Calm before the storm, no panic for coach Cone

Calm before the storm, no panic for coach Cone
Coach Tim Cone says he may not guarantee gold, but the team has a chance. —PHOTOS BY CHARLES E. BUBAN

Gilas Pilipinas may have been confronted by major issues these past few weeks, but there was a distinct calm on Sept. 14 at Philsports Arena in Pasig City, where the team engaged in a late-afternoon practice session open to the public. Newly named Gilas head coach Tim Cone did not seem fazed that he has less than two weeks to prep his team for the pandemic-delayed 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. “What is important is that [the team] is excited about the prospect of playing China, Korea, Bahrain and Jordan,” he said of the countries that the Philippines is grouped with in the preliminary phase of the competition. 

He explained his decision to let the public in on the practice session: to help the team become fully aware that they would be playing not only for the country but also for their supporters.

This is only the second time a coach allowed the public to watch a Gilas practice session, after Yeng Guiao in 2019.

‘Déjà vu’

Gilas badly needs victory at the Asian Games, and for Cone, getting chosen to lead a seemingly impossible task is nothing new. It’s deja vu all over again––as the American baseball great Yogi Berra would say––for the 65-year-old coach now known as the most successful coach in the history of the Philippine Basketball Association.

It was 1998 when Cone was called to lead a “redeem team” after the Philippine basketball program hit a low point. Back then, the basketball-crazy nation was still hurting from the national team’s 9th finish (out of 15) in the 1997 edition of the FIBA-Asia Championship held in Riyadh. In 1995, the country ended up 12th (out of 19) in the same tournament held in Seoul.

“I did this once before, in 1998 … ,” Cone recalled at an introductory press conference held on Sept. 7 at the PBA headquarters in Libis, Quezon City. “Believe it or not, 1998 is always in my mind, all the time. It was such a hard undertaking at the time. Just to come here and do it again kind of takes my breath away.” 

Cone was the obvious choice then to lead a powerhouse team to the Asian Games because of his winning streak in the PBA. In that 1998 season alone, he was on course to achieve the rare second grand slam, or winning all three conference tournaments in a single season, as his Alaska Milkmen had already won two.

The Centennial Team started strong in the preparation, getting the gold medal in the 1998 Jones Cup. But Cone and his squad fell short at the Asian Games, settling for the bronze after getting beaten by South Korea during the quarterfinal match and then by China in the semifinal match.

Nevertheless, it was the Philippines’ best finish since the 1990 Asian Games when it won the silver behind coach Robert Jaworski. The players included the likes of Allan Caidic and Samboy Lim.

Cone again led a Gilas team in 2019, helping the Philippines to a gold-medal victory in the 30th Southeast Asian Games held in Manila.


Cone, who served as assistant to coach Chot Reyes at the just-concluded FIBA World Cup, has explained why he accepted this post despite being quoted earlier that he would decline an appointment as Gilas head coach if Reyes stepped down (which was what happened after Gilas’ lone FIBA World Cup win versus China on Sept. 2).

Said Cone: “I think I should make it clear that I joined the World Cup team aside from the obvious––giving back to the country which I’ve grown up in …. [First], to serve my friend, coach Reyes, and second, to gain more experience and growth in terms of … being part of the World Cup, seeing the World Cup, and watching all the other coaches coach, and being with these supertalented players that we had, and the players we were playing against.”

In an interview on Noli Eala’s “Power and Play” radio show, Reyes confirmed that Cone had reached out to seek his approval for the job: “I was the No. 1 person convincing him to take the job, telling everybody in the SBP (Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas), in the PBA, that the best man for the job is Tim …. I’m very glad that Tim has relented and changed his mind and accepted it. Now I think we put ourselves in a good position to really do well in the Asian Games.”

For Cone, whatever is going to happen will happen. Gilas will participate in the 16-team tournament that will run from Sept. 26 (group phase) to Oct. 6 (medal round). Gilas is set to play Bahrain first on Sept. 26, then Thailand on the 28th and finally Jordan on the 29th.

Gilas, among the favorites in the Asian Games, may face champion China who is bent on defending its regional supremacy and will perhaps seek retribution for its defeat to the Philippine team in the 2023 FIBA World Cup.


Tim Cone
Despite less than ideal preparation time, Cone will not take any shortcuts in training.

At the practice session, Cone expressed satisfaction with the Gilas lineup: FIBA World Cup veterans June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar and Roger Pogoy, now reinforced by naturalized Filipino Justin Brownlee, Calvin Abueva and Terrence Romeo, Jason Perkins, and both Calvin Oftana and Chris Newsome, who were cut from the last edition of the squad. Not present that afternoon but will be in the lineup are Scottie Thompson, Mo Tautuaa, Ange Kouame and Stanley Pringle, who continues practicing with the squad despite his role as an alternate (13th man).

Cone said this lineup could swing into different positions to be able to deal with the big and powerful Middle Eastern teams and with China and at the same time handle the quicker and faster lineups of Korea and Japan.

He particularly remembered 1998 when the coaching staff was preparing the Centennial Team to face China, believing that by designing a team that could take the regional powerhouse, the gold would come easily. It was a mistake, he acknowledged. While they did beat Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during the elimination round, and the United Arab Emirates and Thailand in the quarterfinals, the team neglected to prepare against Korea’s smaller but quicker lineup.

The Centennial Team was routed by Korea, 83-103, in the quarterfinals, which put them on an early collision course with China in the semifinals. They lost by seven points––73-82––dropping the Philippines to the bronze-medal game with Kazakhstan.

It was the last time the Philippines took home a medal in men’s basketball at the Asian Games.

But Cone is aiming to break the chain of misfortunes in international games this year. “[With a few days more of practice] I think we’re going to be where we want to be,” he said.

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