December 02, 2023

GUTS AND GLORY | Gilas' European camp brought lots of firsts for basketball lifer Tim Cone

Art by Royce Nicdao

Barangay Ginebra Tim Cone will go down as the greatest of all time in Philippine basketball with all the accolades and championships under his belt. However, when Gilas Pilipinas needed his help, he did not waste a single second in committing to an assistant coach position.

He knows how difficult being the head coach of the national team is as he led the 1998 Centennial Team so when the opportunity came for him to help out, it was a quick yes.

Given his experience, there are not a lot of new things basketball can throw Cone's way but this European trip with the Gilas pool would be a first for the tactician.

“Actually, this is my first time to be in Europe,” he said, “I’ve been on a cruise through Europe but it’s my first time to really stay and immerse myself in the culture. This is super exciting for me.”

The 65-year-old coach even flew his son Trevor into Tallinn, Estonia where they bonded over walks and bike rides in Old Town. He’d walk, as long as the weather permitted it, to see the sights and enjoy the food.

Most of his time, however, was focused on work. The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas sent the pool to an 18-day training camp in Europe and Cone wanted to take full advantage of it.

“In Manila, it’s like same old, same old. You don’t get that kind of intensity in terms of preparation. You come here, you know you’re representing your country, you know you’re gonna play some good teams,” he shared.

The camp was not easy at the start as the coaches did not get the intensity they wanted because the players were not ready to give it just yet.

“I think the only thing that really held back is that number one we weren’t in great shape and, number two, we were still lacking knowledge in what we wanted to do at that point. Those things have grown as we go along. I know it’s like I said, it’s been a great trip, in terms of growth and in and getting better.”

Cone has always looked for new things to learn. He did it by joining the coaching staff of the Miami Heat in the 2022 NBA Summer League. Now he’s opening himself up the experience of going up against European squads.

“What really strikes me is the fact that we get to play that European style,” Cone shared. “We have never defended their sets like they have, the actions, the multiple actions, and it is really a test of our knowledge defensively on how to defend these things. It tested our fundamentals and tested our techniques. Now there’s kind of a sense in the team that if we are fundamentally sound, if we are technique conscious, if we focus on the defensive side, we can play good defense and I think that’s the key for us.”

Defense has always been the name of the game for Cone. Even if he might be best known for the Triangle Offense, he credits a large part of his success with the details he demands from his players on the defensive end.

They say defense wins championships and, in the PBA, no one has won more than him.

“We’re going to be good offensively one way or the other but we got to remember that we are competing against great offensive teams in the World Cup so if we’re just going to compete against them on an offensive level, we will find it difficult to win. We need our defense, we need to get stops to let out offense take advantage of the skills that they have. We got to see great growth by the players individually and by the team and that was really the goal: to come here and really show growth.”

As the European camp came to its end, Cone reflected on what they accomplished.

“We were a very splintered team when we got here. A lot of guys were not in good shape because they were coming off a long break or coming from injuries like June Mar [Fajardo] and Japeth [Aguilar],” he admitted.

“It was a chore to get everybody together and everybody push in the right direction. Coach Chot is just so brilliant at doing those things, building teams, and getting them to commit to each other. It’s always been the strength of his coaching. He did such a great job and then again it’s just been a day-by-day growth that we have done from beginning to end.”

After their viewing sessions, the Gilas Pilipinas head coach will always add an activity to let the players know each other a little more. Chemistry on the court could be aided by chemistry off of it.

Reyes always said that individuals played better and played harder when they know they can trust the other four on the floor and there’s no better way to build trust than to know what each guy is playing for.

This trip featured a lot of firsts for Cone. First time in Estonia. First time in Lithuania. The past year has also been his first time to be an actual assistant coach as he entered the PBA back in 1989 as Alaska’s lead tactician.

“I’ve never really been an assistant coach before. Got a little shot at it with the Miami Heat in the Summer League. I remember they wanted me to do video and I told them I didn’t do video, it was my assistant coaches who did video. I was all panicky trying to get the video together,” he recalled with a smile.

“It’s a completely different role. Sometimes I feel like I’m not on top of things, and sometimes I feel a little excluded, but that’s just really the role of an assistant coach. As a head coach, everything comes to you. Everyone tells you what’s going on. As an assistant coach, you have to wait for the head coach to tell you what’s going on,” Cone stated.

“It is interesting in terms of a support role, in terms of a service role. I would do things that I would never do with Ginebra but it feels comfortable doing it. As an assistant, you do whatever it takes, you do whatever is given to you.”

Cone would often be with the team in shoot-around, rebounding as the players warmed up. He would sometimes hold the gym door open for the entire team to pass through. He’d remind the players of their call times and what time food was going to be served. He did anything and everything he thought was going to help.

“The best thing about this for me personally is I know what my assistants go through when they try to support me. I feel bad for those guys now and I’m going to look at them from a whole different perspective now that I know what they’re going through.”

The Gilas Pilipinas coaching staff also has Jong Uichico as an assistant coach. Between the three of them, they’ve won about 33% of all the championships in the PBA. Their many battles and also many games coached beside each other have made the chemistry between them automatic.

“There’s a certain easiness about the way we get along. There’s a lot of mutual respect among the three of us. We’ve battled each other for so many years. I’ve worked with Chot for so many years and I have great respect for Jong as a coach. I know how prepared how his teams always are. Jong truly was one of the most if not the most prepared coach I’ve ever coached against,” Cone said.

“We don’t step on each other’s toes and Chot makes it easier because he lets us take control of certain parts of the coaching and he’s not insecure in any way. He’s very confident in himself and he’s not afraid to delegate what needs to be done. As John Maxwell said, ‘If you run well but are unable to pass the baton to another runner, you lose the race’ and coach Chot has none of that. He’s not afraid to hand the reins to someone who has more knowledge in a certain aspect of the game and we saw that with coach V [Virginijus Sirvydis]. Immediately he came in and did some things that are different from us and Coach Chot said we should try it and we did. It was successful and it will be something we will continue to do in practice.”

One of the aspects of assistant coaching that Cone has really sunk his teeth into is working on the details. With the head coach handling the macro that is the ongoing game, Cone can pull players aside to work on micro and there’s one specific player who benefitted from this.

“Rhenz is the youngest guy we have and everything is quite new to him. Being the young guy, he’s kind of behind everybody in terms of knowledge. Certain guys when they come into a team that is already established, they, and I saw this carefully, become the weak link,” he explained.

“It’s not because of talent. Rhenz’s talent is off the scales. He is incredibly talented. He can shoot, he can drive, he can dunk it with ease. And he’s a great defensive player because he uses his athleticism for defense. What he’s behind in with everybody else is knowledge. He does not quite know all the fundamentals that we talk about defensively. He’ll make an execution mistake here and there because he does not have the habits yet. So it’s all about making things clear to him. So sometimes when he comes out of the game, I’ll pull him beside me and explain. Rhenz has the potential to really be a key player in this team,” Cone closed.

“That’s basically my role. Helping where I can.”