After 25 years of coaching in the PBA, there are certain things PBA fans have come to expect from Yeng Guiao. First, that he’s a proven winner. Second, that if you play a drinking game where you take a shot every time Guiao gets angry, you will end up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Third, you can never guess who his starters will be.
It’s gotten to the point that the NLEX Road Warriors head coach jokes that their team’s marketing division should raffle off prizes for fans who can guess the day’s first five, where even Kiefer Ravena is not a guaranteed starter. On the latest episode of “12 Minutes With,” a podcast I co-host with Paolo Del Rosario, Guiao opened up about his coaching philosophy. In spite of his fierce manner on the court, Guiao’s approach to rotation and recruitment come from a place of empathy—he knows what it’s like to be a second group player hoping for the chance to prove one’s worth.
As a college player in UP, Guiao had struggled to find opportunities. “Kung ikaw yung first five, ok ka. Kung ikaw yung six to eight, you’re still getting your breaks. Doon ako, sa medyo alanganin. But if you’re the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth player, you’re basically bangko or benchwarmer,” he recalls in the episode. “Ganoon ‘yung traditional way of coaching. And it was not just with UP—nobody really ventured out of that protocol. So sabi ko, bakit ganito?”
“Sabi ko, if ever I get to coaching, pagdating ng araw, iibahin ko ‘tong sistema na ‘to,” Guiao adds. “Because alam ko na itong mga kasama ko na hindi masyadong nakakalaro, may potential, and they’re also working hard. They just need to be given the opportunity to show it, and back them up with confidence.”
At the age of 27, Guiao got his first crack at being head coach in the PBL. “I started experimenting, yung isa inaalis ko, yung dalawa, tatlo, hanggang sa nagshushuffle ka na, and it was working,” he says. It wasn’t easy, especially since half his players were older than him, but eventually, he was able to lay the foundations of his current coaching style. But then, he says: “The system called for an evolution.”
That evolution is the realization that the skill level needed from 5-minute guys is different from that of 20-minute men. “You have to demand from the players also na kung 15 o 20 minutes ka maglalaro, you have to invest in the skills para mabigyan kita ng ganyan,” Guiao explains. “So nagiging, ‘I’ll invest in you, I’ll give you the confidence, I’ll give you the playing time, but you have to invest in improving your individual skills.'”
His emphasis on equal opportunity carries over into Guiao’s recruitment strategy. The Road Warriors may have young stars like Ravena and Kevin Alas, and well-know vets like Larry Fonacier, Cyrus Baguio, and Asi Taulava; but half the squad are Guiao’s finds from the D-League, underrated players that weren’t given a chance to shine on other teams, or those who waited in limbo on the franchise’s reserve list.
“Nalagay ako sa reserve nang matagal. Gusto ko talaga maglaro, pero dumating sa point na nagpapasa na rin ako ng resume sa mga office job, o flight attendant. Tapos noong dumating si Coach Yeng, nabuhayan ako ng loob kasi alam kong nagbibigay siya ng chance.” -@jansenrios . #NLEXRoadWarriors #ArangkadaNLEX #PBA
To such players, that chance represents hope. Long-time reserve Jansen Rios, who had already been sending his resume out to airline companies and trying to make peace with what seemed to be the end of his basketball dreams, threw himself back into training when Guiao joined NLEX in late 2016. Mike Miranda, who scored just 12 points in the whole duration of the 2017 Philippine Cup with the Phoenix Fuel Masters, led the Road Warriors in Game 2 of their quarterfinals series against the Alaska Aces, where they secured their first semifinals berth in franchise history. Two days later, in their first-ever semifinals game, former KIA limbo resident Kenneth Ighalo started the game and turned out to be crucial in containing the Magnolia Hotshots’ Paul Lee.
The NLEX Road Warriors have big names on their roster, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction that comes from developing underrated and overlooked players—guys who are in the same position that he once was—and helping them reach their true potential.
“You try to spot yung mga ‘ito pwede na ‘to e, kaya lang hindi nabibigyan, so pagdating sa’tin niyan, lutuin natin ng husto, i-develop natin,'” Guiao says. “They’re more motivated, and then because they know what you gave them, they value it and they work harder.”
Listen to the full 12 Minutes With Coach Yeng Guiao, where he talks about taking NLEX to new heights and more things you learn from 25 years of coaching in the PBA. Get it on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Photos from the NLEX Road Warriors.