Greatest of all: Tim Cone
To fully grasp Tim Cone’s greatness, one has to start at how he shrugs off the label. It has never been about him, he will say. He dismissed credit when he won his first title in the Philippine Basketball Association. He did the same thing again Wednesday night—repeatedly—eighteen championships later.
“Sometimes players overcome bad coaching,” Cone said. “I wasn’t a great coach tonight.”
The deadpan tone that contrasted the celebration that refused to die down on the Big Dome floor was all too familiar. As truthful as he sounded, his latest conquest begs a revisiting of that self-deprecating nonchalance.
To fully understand Cone’s greatness is to understand the latest team he steered to glory: For eight years, Barangay Ginebra had so horribly underperformed, it validated a vegetables role as an idiom for mediocrity. The Kings were so dysfunctional, so far off from a title conquest, critics created a mythical crown supposedly contested in the beaches of Boracay—which became, in basketball parlance, a paradise for early PBA vacationers.
Laying the groundwork
Justin Brownlee may have changed all that with one shot, but it was Cone who patiently lay the groundwork for the Ginebra turnaround, willingly ditching his pet Triangle Offense to fit the teams makeup.
But there he was, passing off credit, devaluing himself so much, he was practically apologizing for the 91-88 victory over the Meralco Bolts that gave the Kings the Governors’ Cup.
“In that situation, you feel really bad walking to the other side of the court and shaking the hand of the other coach because there’s just nothing he could have done about that,” he said. “They (Bolts) played it perfectly. They denied (Brownlee), they got the ball far, you know, just a great shot, nothing he could have done and you feel a little bad.
“It’s not like, I beat you. I just got lucky.”
Nineteen championships, three different teams and two Grand Slams wedged amid all that say otherwise.
The person next to him in the PBA’s list of accomplished coaches is the late great Baby Dalupan with 15. Among the active coaches, Norman Black, the Meralco coach who Cone felt badly for, has 11. Chasing Cone looks impossible.
Cone has never felt—based on how he has talked all these years—he deserves credit for any of the titles he has won in his 26-odd seasons in the league.
But how does one explain him winning despite being forced to hire a new import just a game into the Governors’ Cup eliminations, and making that man jell with players that practiced with a different reinforcement almost a full month before opening day?
Or how did Barangay Ginebra’s horde of loyalists keep expecting something good to happen when its franchise player, the 7-foot Greg Slaughter, saw action in just one game in the conference?
More unexpected was how the Gin Kings defanged loaded San Miguel Beer in the Final Four, where they gave up a tremendous amount in size and athletic ability considering that Ginebra has one of the oldest cores in the league, and that the Beermen were flaunting the most dominant big man the PBA has seen in decades with a back-up crew that could pass as an All-Star team.
Only Cone can weave magic the way he does, and you can admire him much more as he attributes all of his successes to the guys who do all the playing on the floor.
Cone has all the explanations why the Gin Kings snapped an eight-year championship wait on Wednesday night. He began with Brownlee.
“He just made a great shot,” he said. “I got some great players.”
Two of those were former MVPs, 40-year-old Jay-Jay Helterbrand and 36-year-old Mark Caguioa.
“Mark and Jay saved the whole series for us,” he said. “I shouldn’t be doing this interview with you (media) guys. They should be the ones up here. They played with so much desire and hunger.
“I wanted to win it for Mark and Jay because they were so hungry to win,” he went on. “They were amazing. At a time when they (rest of the team) were ready to give up, they (Caguioa and Helterbrand) absolutely did not allow us to do so.”
Scottie Thompson also emerged as a superstar-in-the-making in the conference as the Ginebra coach made him a match-up problem and exploited his all-around skills to the hilt.
Heck, Cone—because of the meager resources that he had—was even able to play unheralded former Santo Tomas star Aljon Mariano, the undersized Jervy Cruz and Dave Marcelo as he maximized his bench and didn’t depend on his superstars the whole time like so many other coaches do.
Ginebra has tried a number of coaches throughout the years, all in an effort to snap a titleless spell that dates back to the 2008 Commissioner’s Cup. Despite tremendous crowd and management backing, all of them failed.
And as the season closes, we are left to ponder Cone’s place in the pantheon of coaches.
With arguably the strongest lineup at his disposal, Leo Austria won the Philippine Cup for the Beermen after coming back from 0-3 down against Alaska
Yeng Guiao had the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters hoisting the Commissioner’s Cup despite having the lowest-scoring import to ever win a championship in the league in Pierre Henderson-Niles, who averaged less than 10 points and outing.
And then there’s Ginebra. And as much as Cone begs to distance himself from the label that’s on everyone’s mind’s, he may no longer be able to talk his way out of his rightful throne. With a report from Mark Giongco
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