Alab + Puso
There’s a whiteboard in the gym that neatly lists the team’s task for the day. Below the date, there’s an outline that starts with a warm up and goes down to the drills and different plays—pinky, zipper side, shirt.
It’s a detailed to-do list crafted by a leader so meticulous but at the same time creative.
“I’m definitely very detailed, but at the same time, I want to give these guys the freedom to play,” says Jimmy Alapag, the new coach of Tanduay Alab Pilipinas. “I want them to play to their strengths.”
“I feel like the best basketball players are focused and disciplined, but there’s also the freedom to let them do what they do best,” he adds. “That’s what I encourage the guys [to] just play and do what [they] feel will make our team successful. I don’t want to give any limitations to what they can do.”
For some, it might take some getting used to seeing Alapag orchestrating plays from the sidelines instead of the hardcourt where his leadership, on-court vision and incredible will to win made him a Philippine basketball legend.
But his new role as head coach of the country’s lone representative in the Asean Basketball League (ABL) has opened another set of challenges.
“For so long, you’re playing on the court and you’re trying to make the big shots, you’re trying to give the correct assists. Now, being on the sideline, the focus is how can I put the team in the best position possible to be successful,” says the six-time PBA champion.
“It’s almost like you’re back in school. You study how you can help the team, study your next opponent. But I don’t think there’s anything I didn’t expect. I think just in terms of planning, a lot of time goes into it.”
But then, there’s a bit of worry: Remember when they said great athletes make horrible coaches?
No basketball-loving Pinoy fan, for sure, wants that to happen to Alapag. Not to this smallest guy with the biggest heart who unleashed dagger triples against long-time nemesis South Korea. Not to this captain who personified the Gilas Pilipinas team chant puso (heart) when he carried the country to its first World Cup victory in 40 years.
Alapag, though, knows the perils of coaching. He’s not too nervous, he says, since he tries to equip himself as much as he can.
“It’s about the same as playing, or maybe a little harder just because your perspective of the game is much broader when you’re a coach,” says the 39-year-old Alapag. “You’re not on the court so you’re able to see what’s happening. And you have to do your best to break it all down and teach it to the team.”
So maybe Alapag does know better, never mind the horror coaching stories. And perhaps, as some would think, isn’t there a Phil Jackson for every Magic Johnson?
“It depends on the person, the player’s transition to coaching,” Alapag points out. “My approach going to this first head coaching job is leaning on the coaches that I played for, especially coach Chot (Reyes) and coach Norman (Black).”
“A lot of my coaching influence is between the two of them—just picking their brains, their knowledge of the game,” he says. “I just feel very fortunate that in the last 14 years of my playing career, I’ve been able to be near them, learn from them and win with them. Hopefully, I can apply their advice this coming season.”
As much as he has picked up pointers from Reyes, his coach in Gilas Pilipinas and Talk ’N Text, and Black, his mentor in Meralco, Alapag has also put in a lot of himself in formulating his own Xs and Os.
“I’ve learned from them, and at the same time, I’m going by my experience—what made the teams I played for successful in terms of culture, environment. And of course, just working hard. Throughout my career that was really something I held on to very strongly—my work ethic,” says the former PBA Most Valuable Player.
Alapag thinks how he is as a coach is pretty much how he was as a player—the kind that drops by early in the gym and stays late “to sustain that edge.”
“Every year there are new players always wanting to prove themselves. And as you get older, you want to keep that edge. And the only way to do that is to continue putting in the work, continue to be consistent with your work ethic. I want to apply that same thing in terms of coaching,” he says. “But now, instead of doing the shooting, the ball handling, it’s now watching videos, now it’s studying. Again, it’s like I’m back in school, learning.”
And Alapag can get meticulous in learning. His passion for perfecting that stroke from beyond the arc—which, by the way, led to a PBA record for most number of career three-point shots made—runs similar to his current passion of wanting all coaching bases covered.
Clearly, it’s one reason he tapped another PBA great, Danny Seigle, as one of his deputies.
A different perspective
“He’s one of the best players who ever played in the PBA. His basketball mind is very, very helpful to me,” says Alapag. “He’s another set of eyes. He might see something that I don’t, especially because he was a big guy in his career and I was never really much down there in the post in my career. It’s just a different perspective.”
Alapag also doesn’t mind having around Mac Cuan, last year’s coach who slid down as assistant after steering Alab to a third-place finish.
“His experience with the team last year is so important because this is my first time,” he says. “I’m leaning on him a lot in terms of his experience with the team.”
Alapag, too, wants his relationship with his players—from young guns like Ray Parks to veterans like Dondon Hontiveros—to be just as smooth.
“I want to establish relationships with these guys so that it’s not just a player-coach,” says Alapag. “I really want it to be a family environment. When you can create that environment, and then there are tough times later on, you can get through it. Just like any family that deals with hardship or any struggle.”
As the day’s practice wraps up, Alapag notes it’s all about fine-tuning, now that it’s only a week away before Alab opens its campaign versus Hong Kong Eastern.
“Anytime you get an opportunity to play the defending champion on opening night, it’s going to be a challenge,” he says. “It will give us a great barometer of where we are as a team. Whatever happens, it’s a long season.”
Definitely, there’s still time for Alapag to learn. But hopefully, it won’t take long for him to start listing those wins.
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