At Asian Games, Tim Cone gets a second chance at winning gold

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Tim Cone was playing golf with Austin Reaves and some other Team USA players last Monday when his cellphone rang just as he was about to make a putt. It was San Miguel Corporation sports director Alfrancis Chua.

If you know Cone, then you'll know he doesn't like it when you interrupt his golf game, so he let his phone ring. But Chua was relentless.

"I was playing nine holes," Cone said Thursday at a news conference announcing his appointment. "And literally, about ready to putt, rrrring! Again, on the next shot, ready to hit, rrrring! He was literally calling me every six minutes for like three hours."

Chua had a reason for the non-stop calls. He needed to ask Cone if he was willing to coach Gilas Pilipinas at the Hangzhou Asian Games that's scheduled to open on Sept. 23. Cone, the most successful coach in the history of the PBA and one of the most competitive individuals you'll ever meet, said yes.

The job became vacant after Chot Reyes decided he had had enough after Gilas' FIBA World Cup stint. At the time, Cone himself said he would also leave the Gilas coaching staff if Reyes left.

In fact, he was so sure it would be someone else that he was making light of the situation shortly after Reyes' announcement.

"We were making jokes after the China game, after we beat China," he recalled. "We were sitting around the locker room saying, 'Woe to the next coach that has to go to the Asian Games and has to play China after we beat their butts here in Manila.' And then it turns out to be me."

The Centennial Team

Cone was the most logical choice, given both his pedigree and familiarity with the core of the team that the SBP is planning to send. But he also has a personal reason for taking on the job.

"I did this once before in 1998. And I think I sat at this same table in 1998, and there was like five press guys and maybe one camera. It's amazing how things have grown since that time," he said, referring to lobby of the PBA head office that was packed with reporters.

"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."

In 1998, the Philippines was celebrating its centennial as an independent nation. That same year, the Asian Games were to be held in Bangkok, Thailand. Eight years earlier, the Philippines had paraded its first all-professional men's basketball team to the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. It was a seminal moment in Philippine basketball history: For the first time the PBA's top superstars were going to face off against the best national teams from Asia. It was widely regarded as the first-ever basketball team composed solely of professional players to play in an international tournament since open basketball was approved by FIBA the year before.

Despite having just three weeks of practice time, the Philippines' own Dream Team managed to bring home a silver medal. But four years later at the Hiroshima Asian Games, a team composed mainly of players from San Miguel Beer and Purefoods finished a disappointing fourth.

The 1998 "Centennial Team" was composed of five former PBA MVPs and three former Rookies of the Year. It was, on paper, perhaps one of the strongest national teams ever assembled that didn't have a naturalized player and their goal was gold.

Tim Cone, whose Alaska Milkmen had won six of the previous ten PBA titles, was named coach and his lead assistant was Reyes. The Centennial Team went on a three-month trip to the US to train and scrimmage against top collegiate teams.

They had their sights set on China, the defending champion and regional powerhouse. The coaching staff's reasoning was, beat China and we get the gold. Twenty-five years later, Cone acknowledges that was a mistake.

"When I was coaching for the Asian Games in 1998, I really felt that we had to beat China," Cone said. "... One problem only: We forgot about Korea. And Korea came out with a smaller lineup, quicker lineup and then beat us. That's something we don't want to repeat.

"So we're gonna need a big, powerful team to match up with the Middle East and China, and we're gonna need a quicker, faster team to match up with Japan and Korea. And that's the idea. I don't want to fall into that trap again of focusing on one team."

The Centennial Team was routed by Korea by 20 in the quarterfinals, which put them on an early collision course with China in the semifinals. They lost by seven, dropping them to the bronze medal game.

They slipped past Kazakhstan to salvage the bronze, marking the last time the Philippines medaled in men's basketball at the Asian Games. The entire experience weighed heavily on Cone.

"I always told my family that the only time I ever broke down and really had tears is during the Asian Games after we beat Kazakhstan and we didn't win the gold," Cone said. "It was that realization that I let everybody down that we didn't win the gold and with the relief that it was all over, I really broke down. I've never done that with Alaska or Purefoods or Ginebra. Never, ever broke down before.

Another chance

Twenty-five years later, Cone has been given a second crack at an Asian Games gold. But unlike the Centennial Team and much like the 1990 team, he has very little time to prepare. They don't start practice until Monday, but Cone knows what they'll work on.

"We're gonna be focused on my style, our Ginebra style," Cone said. "We're gonna be focused on ball movement. Make sure the ball moves. That's gonna be really crucial for us. And we're going to be very defensive-oriented. I think that's gonna be our edge in the Asian Games.

A self-confessed sore loser, Cone is banking on both his coaching savvy and competitive juices to get the job done this time.

"I don't take losing well," Cone said. "I think that's why I try to win so hard. I just hate losing. It's gonna be hard, I know that. And I know I'm not always gonna be the universal choice of everybody.

"If we're playing the way we want to play, there's nobody we can't beat. We're not obviously gonna go out there and guarantee a gold, but we have a chance. We're gonna fight for that gold."