Joel Banal: He got game
- Paula C. Nocon of the Philippine Star’s YS () - June 8, 2002 - 12:00am
It’s not easy being Joel Banal, the new basketball coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

He has to deal with the past. Decades of a mythical rivalry with the La Salle Green Archers. Fourteen years since the Eagles’ last championship. And only one year since a passionate final showdown with the Archers left the Eagles in second place.

He has to deal with the present. The die-hard Ateneo alumni, imbibed with renewed school spirit, breathing down his neck. La Salle gunning for five straight championships in a row.

He has to deal with the future. Finding new players to replace the old. A better recruitment program to match La Salle’s.

Twenty-eight years of experience is his ace, he says. He was a PBA player, for Great Taste, for several years. He coached Mapua to the NCAA championships two years in a row. He was assistant coach to Tim Cone of Alaska for five years, and was Pasig Pirates coach in the MBA.

But above his vast experience, what gets this 6’4" 44-year-old going is his absolute love for the game.

But will his love lift the Eagles up where they belong? Or will the grass always be Greener on the other side?

talks to the man himself and checks out how the pressure is cooking him.

Young STAR: How are you preparing for this UAAP season?

Joel Banal:
The most important one is our present PBL participation. Right now we want to maximize it. We’re in the semis so we’re playing a lot of close games. The playing level is high. We’re learning to fight natural tendencies. For example, we lost all our three games before playing La Salle. What does that mean? Ateneo is too focused on playing La Salle, that’s why we’re forgetting the games before La Salle.

Is there bitterness or vengefulness carried over from last year?

It’s more like disappointment. ’Cause they played well, until the last few minutes. It was a defensive problem.

That’s why we’re in the PBL—to prepare for the UAAP.

How do you view the present state of the La Salle Green Archers?

They’re still the team to beat. As long as they have these two top guys, they’re going to be smarter, not only because of their championship experience. They always play with poise.

Do you feel the pressure from the alumni?

Yes. They don’t even have to say it, I know it, because of the performance last year. They were in the finals, they were this close to winning the championship. That’s the legacy left to me by Joe Lipa (former Blue Eagles coach). I have to surpass that. But I’m putting the pressure on myself, let me put it that way.

You’re not an Atenean, and some people say that this may work against you.

Well, if I were the school, I would look for an alumnus to fit the need. But they were open-minded enough to get a coach who is not Atenean, based on the need. They didn’t close their minds.

So did being a Mapuan make a difference when you were coach of Mapua?

In Mapua, I got little support from everybody. That’s the culture. Unlike Ateneo culture, they’re so loyal to the school, they’d die for the school. But in Mapua, I did what I wanted to do, I had so much freedom. Here, you have to be careful.

What about Franz Pumaren, La Salle coach. He’s an alumnus. It seems to be working for them.

He’s getting all the support—which is crucial. Meaning, their recruiting program is so good, backed up by the alumni association. So I hope we can find in time the right direction leading to that. Number one, it’s not the system, it’s not the coach; don’t be deceived. It’s really the talent.

How’s your star player Enrico Villanueva doing?

He’s doing very, very well. The moment I stepped in, the very first time on the court, he showed me how serious he was about this UAAP. He’s doing everything—being very sacrificial, open-minded. He’s leading the team.

In fact, he is now called The Dominator in the PBL, for his rebounding and scoring.

I remember, when I was in college, every time Ateneo would lose we would sourgrape and say it’s because La Salle athletes had so many more perks and less academic demands. What do you think of that?

It’s unfair to talk about that. If we don’t want to do that, then we shouldn’t talk about it. If you’re inggit, do it! Cut the b.s. and do it!

There are solutions to the problem. For example, it’s hard to find players who can pass Ateneo. What do you do? You get good grade school students, bring them to the high school, so there’s a big possibility that they’ll make it in college. So recruit early! Two, three years old, i-recruit mo na. Get the children of players, for one.

If I had my way I’d want the recruiter to be part of the coaching staff, who should have the same heartbeat as mine.

You always talk about "thinking" players. Is it an advantage to have players who have both athletic smarts and academic smarts?

The advantage is that you have a bigger scope as examples, and they will understand. I can use biblical examples, historical examples, just to drive a point. To drive it in their heads.

But basketball intelligence is different. It’s the feel of the game, it’s knowing the game, it’s the passion for the game. It’s respect for the game. It’s the game!

How are you taking care of them?

First, they have the best facilities in the country, the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center. Second, these players are not poor—their basic needs are met. It’s more of how they’ll approach their being a part of the UAAP team, their goal of winning the championship. Do they want it that much to the point that they would be willing to sacrifice some things, like gimmicks, things that would distract them? If I could drive that point then I’ve done my first job.

How’s your brother, Koy Banal, coach of FEU?

We’re very close. We talk almost every weekend. We talk about our games, opponents, game plans. Basketball 24 hours a day.

Our mother knows how to coach na, from listening to us. Even my sister wants to coach.

You’re from a family of writers and athletes, three boys and six girls. How did you get into basketball?

Well, to begin with, we’re all tall. My Dad is 6’3" and my Mom is 5’5." Plus, we grew up in Caloocan, and there was a basketball court right in front of our house. So day and night all we could hear was the sound of a bouncing basketball.

Koy and I used to tag along to the games of our eldest brother, Conrad Banal, (6’2") who’s now a writer in the Inquirer and he used to be business editor of the STAR. He used to play for the Ateneo. So that’s why I still know all the Ateneo cheers.

My sister, May, lives in Australia and her three sons all play basketball. She knows the game very well, she thinks she can coach. She even argues with the referee at her kids’ games.

I hear you yourself used to work for the STAR?

Yes, that was from 1987 to 1992. I wasn’t a writer, I was the director of circulation of the entire STAR group. After I was injured in 1985 when I was playing for Great Taste I went into semi-retirement. I wanted to go back, but I was out of shape, and I could no longer run.

That’s very hard for a player, to accept that you’re retired. But something miraculous happened. I was at the STAR office, and there I met the late Mrs. Betty Go Belmonte. Without knowing anything about my situation or my career, she offered me a job right then and there. Divine intervention! We ‘re of the same faith, you see. And we bacame very close. She taught me everything I know about the business.

What’s your coaching style?

I put emphasis on defense. The Ateneo is the number one defensive team. My philosophy is, if you play the best defensive team in practice everyday, your offense will follow.

Do you lose your temper?

I’m a coach who would not hesitate to yell to make a point. I never curse, I never take it personally, but I pinpoint the mistakes and they have to respond. If not, it’s going to make me even angrier. What we have is mutual respect. I never disrespect a player.

Who’s your idol coach?

Baby Dalupan. He’s an Atenean, actually. Four championships in a row, the winningest coach in the PBA.

Do you have any rituals before a game?

Prayer before and after games and practices. We acknowledge that there is a Greater Power who has given us all these opportunities.

Given La Salle’s winning streak, do you think God loves La Sallites more than he loves Ateneans?

Right now, I’d say the past four years La Salle wanted it more. The question there is, how much you want it? Then you do everything. At the end of the day you should be telling yourself, I did everything. If you lose, the answer is always no, I have not done everything. And I tell you, after every loss you realize that.

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