Before getting to the challenge of learning the famed triangle offense, coach Tim Cone had to deal with getting actual game film of Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls first -- which, given the technology in the early '90s, was a pretty tricky exercise.
"We tried to steal the video from Clark Air Base. You remember the Armed Forces Network? I don't know if you guys remember that," he said on An Eternity of Basketball with ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna, Sid Ventura and Noel Zarate.
"We couldn't get it locally unless you put up a big antenna on the top of your house. I lived on a building at that time in Roxas Boulevard and we used to go to the top and put this huge antenna up there, and we'd get this grainy picture of Clark Air Base TV," he continued. "They would show the Bulls, they would show the NBA game of the week and whatever that time. So I would put them on Betamax. Not VHS, but Betamax. And then I would fast forward and rewind. And that's how I figured out how to learn the triangle."
His unorthodox way of trying to learn the offense, innovated by the late Tex Winter, eventually bore fruit to an exceptional career that would yield him 22 titles so far, the most in PBA history to date -- though Cone said only 18 of those were won with the triangle's "pure" version.
"I ran it in the pure text form from basically 1992 to 1993. Maybe it would be in the purest form in 1993 to 2016. So basically, we ran it for 23 years, and we won 18 championships running the triangle well," he said.
"If you're not running Tex Winter's triangle, then you are not running the triangle. I'm going to make that clear. You have to be running Tex's triangle to be running the triangle. So we did that purely for that length of time and won 18 championships," he added.
In recent years and due to the newfound emphasis on pace and space in today's game, Cone said he has veered a little more out of the offense's strict rules.
"The last four years," Cone said, "we have moved away from the pure triangle and tried to create an offense with triangle principles. We did that a lot because of personnel and just because the game was kind of evolving and we wanted to try to catch up to the game in terms of tempo and three-point shooting and things of that sort. So we kind of went away from the triangle, starting in 2016 to 2017. We went back and forth for a little bit, but now we've settled into what we're doing now."
The change has spawned four more titles since, but the results from more than two decades of going by the book remain unassailable.
"Between maybe 1994 to 2016, I really can't say that I had any doubts of whether I should be running the triangle. I had so much success with it," he said. "It's a versatile offense. You can do a lot of different things with it. And we did it in a versatile way, depending on what kind of import we had and such, but generally we always play the triangle, and it was just a matter of trying to get buy-in for the players."
Why the triangle isn't as popular today
Despite the roaring success of the triangle with Jackson -- who netted 11 titles as a coach with the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers -- and in the US college circuit, its complexity and the tedious process of learning the ins and outs has often deterred coaches and players alike from trying their hand at the offense.
"I think there's a lot of theories out there, but I think number one, it's counterintuitive to what most offenses are like. In other words, it takes a lot of breaking down of players and building them back up for them to really get a feel for it," explained Cone. "It's a lengthy process, it doesn't happen right away... I just think that it also takes an enormous amount of patience and enormous amount of repetitions over and over and over again."
Naturally, these repetitions would take time -- a precious resource not often afforded to most coaches who have to deal with the ever-present dynamic of a "hot seat."
Cone even rattled off some examples of the triangle costing some jobs over the years. There was the late Cotton Fitzsimmons, who resigned from his post with the Phoenix Suns just eight games into the 1996-97 season. A year later, Jim Cleamons was fired by the Dallas Mavericks, who went 24-58 with him in the prior season, after the team lost 12 of their first 16 games. Kurt Rambis (32-132 with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009 to 2011) and Derek Fisher, the latter who was hired by Jackson during his tenure as the New York Knicks' team president, are also more recent cases.
"It's been known as a coach killer because a lot of coaches have tried it," Cone remarked. "And it's one of those offenses where you'll get to a certain level, and you kind of won't know where to go from there. So you get stuck for a moment. And it won't work for you, because you get stuck. And then you'll revert back to what you did or what's comfortable for you, so you kind of go away from it. So you go back to your comfort zone a little bit, then maybe you think, 'Oh, I'll go back to the triangle.' But then you end up going back to the basic level again. You never jumped to the higher levels."
"I just think coaches don't have the backing behind them to be able to jump to that next level like I told you," he added.
Cone might have even found himself alongside those infamous examples if Alaska team owner Fred Uytengsu didn't give him a longer leash during his own struggles with the triangle.
"I almost got fired in '93 because I was trying to run the triangle, and Mr. Fred Uytengsu didn't want me to run it, because he told me at the time, 'You shouldn't be running this thing, you know. It's not working for you. You're a better coach than that,'" shared Cone. "But we stuck with it and we persevered and just after he said that, we started to win and we started proving to him that we could win.
"But if he hadn't had that patience, if he hadn't stuck with me through that time, then I never would have gotten to the level that we did with the triangle. And I think that is really the problem."
While Cone eventually figured his way out of possible unemployment in the '90s, he issued a light warning to coaches who might try to install the triangle -- or any other offensive or defensive system -- without fully comprehending it themselves.
