You couldn’t have written a better ending: Ginebra’s journey back to the top

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If there is such thing as basketball nirvana, the climactic finish to the thrilling 2016 Governors’ Cup Finals series between Barangay Ginebra and Meralco probably attained it.

Behind a gigantic three-pointer from import Justin Brownlee, the Barangay Ginebra Kings won game six of the 2016 PBA Governors’ Cup Finals, 91-88, and the series 4-2, ending an eight-year championship drought in the league. Gone are years of agony, settling for less despite stacked rosters, and plenty of punchlines, puns, and memes.

That storybook finish is now the latest chapter in the sage of the most popular, most loved team in Philippine basketball.

Adding to the drama was that it happened in the presence of PBA all-time great Robert Jaworski, the living legend chiefly responsible for instilling that “Never Say Die” attitude in the minds of Ginebra fans, after 14 years with the franchise.

“One of the most fantastic things in my career was having Sonny Jaworski coming in the locker room at halftime and inspiring all the guys,” Cone shared.

“I think that’s why we all came out fired up in the second half. I was all angry and ticked off, but he came in calm and talked to the players about not being competitive, and playing hard, and we came out fired up in the second half.”

On paper, Ginebra’s title makes a lot of sense. A beefy roster with a good mix of youth and experience, a multi-titled mentor at the helm, and a fantastic import should get you a championship. But if that was the case, they should have won plenty of titles in the years prior.

Instead, since Cone was appointed as coach of this team a little over a year ago, there was a process that the team had to go through, one that included adversity, and shortcomings for the team to overcome.

Here are some of the threads that led to Ginebra’s dramatic return to the top:

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1. The unlikely selection of Scottie Thompson

Ginebra had the fifth pick in the 2015 PBA Draft. With Moala Tautuaa, Troy Rosario, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Chris Newsome going off the board first, there were still a lot of big names that the team could have gone with, including Norbert Torres, Baser Amer, and Garvo Lanete.

Cone recalled that “nine times out of 10,” he would have selected the 6’6” Torres, because he is fond of handling big men, as seen in his stint with the SMC Mixers.

But one name also drew the interest of the tactician: Perpetual Help combo guard Scottie Thompson, whom Cone always thought had something special in him.

The team finally handed the piece of paper to Commissioner Chito Narvasa. And when Thompson’s name was announced, people inside Robinsons Place Manila began to make noise.

“Yun pa lang, nung narinig ko, na-boost talaga confidence ko. Pinapakita ko lang anong ine-expect nila sa akin. So far, maganda naman,” Thompson said.

The Altas product grew up a fan of Ginebra, idolizing the team’s veteran guards Jayjay Helterbrand and Mark Caguioa. Getting drafted by his favorite team was like a dream come true.

“There is no doubt he is a special player,” Cone said of Thompson during the Philippine Cup. “But he is a rookie, he is young, he is going to have great nights, and average nights, and we are going to pick the nights where he plays great.”

Cone had initially said the rookie wouldn’t be playing big minutes right away, but Thompson’s talent turned out to be a key component to the team’s success.

Initially backing up LA Tenorio and Sol Mercado, Thompson became a regular rotation player and not long after, a starter on a team contending for a championship.

“Consistency comes with time,” Cone added.

Thompson averaged 28.1 minutes per game in the Governors’ Cup. He normed 6.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, and 4.0 APG, playing a crucial role for the team, especially in the semifinals clincher against San Miguel.

Feeling at home, the 23-year-old rookie hopes to retire as a Gin King.

“Hindi naman natin alam ano mangyayari sa career natin. Ako, trabaho lang. Pinapangako ko lang sa kanila na sana, dito na rin ako magreretiro at maglalaro talaga ako para sa fans.”

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2. Winning some, losing some, and developing a culture

The early part of Cone’s tenure this season involved trying to reach certain benchmarks. Cone knew Ginebra had to match the level of the more established squads if they wanted to be in the conversation as a serious contender. Two notable games served as barometers for them.

Ginebra absorbed an eight-point defeat against Rain or Shine in the Philippine Cup, and Cone quickly admitted they were not yet a top-tier squad at that point.

“It’s obvious, you can see it, they are a tighter team than we are. They understand what they want to get done, and we’re not there yet. It’s still early for us. We are trying to get better, and hopefully, we will,” Cone said in November 2015.

But of course, Ginebra accepted those punches and became a better group. In the Commissioner’s Cup, the Kings sent out a statement after manhandling the San Miguel Beermen by 26 points in an elimination round meeting.

Months removed from the setback to Rain or Shine, Cone’s views about his team had changed, though he also noted the team still needed consistency.

“We are capable. That [win] just proves we can really do something, and that’s key,” Cone said last April.

“There’s progress, but we are not yet at the level of San Miguel [or other contenders]. We still got long ways to go. That’s been us. We’ve been inconsistent. It’s truly consistency that defines a great team. And we are still in search of consistency.”

