Tim Cone and the art of winning

Having beaten Barangay Ginebra to win his first PBA title, Tim Cone has now led them three of the past four league championships. PBA Media Bureau

On the wall of Tim Cone's private den is a mounted copy of a SportsWeekly Magazine issue from December 1991. On the cover are the faces of a 34-year-old Cone and a 45-year-old Robert Jaworski. The cover story is about the upcoming best-of-five PBA Third Conference championship series between Alaska and Ginebra.

Cone chose to frame this particular cover photo because it represents the first-ever PBA title he won as a coach, as the Milkmen went on to top the Ginebras, 3-1, in the finals.

"That's my first championship," Cone recalled. "I was a young man back then, and so was the Big J (Jaworski). So we were squaring off. That's right before the final started, and I was trying to get my first one. And that's when I had Sean Chambers and the Big J had Wes Matthews as an import."

Nowadays, that photo serves another purpose. Cone is now coaching the very franchise he vanquished to win his first PBA title, and he's led them to three of the past four league championships. That montage of him and Jaworski, the original Ginebra icon, is there to remind him of the big responsibility he now bears as the coach of the most popular PBA franchise ever.

"You have that legacy of the organization through Sonny Jaworski, and that keeps you pushing and moving because it's a tough legacy to follow. It's something we have to try to live up to all the time because of the huge fan base. They want us to achieve and keep going. So we always have that uppermost in our minds."

To say that Cone and his team have lived up to their fans' expectations is like saying that LA Tenorio is an okay, serviceable point guard. The franchise has won six titles since Cone moved over from San Mig Coffee in 2015, keeping the legacy alive and the demanding fandom happy.

Those six titles has bumped up Cone's personal haul to a staggering 24, nine more than the man in second place, the legendary Baby Dalupan. He is the only coach to win Grand Slams with two different teams. Every stop he's made -- Alaska, B-Meg/San Mig Coffee, Ginebra -- he's won at least five titles. He is, unquestionably, the best and most successful PBA coach of all time.

Cone's den is full of photos, trophies and other memorabilia that celebrate the most meaningful accomplishments of a career that began in 1989. Next to the Alaska-Ginebra magazine cover is a courtside shot of the Ginebra bench during Game 7 of the 2017 Governors' Cup Finals played before over 54,000 fans.

He picks up his cellphone -- we are talking over Zoom -- and gives me a quick scan of the room to show what else is on display in his personal Hall of Fame. Among the images is one showing him with his good friend, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, and another of him posing with the three other PBA coaches who have won a Grand Slam - Dalupan, Tommy Manotoc and Norman Black.

I ask him if there's a framed photo for each of his 24 PBA titles. He laughs as he answers. "We wouldn't have enough room on the walls if I had if I put up all of them. We just have some select ones."

Anything else he wants to hang on those walls?

"You know, I always get that question. 'Is there anything else you can do?' Well, yeah, you can keep winning the next one, you just keep going. You don't count them, you don't think about them. And I enjoy what I do. I enjoy being around the guys, I enjoy the teaching aspect of the game. And the last 32 years, I don't think I've worked a day in my life. This is not work to me. I really don't focus on the goals or the number or whatever. Just get the next one."

What about giving Ginebra what he also gave Alaska and San Mig Coffee?

"We don't think about [a Grand Slam]. First of all, we won actually three of the last four championships. If you think about it, we won the Governors' Cup, and then the bubble, and then we lost in the (2021) bubble. And then we won the Governors' Cup again. So we won three of the last four, which is phenomenal in our minds.

"Winning a Grand Slam is just way out there. I mean, first of all, we've already had the season end. So now it has to start with one. So you don't even think about three until you start with one. So really, the Grand Slam is not something we focus on. It never has been even back in the days with Alaska and San Mig Coffee. We didn't talk or think about winning a Grand Slam. It just happens. You just get that opportunity. And hopefully you get a chance to seize it. Because there's a lot of teams that win two but can't win three. And so that's what makes the Grand Slam so special."

Cone rarely sets broad goals for himself or his team. Like other masters of their craft who have reached a new level of enlightenment, it's in the journey where he gets his fulfillment.

"I'm not a person who deals with goals. Actually, I don't focus on goals. I'm a big John Maxwell guy. So John Maxwell talks about growth versus goals. I just want to have personal growth and team growth. And that's what we really focus on."

To this end, Cone has taken immense joy in watching Scottie Thompson blossom into a superstar right before his very eyes.

"It's so much fun to be around a guy like Scottie and watch his game develop, and being a small part of that. These guys are the guys that put in the work, and all you do it just basically given them the opportunity.

"Being around that, and having all that fun I've had with LA over the years, and of course, Joe DeVance. It's really about the players and watching them get better and grow."

It's been only eight days since Ginebra beat Meralco to win the Governors' Cup, and the compressed 2022 PBA calendar means that the team will only have a six-week off-season before the next season unfurls on June 5 with the opening of the Philippine Cup. The Gin Kings have talked about the importance of winning this next one. They won this conference in 2020, but did so in the Clark bubble with no fans in attendance. Not that the bubble title was a fluke, since it presented its own set of challenges, but there's just something about winning it all in front of 20,000 screaming fans.

"The bubble championship was very surreal, because there were no fans," Cone said. "You know, I remember after we won, we were looking at each other and saying, 'Well, what now?' There was nobody to talk to and it was like, 'Okay, let's go back to the hotel.' It was a great feat to win that first bubble. It was so new. No one had ever done anything like that. And to be able to overcome all the little things that happened to you during the bubble. Also, it really felt like a huge accomplishment.

"Still, we didn't get to do it in front of our fans. And again, like I said earlier, this is all about the players, and it's all about the fans. And so you know, the players got the thrill. But we weren't able to give that thrill to the fans. So that's where we are now. And that's what we'd like to do, we'd like to be able to win in front of the Ginebra fans. There's nothing like it.

"It's such a great moment. You walk the streets, anywhere you go, people are talking and congratulating you, it lasts a long time afterwards. It's an absolute thrill winning in front of Ginebra fans. So that's certainly going to be our goal coming up to this one."

For now, the team is on vacation mode, and Cone won't get them back together for practice until around three weeks before opening day or immediately after the rookie draft on May 15, where the Gin Kings have the eighth pick. In contrast, other teams started practicing two weeks ago. It's a big reason why it's so difficult to win consecutive titles in the PBA, let alone a Grand Slam.

"After you win a championship, it's hard to get that engine going in the early part of the next conference. You oftentimes get off to a slow start. But I'm going to give the guys the maximum time off to try to get them away from the game and not think about the game too much, trying to get their bodies rested in the right place."

Once everyone has recharged, Cone will begin preparing to coach in his record 86th PBA conference. He'll likely welcome at least one rookie to the team while slowly coaxing his aging veterans to get back into game shape. They must be ready for the long grind ahead. If all goes well, another picture frame could soon be hanging from Tim Cone's den.