When people talk of the possibility of a San Beda Red Lions vs Lyceum Pirates finals in NCAA Season 93, the common narrative is that of a dark horse taking on a dynasty. But that’s not how the Pirates’ head coach Topex Robinson sees it.
For the soft-spoken 37-year-old, it’s not about improved underdogs taking on the most dominant team in the league. Nor is it just about winning a championship. Robinson has been building a counter-culture coaching approach around empathy and vulnerability–and this is the team’s biggest stage to prove it can work.
The Pirates are a team that meditates in fourth quarter timeouts. While their opponents’ high five their starters onto the court, the Pirates give each other hugs. As the minutes wound down in their first round meeting against the Red Lions, the third-year head coach smiled at his players before giving directions: “Calm down. It’s okay if you make a mistake.” They loosened up, surged, and took the match, 96-91.
SLAM PH: Two years ago, you were starting from the ground up. How does it feel hearing other coaches tag Lyceum as one of the teams to beat this season?
Topex Robinson: If people are telling me that, I guarantee you people are also telling that to the players. I always remind them that those are false beliefs or false hopes. What we have control of as a team is the now. The future? Finals? It’s fear. We don’t worry about that yet. We also don’t think about the past because we don’t want to regret it. So we’re always living by the moment.
The only time I’ll believe it is when we win a championship. Or maybe if we’re in the finals, we’ll be having a different conversation already. We had people calling us the dark horse last year too, but we ended up in ninth place with a 6-12 record.
SLAM PH: I get that. But this year, with CJay Perez on the team and a final four berth in the preseason tournament, it’s a big step up.
TR: The important thing that really helped us is we have a common set of goals and beliefs. What I really invest in is the relationship part. I want them to believe what I believe, and then for them to live that belief. Failure, you can do it alone. Success, you need others.
The trust and cooperation is here. It’s not something you can order—it’s a culture, a feeling, an investment. With trust and cooperation, I can be straight with you, without you feeling like pine-personal ka. I can admit to this team when I’m wrong without feeling na hindi ako dapat nagso-sorry. With trust, you have vulnerability. You could cry in front of these players, they could cry to you.
SLAM PH: Even back in 2015, character building and academic performance have been top priorities in that vision. I’m trying to word this delicately, but you had behavior problems with some players who are no longer part of the team. Is there a sense of finally having the lineup you wanted?
TR: I guess the barometer I set was none of these players had failing grades. The vision is I want to produce good fathers, husbands, sons in the future. Winning is the result but it’s more than that. If they know that you’re thinking about their future, parang, “okay, concerned pala siya sa akin. Why not ibalik ko?”
When I got here I didn’t have the players that I wanted, but it turns out you’ll attract people with the same beliefs. I didn’t know that CJay would be here. I didn’t know that Spencer [Pretta] would be here. I didn’t know that [Nino] Ibanez would be here. Even the coaches that I have, we share the same vision.
Hindi ko maga-guarantee that we’re gonna win the championship this year or even that we’re gonna win games. But what I’m sure of is everyone on this team is in it together and we’ll do our best.
SLAM PH: What was the turning point for the team?
TR: We all function on three levels: What we do, how we do it, and why we do it. I twist it and start with my why. I want to change their lives. I want to make sure they have a better future. How I do it is with my skill and knowledge. And what I do is I coach.
When you have it turned around, there’s more empathy. I’m not a coach to them anymore. Now you get texts like, “I love you.” And I can easily tell them that I love them, too. You know, some of these kids don’t have their fathers—either they’re working abroad, they’re separated, or they grew up without them in their lives. So they look at me as their father and that’s how it started.
Again, we’re gonna make mistakes. We’re gonna get into each other’s faces, but it’s always genuine. They know that I’m doing this because of love. It’s not me implementing my power.
SLAM PH: Has anyone ever told you that you’re too nice for the job?
TR: Yeah, my bosses told me about it. But for me, I cannot pretend to be somebody I’m not. I respect coaches that do it the other way. If it works for them, then I respect that.
It’s just that I always regret the things that I’ve said. If I’m mad tapos naglabas ako ng sama ng loob, I guarantee I’m gonna regret it. I’m gonna have sleepless nights because it’s not the person I wanted to be.
This approach didn’t make my job easier, but it gave it more purpose. It gets me excited, energized. It’s rubbing off on the players and hopefully it can help other coaches too na, “hindi naman pala iisa ang paraan.”
SLAM PH: You mean, other coaches who are like you. You’re not saying stricter coaches are wrong—just that if another coach wants to take this approach, that’s valid and it can work.
TR: Exactly. I know there are a lot of coaches out there who share the same beliefs as I do. It’s just that they don’t know if it will work because nobody has done it yet. Maybe this is the time for me to change the status quo.
SLAM PH: Of your new guys, CJay is getting a lot of hype as one of the best players in the league. How’s recruitment going, and what to you hope to see in LPU’s future?
TR: Again, I know that players who share the same belief as we do will come. Hindi ko kayang labanan yung ibang schools who have all those other things to offer, but I know there are players who will see how this team works and say, “I want to be part of that.” Di ko sila kayang lokohin, eh. They know how it is. But I hope to find players for whom it’s not just about the money.
Before, my vision was to be like Ateneo and La Salle. I wanted LPU to be like them. Before I’d ask, “Ano kayang ginagawa nila? Gusto ko maging ganun.” But now, I’d like those bigger schools to see what LPU’s about. It’s crazy—but I want them to ask, “Ano kayang ginagawa ng LPU?”
— Ceej Tantengco (@ceejtheday) July 16, 2017
Photos from Ceej Tantengco