Still, progress was evident. It was also obvious the team was beginning to develop a winning culture from within. They were supporting each other, picking each other up, a key quality of a championship team.

“It’s hard to look back because it is a day-to-day process. Sometimes you focus on this guy, sometimes you focus on that guy. This guy needs a little bit more attention. But ultimately, you start to build a culture. And there was a culture of togetherness built here,” Cone said.

“We don’t believe in competing against each other. We challenge each other but we don’t compete. We don’t want winners and losers on our team, so they bought into that. Instead of being me, me, me, it was, I am going out to support this guy, and I am not going to care if this guy overshadows me, I will be there to have his back. Some of the things we teach is just having each other’s backs all the time.”

And in the title-clincher last Wednesday, Cone reminded his team of that. In the final minute of the fourth quarter, Japeth Aguilar committed a crucial turnover which led to two free throws for Cliff Hodge in transition. Tenorio eventually exploded on Aguilar during the Ginebra timeout, but Cone stopped him.

“Instead of coming in and talked about what we were going to do, I just came in and chewed out LA. I said you can’t do that to your teammate. You just can’t do that. I don’t care what the situation is, I don’t care how intense it is, you can’t do that,” Cone shared.

“And LA being the leader, he is going to get to some guys. I just felt that was the wrong time, and we are not going to go with that. But he is a acknowledged leader in our basketball team. He does have that right in some ways but still, we want to encourage and not discourage.”

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3. Bringing out the best in Japeth Aguilar

Throughout his entire career, Aguilar has been the subject of scrutiny. Most of it stems from the fact that Aguilar is 6’9” and gifted with out-of-this-world athleticism which he sometimes fails to capitalize on.

Ever since Aguilar was first introduced to the consciousness of local hoops fans, much has been expected of him. And sometimes, those expectations were too much.

Despite adding more and more to his game as the years have gone by, many fans still felt like the multiple-time Gilas Pilipinas member was underperforming. They felt that he had more to show.

Under Cone, Aguilar blossomed into a more complete player. He averaged 30.4 minutes per game, the second most in his six-year PBA career. He also averaged a career-best 13.7 PPG, while shooting close to 50 percent from the field.

Most of Aguilar’s improvement was shown in the Governors’ Cup, when Ginebra played the conference without Greg Slaughter. Aguilar hit 15 points or more nine times. In the semifinals against a Beermen squad that had June Mar Fajardo, Aguilar stood his ground, and even showed different things on the offensive end..

“In the PBA, every player brings something to the table. I am sorry to disappoint some people, but you can’t really please all. But I have my identity, I play my own game, my own style,” Aguilar said after the finals.

“I really want to thank Coach Tim for the trust he gave me. He stuck by me. Pinakita niya sa akin kung gaano kalaki role ko and I just have to embrace it. I have to see it talaga, my role in this team. And I am glad nabigyan ako ng ganitong role.”

Fundamentals-wise, there are still a handful of things Aguilar can improve on. He may be 29-years-old already, but it’s arguable that he hasn’t reached his prime yet.

“Sa akin lang, I want to play my game, play it through the offense of coach Tim. I am not like Greg who will go inside or post up. Every now and then, I add that, but really, I just want to play through the offense and pick my spots where to score. My main role naman talaga sa team na ‘to is defense,” Aguilar said.

And that is the beauty of Cone’s partnership with Ginebra. It also created partnerships with each individual on the team and Cone just had to put everything together into a cohesive whole.

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4. Sol Mercado-Tim Cone relationship eight years in the making

Sol Mercado’s mother flew from the United States a few days ago to watch her son play in the PBA Finals for the first time. When she visited a Ginebra practice session prior to game six of the series, Cone was one of the first people to recognize her.

And the reason was because Cone spent dinner with her and Mercado eight years ago.

“His mother showed up a couple of days ago, just coming to watch the Finals. And the first time I saw her I went, ‘I remember you, because you were at the draft dinner,’” Cone recalled.

“We had a draft dinner with her and Sol and the next day we traded Sol. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was dyahe. But she was very sweet about it.”

The Alaska Aces drafted Mercado with the fifth overall pick in the 2008 PBA Draft, back when Cone was their head coach. But the PBL champion wouldn’t suit up for the Aces. He, along with Eddie Laure, was quickly dealt to the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters for Joe Devance.

“It has just come full cycle with Sol. He was traded for his best friend, Joe Devance. At that point we had Willie Miller, and we felt Sol duplicated what Willie did and we did lack a big man and we needed Joe. That’s just the way it kind of goes,” Cone said.

“Coach Tim is amazing, man. I was actually talking to Joe in practice, I was saying how my career would have been if I followed the game with coach Tim all these eight years,” Mercado pointed out.

Amazingly, Cone wasn’t even confident that their partnership with the Gin Kings would pan out.

“Sol obviously was a huge part of this whole development this whole year. I didn’t think he was so sure about me, I wasn’t so sure about him in the beginning, but he gave, I gave, and it turned out to be a good marriage,” Cone shared.

