Less than five weeks after an uncertainty-filled press conference at the PBA office in Libis, Quezon City, followed by a hastily-called second one just days after, with Gilas Pilipinas coach Tim Cone present in both briefings, a third was held on Monday, October 9, but under a different circumstance — this time in the triumphant glow of an Asian Games gold medal.
Cone was not around for a curtain call, reportedly being on his way to the United States for a vacation after guiding the Philippine team to a “miraculous” finish in Hangzhou, China, and with four weeks left before the start of the 2023-2024 PBA season on November 5.
But the four-man panel of PBA officials who were with Cone, when his appointment as national team head coach was announced and when a last-minute lineup change brought him back from the Inspire Sports Academy Camp in Calamba, Laguna — PBA chairman Ricky Vargas, vice chairman Bobby Rosales, commissioner Willie Marcial and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel governor Alfrancis Chua — provided a lengthy and interesting, sometimes appalling, account of Gilas’ Asian Games journey from Day One.
Taking their turns speaking, the pro league executives recalled the difficulty in forming the team, Gilas’ pre-departure travails, the dramatic victories over Iran and China, the final game against Jordan, their accreditation woes, the shabby treatment they got from unnamed personnel assigned to the Hangzhou Asian Games Organizing Committee, their absolute respect at the “patriotism” showed by the players, and their amazement at Cone’s coaching wizardry.”
“He was a genius on the bench, a master tactician,” said Rosales, the Terrafirma representative. “He simplified the complicated (triangle offense) so all the players can adapt to his system.”
Vargas, the TNT Tropang Giga governor, opened the news conference by expressing gratitude for the moment they shared for two weeks.
“Thank you for the experience,” he said. “It was worth more than any [PBA] championship we’ve won.”
A final four appearance, Vargas said, would have sufficed, the achievement, after all, being a first for Philippine basketball in the Games in 33 years.
“But when we beat China, I said ‘let’s go all the way,’” he said. “Miracles do happen.”
Deferring much to Chua, whom he referred to as ‘man of the hour,’ Vargas said the San Miguel Corporation sports director and Gilas team manager was “in the minds of all the players and coaches all throughout.”
He then joked, “in fact, the way he was talking to [Chris] Newsome and [Calvin] Oftana, kinakabahan na nga ako kasi parang gusto na nilang lumipat sa kanya e.”
Chua basically recounted what the team, and the PBA governors, had to go through during much of their stay, including enduring long walks under the sun from the drop-off point of their bus to the venue [players], and the general admission seats allocated for them to watch the games from [governors].
“Pero dahil sa tiyaga at tulungan, pati sa pagbitbit ng mga gamit at pagkain mula sa bus, na-overcome natin lahat yon.” Chua said.
Vargas put the setup that prevailed within the national team in philosophical perspective.
“There was no hierarchy in this team, everything was done in unison,” he said. “The team led itself. A team comprised of leaders had no leaders. We were all ball boys, we were all team managers, we were all chairmen, and we were all players.”
The “great risk” the PBA faced when it took on the responsibility of forming the national team for the Asian Games wasn’t lost on them, Vargas said.
“The fear is that every loss will be a major social media crisis,” he said. “But we had two great supporters behind us all the way — one is called RSA [Ramon S. Ang, SMC president and chief executive], the other is called MVP [Manny V. Pangilinan, chairman emeritus and founding president of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas].
“Just today we spoke to the two of them and profusely thanked them. Can you imagine those two gentlemen getting together for the good of Philippine basketball?
“We also have the president of SBP Al Panlilio [president and chief executive of PLDT/Smart Communications], who guided and supported us all the way from the start, to thank for.”
Talking about the dynamics that prevailed during bus rides, inside the locker room and in team practices, Marcial, the deputy team manager, said all the pressure, boredom and anxiety were drowned by music, singing, laughter, dancing and endless banter.
“Hanggang magsimula nang magsalita si Coach Tim,” he said. “Then focus na lahat.”
The question of where the national team and Gilas program will proceed from Hangzhou was left unanswered.
“Hindi ko iniisip yon, marami namang tao ang SBP e; hindi natin kontrolado yon,” said Chua, when asked whether he is open to again become part of future Gilas teams. “Aksidente lang naman naging involvement naming apat dito so sa ngayon wala pang plano.”
Chua said even Cone won’t be able to make any such commitment.
“Ayaw na nga niya nong una pa, di ba?” Chua said. “Pinilit lang namin.”
An SBP basketball summit, bringing together all stakeholders, has been collectively proposed in order to align the federation’s program with the overall basketball calendar.
“Kailangan mag-usap muna sila sa SBP,” said Marcial. “Tapos kakausapin ko PBA governors para mai-present naman ung programa ng SBP.”