big man they get him out of the lane by moving your offensive guy far away, kasi di siya puwede sa shaded lane so ang philosophy namin dun was to keep it simple, so we only had one play. (Bursts into laughter).  We have to keep it simple, ganun na lang ginawa namin, so we had one play but different variations.

FOX Sports: How was it coaching against Tim Cone and his Alaska team, which won the PBA Grand Slam in 1996?

Commissioner Narvasa: With Shell we almost made the championship kasi nag-best-of-7 kami sa (1996 Commissioner’s Cup) Finals with our import Kenny Redfield. That was the time na kagalingan nila Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, Bong Hawkins and Poch Juinio at Alaska.  We almost beat them in 7 games, pero talagang kinapos lang because we had injuries. Nawala si Ronnie Magsanoc, Si Benjie Paras also nagkaroon ng konting problema sa championship series. Eh talagang ganun eh, it was fun and it was an experience we will always treasure and yun lang, sayang, isang game na lang, natalo kami sa last 1 minute of Game 7 during the Grand Slam year of Alaska in 1996.

Facing Tim Cone, he was also at his peak. We had fun yata in the newspapers, but the thing is we’re friends. I know if he says something, it’s also his way to prep his team also, so ako rin sasagot ako. Ganun lang naman yun eh.  Walang bigayan talaga lalo na pagdating sa Finals, but after that, we shake hands and go on with our lives.

FOX Sports: How did you sense it was time to move away from PBA coaching?

Commissioner Narvasa: Perry Ronquillo was my assistant at Shell and he took over when I left (in 1998). There was also change in management and there was little understanding along the line, so I said, ‘iba na ang direction na gusto ninyo, I leave that to you.  I give you the free hand, dahil iba na ang pina-plano natin nuon eh. Iyung mga nag-hire sa akin nun, pinalitan na rin so this might be the time and I might not be the right person for you, I said.  So I just resigned and they gave it (head coaching post) to Perry Ronquillo. After ng first conference yun and tapos nun, I was contacted again by Purefoods, so tinapos ko yung year na iyun with them and then during that time, I think it was before October, I was elected to the board of UCPB (United Coconut Planter’s Bank) and alam mo, mahal ko ang bangko. Sabi ko, yung career ko sa basketball and my career in banking, I love that. But when that came (UCPB offer to be director), I can’t say no anymore, it was like going back to a career that I studied for and worked for also, and this could be it, saka pangmahabaan eh dahil I think yung at that time, tingin ko sa basketball, temporary talaga, a temporary stint that you need to get out of your system, so that’s what happened.  I was able to coach and I was able to meet good guys. I was able to build good relationship with them and sabi ko, this is it, it’s time to move on, so I went back to banking.”

FOX Sports: Let’s fast-forward, what was life after your PBA coaching career when you went back to banking?

Commissioner Narvasa:  I put up my own firm with Pita (Dobles, now serving as Narvasa’s personal assistant in the Office of the Commissioner), that was in 2000 because we had so many opportunities at that time so we might as well look at other opportunities.  All of us (their other business partners) were currency traders. By 2007, I had a lot of consultancies and one of the things I really do is rehab and reconstruction of firms and I was able to help some people and they asked me to become director of this bank, it was called City State. They opened in 2000 and then there were some consultancies I’ve been helping them with especially in startups.  I was able to take off well, and one time, there was an opening and they asked me to join as director sometime in 2014. They said they needed help or something and they asked me to help them and they told me na kailangan nila full time. So I also said parang mahihirapan, but afterward, they explained to me the new direction, so that’s what happened. I became the vice chairman and CEO (chief executive office) of that bank.

FOX Sports: What was the first thing that entered your mind when you were told that you are being considered to succeed Chito Salud as commissioner of the PBA?

Commissioner Narvasa: I told them, ‘no’. I told them already at that time. Siguro, before, puwede pa, bata bata pa ako nun eh, pero ngayon, medyo matanda na. Ngayon, sinabi ko sa kanila wala na sa career path ko iyan (serving as PBA commissioner).  Tapos na ako diyan.  We were having fun already and doing a lot of things in our office and I didn’t have to report to any boss kasi kami ang may-ari eh, so it was us really. 

But it kept on coming and so I talked to my wife and of course, I talked to Pita kasi partner ko sa negosyo iyan eh.  Iniisip ko kapag ito kinuha ko, ano mangyayari sa negosyo? Alam ko kaya naman ni Pita. Wala akong problema saka tutulungan siya ng asawa ko and I have kids who can come in and help. Pero wala na talaga sa puso ko yung sa basketball and that’s what I told the head hunters and that’s what I told Chito Salud at that time. They talked to me twice and I told them, ‘please, huwag niyo na ako isama diyan.’

FOX Sports: What made you finally decide to at least join the pool of candidates for the next PBA commissioner?