“I am a defensive guy and he is a defensive player. He uses his athleticism and strength in defense. It went full cycle with him and I am really happy he won a championship. Another guy who was really so hungry. I was blessed with guys who were really hungry to win.”

“Me and coach are really close. We developed that relationship with him, just this past conference. He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulder and trusted me with a lot of things. I owe a lot of my growth to coach Tim. I’ve grown a lot so much and not just on the court but off the court with him,” Mercado added.

Eight years after the trade, basketball finally found a way for the two to unite on one squad.

“Again, we went full cycle,” Cone said.

And that partnership resulted in a championship.

“It’s surreal. It hit me, but man, I can’t believe [we did it]. It would hit me once I calmed down and really sat down. Wow, I finally won one. But like Coach Tim said, we are not here to win one championship, we are here to win multiple championships. It was a great learning experience for us,” Mercado said.

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5. One last (?) ride for the Fast and the Furious

This season, whenever Ginebra held a big lead against opponents, fans would clamor for the team to field in their two icons, Mark Caguioa and Jayjay Helterbrand.

Cone often granted fans their wish, but only because of the incredible fan support. But if he had it his way, he would have kept the two on the bench, out of respect.

The mentor always saw the tandem as MVPs who shouldn’t be playing during garbage time. And even if the two weren’t getting any younger, Cone had special roles reserved for them.

As the veteran leaders of the group, Caguioa and Helterbrand spent most of the season behind the scenes, fostering chemistry and carrying the team in a positive direction.

“Usually, after practice, yung ibang guys kumakain sa labas. Sometimes buo kami. Actually yung guys, they play a lot of video games. Lagi yun. Active sila, the veterans … lagi sila,” Aguilar shared of how the two always worked on building up team chemistry.

“Our leaders are doing a great job keeping us together. Mark, Jay-Jay, LA, and we just follow their example. They set the example how to have good chemistry,” Slaughter added.

But Cone felt the duo was still good enough to have a crucial role on the court as well. As he mentioned prior to the Finals showdown, Cone said both Caguioa and Helterbrand “will be big,” just as they have been multiple times in the past.

It showed in the crucial game four, when Ginebra trailed 1-2 in the series and Meralco was up by 16 entering the fourth quarter. The veteran duo wound up kick-starting one of the most memorable comebacks in recent memory.

Helterbrand knocked down triple after triple and finished with a perfect clip. The two combined for 19 points, and Ginebra won, 88-86. The team went on to win the next two games en route to the title.

“I think it meant everything to them because they are all about the fans. From the very beginning they always talked about how much they wanted to win for the fans,” Cone said.

“As the series went along, it was no longer a matter of winning it for me. It was winning it for Mark and Jay. They were so hungry, they wanted it badly that the whole team, the whole players, they wanted to win it for them, because if you win it for Jay and Mark, you win it for the fans.”

Cone felt the hunger from both Caguioa and Helterbrand, being the only two players left from the 2008 championship-winning roster.

“They were hungry. Jay is normally a quiet guy, but he was vocal. And you can see it on the court. They just play totally all out. Without them, they wouldn’t be here,” Cone said.

“Without that game four comeback that they made, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

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In an attempt to hand its legions of die-hard supporters another title, Ginebra spent the last few years trying to end their drought by constantly making changes to their team.

In a span of just four conferences, Ginebra had three different head coaches. The team also had numerous player transactions, always seeking the right mix, but they never landed on the instant formula to success.

Finally, Coach Cone gave the squad something it hadn’t had in a long time: consistency.

Cone was an ideal fit for Ginebra given his success with the triangle and his ability to bring out the best in every player.

Everything just changed his hiring. Some were were obvious, like the coaching staff’s in-game dress code. Some needed more time understand.

But one thing was for sure: it was the right process. Cone has always asked for patience from everyone involved, and Ginebra faced the future with a new sense of direction.

“I can write a novel, literally an 800-page journey, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity, but the thing was from the first day, guys really bought in to what we were trying to do,” Cone said.

Everyone cooperated from the start.

“We had a lot of things we had to overcome. We knew fans were impatient, they wanted to win right away, but the players bought into the idea that it was a process and we are going to learn along the way. And we will grow and get better through all the times we’ll have,” he said.

More than a calendar year after, the squad was finally crowned as kings of the league.

“We suffered a lot. It’s always for us, what does not kill us makes us stronger. We didn’t quite get killed, so we kept coming back stronger and stronger,” Cone said.

Wanting to end an eight-year dry spell, Ginebra sought stability. They found that in Cone, and in return, he gave the team and its fans so much more.

Having been in the league for so long, he knew what to do, and everyone bought in to the plan that he had. There were no missteps along the way, only learning.

It was a storybook finish to their first year together. And with the foundation now in place, the novel starring Barangay Ginebra and Coach Tim Cone will hopefully bear out many fruitful sequels.





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