Sunday, January 3, 2016

Tim Cone at Ginebra - An Odd Fit?

Personal Musings: Tim Cone With Ginebra
Over the years, while I’ve expressed strong opinions on certain topics dealing with the league, I intentionally approached these from the vantage point of a neutral basketball follower.  This time around though, please allow me some latitude as I make my point from another view – that of a former team fan, in particular, Ginebra.

From 1986 to 1998, I’d like to believe I was the most ardent Ginebra fan you can ever find. There was nothing wrong with the team for me – I rationalized their actions, whether right or wrong. Friends ribbed me for becoming a “traitor,” as I originally cheered for the Crispa Redmanizers. To root for someone who was considered Crispa’s biggest “enemy” back then – Robert Jaworski, Sr. – was the last thing they’d expect from this basketball follower. But I did, triggered by Coach Jaworski’s hiring of former Crispa super import Billy Ray Bates in the 1986 Open Conference.


I shared the glory and heartaches of every Ginebra fan back then. When the team ran roughshod of Manila Beer in that same 1986 conference, I still see vignettes of the games played – how Billy Ray Bates stormed from court-to-court with 5 seconds left with the game tied at 133 to score a buzzer-beating slam that gave the Gins a 1-0 lead in their best of seven encounter. Or the heroism of
Jaworski, Dondon Ampalayo, Joey and Chito Loyzaga, Romy Mamaril, among others, when the ragtag team of Añejo Rum 65 shocked the neophyte but powerful Purefoods Tender Juicy Hotdogs in Game 4 of the 1988 All Filipino Finals, giving them their second franchise title.

What about the much-documented Rudy Distrito fallaway with 1 second left over the outstretched arms of Benjie Paras in Game 7 of the 1991 First Conference to give the Gins a 104-102 lead, and ultimately, its third prized plum? Or Pido Jarencio’s heroic Game 3 performance in the 1997 Governors’ Cup Finals where he exploded with 7 treys to give the Gordon’s Gin Boars a commanding 3-0 lead coupled with the Boars’ 32-0 detonation in Game 6 of the same series that broke the collective backs of the much-feared Alaska Aces mentored by Tim Cone?


Then, there were the painful moments. The 3-year abysmal period from 1993 to 1995 when the franchise just couldn’t get things right. Or the infamous 1990 Open walkout against Formula Shell in Game 6 that led to a then record-breaking P550,000 fine. Not to mention the questionable manpower decisions made back then – breaking up the 1991 nucleus by giving up on Rudy Distrito, Rey Cuenco and Leo Isaac as well as assistant coach Rino Salazar who was taken in to coach then arch nemesis Shell; the drafting of EJ Feihl in lieu of the more athletic Kenneth Duremdes in 1995; Ginebra’s trade for Bong Solomon and his eye injury to Alaska for their first round pick which turned out to be eventual ROY Jeffrey Cariaso; losing out on draft pick Victor Pablo for a mere P10,000 difference, forcing the team to trade him for Manny Victorino; drafting Dodot Jaworski in the second round when they could have taken him later, thereby missing out on other rookies like Jojo Lim or Elmer Lago that could have helped their cause better.


Yet, through the celebration and the agony, this Ginebra fan remained unfazed. Jaworski was still there, albeit, getting older and less effective. No one doubted the never-say-die (NSD) spirit having dissipated – the team just didn’t have the right materials and couldn’t latch on top-tiered imports like before. The fortune turned around bigtime when Ginebra finally acquired a legitimate center in Marlou Aquino as the #1 draft pick of 1996 and a quality point guard in Bal David from free agency. For the first time, the franchise had potentially the best big man in the league when all through their years, they had to contend with harnessing whatever ounce of contribution they can get from marginal reserves like Romy Mamaril, Harmon Codiñera, Sonny Cabatu, Tano Salazar, Peter Aguilar, and aging stars like Philip Cezar and Victorino.

It took this team more than a year to finally latch its 4th title, and their first and only title with Aquino, David, Vince Hizon and 1994 top pick Noli Locsin at the helm. But the six-year wait was worth it – there was no better feeling back then and every Ginebra fan was at their pinnacle of glory. A people’s victory parade / motorcade topped the celebration as thousands of Ginebra fans trooped to the streets to revel in the breakout championship.


I ended my fandom for the team when Jaworski, Sr. resigned prior to the start of the 1999 season because of a misunderstanding. Allan Caidic was brought into the team as playing assistant coach without the Big J’s knowledge. Since 1985, Jaworski always had the final say when it came to personnel decisions until that one incident. Instead, I became an impartial spectator but remained a staunch follower of the league.

For the next 16 years, Ginebra remained as the most popular team in the Philippines. Four titles were won within that span, two given by Coach Siot Tanquincen and another pair by Jong Uichico. Mark Caguioa replaced the Big J as the face of the team, and his lethal Fast and Furious combination with Jayjay Helterbrand may be regarded as one of the best guard duos in league history.