"I have one really important word of advice: do not teach what you do not know. I was teaching the triangle, and I didn't know it, and I was trying to learn it myself, and I had no idea," said the coach. "And I was trying to do it through '92 and '93, and basically almost got fired at '93 because we were so bad trying to run that triangle. But we persevered and we figured it out, and then we started getting something out of it in '94, '95 and of course in '96 (in the first Grand Slam)."
1996 Grand Slam team was "process-oriented"
Cone and the Milkmen admittedly battled doubt and often questioned the feasibility of the triangle in terms of success before eventually buying in on the offense completely.
"Obviously there was a lot of doubt when we weren't being successful with it. And like I said earlier, when you're not successful, you kind of revert back to comfort zones. And so I went back to stuff that I've written down in the past. But that just made it worse, because you were like the jack of all trades, master of nothing. You would kind of do a little bit of triangle, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and that never, ever worked," he admitted.
Once they got rid of the growing pains and decided to stick with the triangle for better or for worse, growth followed closely and the system felt like second nature.
"When we fully committed to it, that's when we started to get better and got to that point of '96 and into '98," he said. "It was just like we were starting to complete ourselves."
Under the triangle, players became innovative. As defenses scrambled to deny certain advantages, Cone's wards resorted to developing their own counters on the fly and keeping them for later use. Necessity was the mother of invention, and the Milkmen took it to heart until they hit their stride.
"Another thing about the triangle is that the triangle gets better. The more you run it, the longer you run it, the more understanding you have of it. And it kind of evolves, it moves on itself," Cone described. "It's like if someone does something defensively to stop what you normally do, the offense would naturally counter into something else. So if they're trying to stop you from getting to that pinch action, you would counter and go somewhere else -- a natural counter.
"And then you take that natural counter, and you put it in your pocket, and you leave it in your pocket. And then you do something else... so after a while, you put all these things in your pocket, and you bring them out when you need them and the offense would build, and build, and build, and build on itself."
After gaining some momentum in the 1995 Governors' Cup, where the team got over the hump of losing in the finals in the first two conferences to win the season-ending title, the well-oiled Alaska machine would then record a banner year in 1996.
"We had a really good feel for ourselves, I think. The key was winning the All-Filipino (Conference). It's always the key. And when we won the All-Filipino, I just felt that we started to feel like we could do something special. We didn't really talk about it, but we felt that we could do something special," he said
Completing a Grand Slam will always remain a Herculean feat, but looking back, Cone said that special 1996 crew led by Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, and Bong Hawkins already had the potential to do something special even before they set their sights on the Triple Crown.
"That team was so process-oriented and played in a moment. They didn't really look beyond what they were doing, and that's what made them so good," he raved.
"I think it's a surprise anytime you win the Grand Slam. But I felt that if anybody could do it, this team could because of their continuity and their togetherness. It was really a team of [camaraderie]. They were really special that way. I mean, they went out after every game and hung out. I've never had a team that hung out like those guys did. And that was fostered by the organization and culture, which was learned and decided by Uytengsu."
Triangle "can be done with anybody"
Cone dispelled the notion that the triangle needs specific players that would fit its system and pointed to the history of teams under Winter in college and Jackson in the NBA as proof of the offense's versatility.
"It can be done with anybody," he explained. "In college, (Tex) ran his through his point guard. He had a really, really good point guard at Kansas State. Look at the Bulls. They ran it through Michael (Jordan) and Scottie (Pippen), and then they changed the team around and they still ran it through Michael and Scottie. And then the Lakers, they did it through Shaq (O'Neal) at the center position and they had Lamar Odom as their 6'10 initiator in the backcourt. And then when Shaq left, they went back to running it through Kobe (Bryant) and then Pau (Gasol) and Andrew Bynum."
In a more local setting, Cone also highlighted the differences of his two Grand Slam teams in Alaska and San Mig Coffee and said the triangle, in time, worked either way.
"That's a group that we had to build," he said of his Alaska teams. "We had to build it through the draft: getting Johnny (Abarrientos) and Jeffrey (Cariaso) and through trades, getting Jojo (Lastimosa) and Bong (Hawkins), then getting Poch Juinio through the draft.
"And then going to San Mig Coffee, where, you know, we had the core already there in place and we had to teach that core from ground zero -- PJ (Simon), James (Yap), Ping (Marc Pingris). Luckily we had Joe (Devance) that helped us do that, but it was a whole new core."
Another critique of the triangle offense was that it needed a dynamic superstar guard to succeed, and while both of his Grand Slam teams were graced by the presence of players near to that caliber in Lastimosa and Yap, Cone said such criticism was a farce.
"I hear that a lot - 'Oh, you have to have a Michael Jordan' or, 'Oh, you have to have a Kobe Bryant' -- and frankly, I just think it's a big pile of doo doo," he laughed.