For the consummate ballplayer, their life follows this charted path. Learn the game, play it. Excel and make the varsity. Even better? Play in the pros, and if fortunate enough, represent flag and country in international tournaments. And when it’s time to hang those sneakers for good? Then trade in that jersey for a suit and a whiteboard. That’s it. One learns and plays the game first, then when it’s all said and done (at least on the hardwood), it’s time to teach the younger generation the finer points of the sport. And from there, another cycle starts following the same process.
Phil Jackson. Gregg Popovich. Mike Krzyweski. Norman Black. Leo Austria. These are but some of the known champion coaches both here and abroad that have stamped their mark in the hoops world. But before they manned the sidelines, they were basketball players first.
For long-time professional ballers and ex-National Team members Tony Dela Cruz and Willie Miller, they got a taste of what it feels like calling the shots, as the duo were first-time coaches in the latest SLAM Rising Stars Classic, with Dela Cruz hemming Team Hype while Miller oversaw the side of Team Punks.
When the smoke of the battle cleared away at the Gatorade Hoops Center, it was Dela Cruz who emerged victorious, as his squad eked out a 89-83 victory over that of Miller’s. Regardless of the outcome though, both had an interesting experience after trying their hand at patrolling the sidelines.
SLAM PH sat down with the current Alaska Ace and former two-time PBA MVP to get their insights on their coaching stint.
SLAM PH: How does it feel to be a first-time coach in the SLAM Rising Stars Classic?
Tony Dela Cruz: It’s really exciting. This is the future of Philippine basketball. I told them before during one of our practices that they are responsible for the future of the sport here in the country, so it’s exciting to see them perform here.
Willie Miller: Nakaka-excite, especially seeing all the young guys, mga future basketball players natin. ‘Yung mga talent na nandiyan, naalala mo ‘yung kabataan mo, noong ganun ka kabilis, mataas ang talon mo. Ganoon kasi dati, ‘yung laro ka lang ng laro. Ganito pala ‘yung nakikita ng mga coaches dati pag nakakakita ka ng mga bagong players. Although this is an All-Star game, makikita mo na iba ang puso ng mga player. Talagang gusto nilang manalo.
SLAM PH: Coach Tony, your team (Team Hype) was short-handed following the loss of two of your key players (San Beda’s Germy Mahinay and Jonas Tibayan of Chiang Kai Shek were not able to finish the game due to injuries). How were you able to make the necessary adjustments in order to get this win?
Tony Dela Cruz: I put it on them (the rest of the team). I told them: guys, we’re short-handed. We got to work harder. They all stepped up so credit goes out to all of them. They’re all motivated going into this game regardless, but the fact that two of their teammates went down, I think they responded well to the situation.
SLAM PH: Who among the players that you coached in today’s affair can you say was the best among the rest?
Tony Dela Cruz: All of them played well, but obviously it was Juan (Gomez De Liano). Juan played well, he’s very talented. But at their age right now, what they are all doing is really for the good of the sport so I’m excited to see them develop.
Willie Miller: Sa team namin (Team Punks) marami. First is ‘yung big man namin, si Aaron Fermin (of the Arellano Braves). Rumerebound siya, pumuputback. Pati ‘yung ibang malalaki namin. Sina Kenji (Roman of FEU Baby Tamaraws), Sam (Abu Hijeh of San Beda), ‘yung nose for the ball nandoon. Kahit hindi kailangan makaiscore pero kung nasaan ang bola, nandoon. Nakakarebound. Nakakatapik. Nakakadepensa. Tapos ‘yung mga shooters namin. Si (NU Bullpup) John Lloyd (Clemente). Si Dave (Ildefonso of Ateneo HS), ibang klase naman. Medyo hilaw pa pero pag gumaling ‘yan puwede siya sa 1-2 position kasi mahaba siya at magaling. Marami silang magagaling. Tapos dumating pa ‘yung MVP ng NCAA Juniors, si Troy Mallillin (Troy arrived at the start of the second half after attending his HS graduation rites at La Salle Greenhills). Grabe rin. Iba rin ‘yung potential niya.
SLAM PH: Coach Willie, given that you’ve saw how these young cagers play, do you see someone who is of the same likeness in terms of playing style? Like a next Willie Miller of sorts?
Willie Miller: (Laughs) Walang next Willie Miller kasi maliit lang siya at ang tatangkad ng mga batang ito. Pero madami sila, in terms of mga may shooting kami pero karamihan sa amin gusto rin mag-drive. Malalakas ang mga katawan namin. Sa kabila (Team Hype) ganun rin, ‘yung MVP (De Liano), he deserves to be named as MVP kasi siya ang gumawa ‘nung fourth quarter. ‘Yung guts mo na titira ka sa ganung crucial na time, iba yun. Tapos may nakita rin ako na hindi gaanong umiiscore pero magaling pumasa. Lumalaban. Ang galing. Dadrive siya tapos papasa. Mga pasa niya, 5 or 6 sa ilalim puro libre. Hindi siya nakakiscore pero ang impact niya sa laro iba.
SLAM PH: Do you see yourself returning here in the Rising Stars Classic to coach anew? How about later on in your career, will you dabble in coaching later on?
Tony Dela Cruz: I don’t know yet. This was fun, it was a good experience. I have lots of respect for coaches around the world. This is a hard job and I’m just learning everyday. Maybe someday. We’ll see.
Willie Miller: Oo, balak ko kasi mag-coach dati pa. Kahit noong naglalaro pa ako, kapag nakakita ako ng bata humihinto ako tapos pag mali ang ginagawa ay tinuturuan ko. Kaya rin ako na-entice na mag-coach ay dahil although karamihan ng na-experience ko kasi as a player ay positive naman, pero meron pa rin na hindi maiiwasan na medyo hindi maganda na experience kaya alam ko ‘yung gusto ng isang player na maka-experience ng magaganda kaya ‘yun ang gusto ko na maipasa, ‘yung mga na-experience ko, ‘yung mga technique. Kasi masarap sa loob na nakikita mo ‘yung bata na malalaman niya na, oo nga, ganito nga pala, mas madali, mas maganda. Kasi I know that basketball is a fun game. So I want the game to be fun for them (the kids). Pero siyempre, ang sinasabi ko parati is that they have to work hard to reach that level na masaya ang paglalaro ng basketball for them. Gusto ko mai-pass on ang knowledge ko sa basketball at nai-experience ko sa mga bata. Sayang lang kung i-keep ko lang ito.
SLAM PH: So Coach Willie, is this is your way of giving back because of how the game has been good to you? Will we see a head coach title next to your name soon?
Willie Miller: Mas masarap kung makikita mo ang bata na naturuan mo na maglalaro professionally. Kung magkikita kami, isang smile, isang thumbs-up lang, puwede na ako. Oo, gusto ko ma-experience ng mga bata kung gaano kasarap maglaro ng basketball. With the help of training and mga coaches na masasamahan ko sa pag-aaral ko sa pagiging coach, magsisilbi sila na malaking tulong sa akin (towards being a full-fledged coach).