But the past seven seasons have been particularly difficult for the legions of Ginebra fans. Except for 3 Finals appearances, which they all lost, the team has consistently underperformed, even if they potentially have the best frontline in the league in Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar. It has been particularly tough the past three seasons when a total of at least 7 coaching changes (Uichico, Chua, Agustin, Sauler, Cariaso, Agustin again, Lim) occurred within that short span. Particularly painful was the axing of Cariaso and Lim. Despite the promise that this two could have brought the team, management didn’t have the patience to bear the fruits of their labor.


Last week, after weeks of ongoing speculations here in PEx and other social mediums, Ginebra management confirmed Cone’s entry as head coach. Had the rumor not circulated as early as this month, fans would have received this news as a major shocker.

Tim Cone is the one coach that every true-blooded Ginebra follower regards as the anti-thesis of the Ginebra formula. Even in the absence of any data at this time, you can bet that Cone’s record against Ginebra teams since he assumed PBA coaching duties for Alaska back in 1989 shows a winning slate. While Ginebra may have been a difficult team to scout, particularly during the Big J era, because of its unpredictability, and knowing how Cone is master at preparations, you can’t help but be impressed with his ability to unlock the mystery of the team. Cone and Alaska won its very first PBA title at the expense of the Gins back in the 1991 3rd Conference despite being the underdogs in that series. The brilliant tactician unleashed Bong Alvarez as a defensive demon, hounding import Wes Matthews all over the court, while taking advantage of Sean Chambers’ dominance inside the paint to demystify their opponents. In 1996, with the grandslam in their midst, Cone and the Aces pulverized Ginebra in the Governors’ Cup Finals, 4-1, despite the Big J’s decision to replace his import after Game 3 of the series.

Cone was the villain “disdained” by Ginebra fans all over. Even when he was already coaching for B-Meg / San Mig Coffee / Purefoods / Star, he had Ginebra’s number. There was something about Ginebra that Cone understood perfectly clear; and there was something about Cone that Ginebra was intimidated with. He was the “enemy,” and the one coach who advocated the complete opposite of what Ginebra stood for all these years.


Now, the so-called villain has forged a long-term alliance with the fan favorite. While many Ginebra fans pined for the return of the Big J as head coach, or perhaps his clone, Yeng Guiao of Rain or Shine, it’s apparent there’s giddy optimism on the part of the fans. Cone, perhaps the league’s best coach ever, brings with him not just his twin Grandslam credentials, or his league-leading championship titles, but also a system that is totally alien to Ginebra. Well, not totally, since the Kings did employ the triangle under Cariaso’s short tenure, but we all know this was generally disliked by the stars of the team. How the same cast will respond to the same system from a different personality would be the major question.

Another item that Cone hopes to instill in this flogging franchise is a disciplined system designed to maximize the efficiency of everyone. Again, this runs contrary to the Ginebra mystique of lore, which is known for, at best, its “organized chaos” setup. Jaworski’s old school setup of run-and-gun and uncomplicated man-to-man defense has been Ginebra’s signature all throughout. It falls prey to a maze of turnovers that can frustrate every follower, but when the chips are down and the team gets going, this is where the Ginebra mystique becomes alive and kicking.

The concept of never-say-die actually came about because of this type of game. Players take it upon their own hands to restore order in the court, but not in your usual deliberate manner. Instead, Ginebra banks on creating excitement play after play to get the crowd on its feet, chanting the legendary, “GI-NE-BRA” line. It’s a unique situation – instead of players banding together as a team, the team works together using their individual skills to dig themselves from the grave.

How this will manifest in a more disciplined and structured setup that Cone will bring to this team is the question. The good news for Ginebra fans is that they’ve already seen a preview of what Cone can do with the Hotshots with the crowd solidly behind them.  More importantly, we may finally get to see the unraveling of the Slaughter-Aguilar potential. These two players form the solid frontline for the Kings but somehow have fallen short of expectations. Cone, known for his partiality towards playing big, may be the perfect coach to finally exploit the brewing explosive partnership of the two big men. Who knows, history may judge these two in the future as the most intimidating frontline ever.

Team owner Ramon S. Ang (RSA), the author of this transfer, was quoted as cautioning Ginebra fans to manage expectations for the first two years. If there’s something good about this, it’s the assurance that Ginebra will finally have continuity as far as coaching is concerned. Many attribute Ginebra’s lack of success because of management’s impatience and unwillingness to stick to a coach. This time around, Cone is expected to wield his magic without worry of getting sacked.

Is this good for Ginebra? To this former fan that yearns for the old Ginebra, this really isn’t welcome news. The sentimental fool in me doesn’t want to see the old Ginebra memory fade away in the sunset and replaced by a totally different approach to the game. Had this been Yeng Guiao, it would be a totally different story.

For the PBA follower in me today, this can only be good news as Ginebra’s resurgence is directly related towards the PBA’s box-office success. For all Ginebra followers, the wait for the franchise’s 9th championship may just come very soon.

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