The word ‘kangkong’ never entered our conversation with Coach Tim Cone, even if his Barangay Ginebra San Miguel boys were relegated to the lowly vegetable by critics at one point. Anyway, no one would think to put them—PBA champions once again—in the kangkungan now.
Interestingly, the man who steered the Gin Kings to their 9th championship—their first after eight years—has never been an assistant coach. Cone shot straight to the top coaching position when he began with the PBA more than two decades ago. It was an impressive move that required a lot of work to gain credibility among his players.
“I haven’t seen a lot of coaches coach, so I don’t really know [how my style differs from theirs],” says Cone, the winningest coach in the PBA with 19 championships in his career. “It’s really been more trial and error and learning my own way; watching videos, reading about leadership, and such.”
It did help that Cone isn’t a bad basketball player either. “I played college basketball in the States so I had to be fairly good,” he says. “In high school, I was a star; 20 points a game at least. That’s why I got my job. Because my boss at Alaska (Fred Uytengsu, Jr.) knew me as a basketball player. We went to school together.”
A fan of NBA coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson (whom he has met a couple of times), Cone has his own way of navigating the PBA, its fans, and the media. He knows how to control post-game press cons, for instance. When sports writers are done asking their questions, but Cone still has something he wants to share, he goes ahead and asks his own questions; which he then answers. He turns these press cons into one-man open forums, no doubt fattening up the sports articles about his games.
As for the recent championship that catapulted Ginebra back to its glory days, Cone is doing his best to get over it. “I’m trying to forget about it because we’re back in practice,” he says. “We want to move on; just put the trophy in the lobby and walk away. Although this championship was the most spectacular; in terms of the fans, the Jay [Helterbrand]-Mark [Caguioa] game, the finishing shot, the Japeth [Aguilar] shot in the San Miguel series. There were so many big moments that made this [win] special.”
But how did they win? “I’m a big believer that defense wins championships,” Cone says. “We don’t just talk it; we walk it. That’s really important."
We heard that when you were young, you always got picked last in basketball games.
Well, that’s because I was the youngest—I was 12 or 13 and everybody else was 18. I didn’t get picked last because I was the worst [player]. I was just fortunate to be playing with them. I think they let me play with them because it was my ball. My mother knew that if I brought a good ball, the best ball, then they’d invite me to play. You can’t get my ball then not let meplay. [That] made me a better player because I always played with older guys. I was a little dribbling queen. I liked to dribble.
How was it when you took over as Ginebra’s head coach?
The first week I was with Ginebra, we went down to Naga for a mall visit and team building. I told the guys, “We have to organize how we go into the mall because it will be crazy. People will be all over us.” We got to the mall and there was nobody outside. We walked into the mall where we were supposed to do autographs and picture taking and there were like 150 to 200 people. I went, “This is not the Ginebra I know!” It was tough because the fans only knew disappointment over the last few years. I told the guys, “We got to get the fans back. We got to get the excitement back to the team. And the only way we can do that is to win.”
So the adulation is definitely back.
This is what it was like when the Big J [Robert Jaworski] was around. We feel that if we can sustain this a little bit, it could build up even more. I think the proudest moment in terms of getting the fans back was after the championship in the locker room. Sol Mercado came out and said, “You guys remember that time in Naga? Now look outside the door.” Mission accomplished.
Ginebra fans are a cultural phenomenon. They are the only supporters of a PBA team whose fandom is passed from father to son. What are your thoughts on this?
Fans are generational. Ginebra had such a huge following during the Jaworski days and it was even passed down from Meralco and Toyota into Ginebra. Obviously, the heyday was generated through the Big J. Coaching Ginebra is like coaching the national team. You have so much at stake.
Game 6 of the Governor’s Cup Finals, you’re down 11 at halftime. Were you expecting Robert Jaworski to enter the dugout?
Yes, we were. I’ve been around him before. I coached against him for many years. I know how inspiring he can be. And it was especially positive because I was really negative at the time. We were down; we weren’t playing well. I yelled at the guys. He came in and he took the edge off. I was not capable of doing that at that moment because I was too angry about the way we were playing. But he came in and the players looked so much more relaxed when they came out. We got back in the game very, very quickly. And that was the key. It didn’t take us a whole quarter to get back.
Your Twitter account says “Tex Winter protégé.” How did you learn the Triangle offense that Tex propagated?
I learned the Triangle on my own back in the early ‘90s when the Chicago Bulls were first becoming prominent. We beamed it in from Clark with an antenna and I’d record it on an old betamax [tape]. I knew there was something [the Bulls] were running. I didn’t know what it was but it intrigued me so I tried to break it down. I recorded as many games as I could and [fast-]forwarded and rewound until I could figure out some of the patterns that they ran. It took a couple of years of trial and error and watching their games before I felt that I mastered it.
How did the mentorship with Tex start?
Tex Winter came to the Philippines in 2000 on the invitation of Chot Reyes. Since I was the primary Triangle guy here, we were introduced and became good friends. I went to a couple of the practices of the Los Angeles Lakers. In that way, he became a mentor but I never worked for him. I [just] adapted his system on my own.
Have you always stuck with the Triangle, though?
It wasn’t until four or five months ago when I veered away a little bit from the Triangle system. In the finals, we were taking enhanced principles of the Triangle and [turned it into] kind of a more current offense; a little more movement, a little faster pace. But for 24 to 25 years, I’d been running the Triangle.
You’ve got a bit of showtime here with your Ginebra players.
I think that’s generally the league. But with the Triangle, we were much more deliberate. [In the last conference,] we picked up the pace. We’re not a running team; we’re a half-court pace team. We run quickly into our pace. But we’re not really a fast-breaking team. We want to be more defense oriented. It’s important that we settle our defense so we run, but we run back [too].
Coaching a championship team must be an intense full-body workout. How do you relax?
You always have to decompress. I play tennis every day at 6 a.m. The guys I hang out with there, they don’t bother me about basketball. We just get out there and play. It’s a great thing. In the evenings, my wife and I go to the movies; two or three times a week.
Do you have a dark side, though?
If I say no, it’ll sound like [I’m a saint]. If I say yes, I have to give an example but I can’t think of one. The players see my dark side in the locker room. I try not to show that persona outside because I don’t want to embarrass the guys. My wife always says I’m so passionate in the court during games but when I get home, there’s no passion. I never get angry. We never fight. I’m very easy-going off the court. My kids bring their friends to the house and they’re like, “Oh, no! It’s your dad!” They’re scared of seeing me. [But] I’m hanging out, so laidback, laughing and making jokes. They’re like, “Is your dad always like that?” I’m super laidback.
This feature originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of FHM Philippines.
Some minor edits were amd by the FHM.com.ph editors.