Commissioner Narvasa: What happened there, they told me, based on the recommendation of the head hunter, they felt I would have been the right candidate. They all think I can do something.  So tumawag sa akin si Chito Salud and he has always been very good to me. He was the one who told me, ‘Chito, please, can you have yourself included in the short list? Kasi I think you can be of help to us and to basketball. Isipin mo na lang iyun. PBA ito.  Nanggaling ka dito and puwede natin pagtulungan.’ Sabi ko kanya, ‘pare, kilala niyo naman ako, I will help the PBA anytime and I don’t need to be with the PBA because I have so many things on my table. I would like to continue that.’ 

Tahimik nga buhay ko eh because I’ve always been a private person.  I don’t like publicity, but one way led to the other and that conversation, parang at that time, I felt parang nakakahiya na kay Chito Salud and to my friends also in the PBA, parang sabi ko naman na i-include lang naman ako sa short list eh.  So one way or the other, they told me they chose me as commissioner.  Actually I was more worried, sabi ko sa asawa ko, ‘kaya ko kaya ito? Kung bangko lang iyan, madali yan eh, at least kung bangko, ramdam ko eh. Pero itong PBA, iba ito, baka di ko alam.’  That’s what worried me more than anything else.

FOX Sports: What’s your initial challenge as you began serving as commissioner of the PBA?

Commissioner Narvasa: I was looking at the perspective of a businessman and a banker and of course, the question is, how do we make money for the PBA and how do we make it a stronger brand? Because today, to me it was building a brand that is already strong and then expansion.

But when I sat down, the whole attention and work really was focused on the staging of the games. Iyun ang focus. And sabi ko, let’s exert a lot of effort and try to make things work.  And the first thing they (PBA board) told me  was to change the officiating.  I said, ‘What’s wrong with the officiating?’  Because that’s the first point of order.  So that’s why I was going to start dapat in August (2015), pero June pa lang, pina-upo na ako to find out and so that transition would be easy because Chito Salud was not supposed to have left because he was going to be president and CEO (of the PBA).  So he just wanted to hand over the conduct of the games to me.

Sabi ko nga, there seems to be a big gap on the understanding of how the referees are going to call the rules and the understanding of the teams, so we studied that and we try to narrow it down. Because my philosophy is we go back to what the rules are. So you guys (referees) study the rules and read the rules, and so will I. Then let’s discuss the rules and how this should be called.  That’s the first thing I did.   And once I look at it and reviewed it, and talked to the panel, the referees, and then that’s when we formulated it and then that’s when I started visiting the teams.  I explained to them (PBA coaches and players), this is the way we wanted to call it, what are your suggestions?

So it was very clear to them we wanted to go back to basketball (by focusing on the ball not the man when going for a foul).  I think if you look at it right now, the gap of understanding the calls are getting to be closer, and more understood by each team.  That’s why there are less complaints now.  Pero yung unang conference, ang daming complaints talaga. And I kept telling them just keep coming to us and they sent me tapes and they go to the office. Laging may clarification. Pero nung 2nd conference, nawala na, and then ngayon (Governors Cup), meron na naman.  We were worried and these ones are coming from new coaches kaya sabi nga namin, ‘sige, I sent out a memo already, that should you need a refresher’s course, come to the office and we shall give it to you.’ Ganun ang gagawin namin.

FOX Sports: What lies ahead for the PBA and how does the pro league try to adjust to the changing times?

Commissioner Narvasa: The PBA I think is left behind by technology. When I came in and coming in from the banking sector, that’s what we are concentrating on, how to keep up and build up through technology.  Kaya ngayon naghahabol ang PBA.  So we’ve created a new division which is the social media.  We don’t have that if you noticed and we have problems with our website.  We’re not able to load up the stats that we need and as we want it to kasi may delay and it’s not enough personnel so we’re building nga.

But we’ve come up and we’re going to launch very soon our very own PBA App, a PBA Fantasy App.  We’re also building a Batang PBA App, all these in an effort to reach our fans and tell them, ‘hey look, the PBA is here. It’s alive.‘   If you want anything, we need to be able to respond to them and give them quicker response and feedback to their queries.  I want the PBA to be able to interact quicker with the fans because this generation is very impatient.  They are multi-taskers, very, very short focus or attention and they do so many things in so short a time. Unlike in our generation, where you could wait.  You could wait for today’s news tomorrow, pero sila hindi. Real time eh. In our generation, there’s no such thing as real time news.  Wala iyan kaya sabi ko napag-iwanan na tayo ng technology, that’s why we have all these problems.

Just like in the venue, meron nga nagsasabi kini-criticize tayo na nilalangaw daw but you have to give credit also to the PBA that they made it so easy for everybody to watch the games on TV, on radio and that’s a credit to the PBA because they also understand ang hirap pumunta dito.  Like ngayon, ang hirap pumunta dito (game venue) because what used to be 30 minutes or an hour ngayon, dalawang oras na eh, so we have to think of other ways how to compensate on that in other venues, in other platforms. That’s a challenge for the PBA. – Richard Dy

Follow this writer on Twitter: @richava