COACH JOEL BANAL: coachingbyfaith
- Matthew Estabillo () - July 27, 2003 - 12:00am
Late in the second quarter of Game 6 in the last PBA All-Filipino Cup, coach Joel Banal was in deep thought. His Talk ‘N Text boys were in a hole and trailing Coca-Cola by 14 points. Marquee player Asi Taulava was having a miserable first half with only a single field goal in 24 minutes, and the team was struggling to reach the 30-point mark.

After winning the last three games against Chot Reyes’ big men, Banal and Co. were suddenly in danger of losing their momentum and possibly turning the tide and the series back to Coca-Cola.

"We were down and I knew it was going to be tough. But I never really lost hope. Somehow I felt that we could still win it, and I told my players to believe and have faith in God and themselves. I guess it worked," Banal says.

And so when Talk ‘N Text marched out of the locker room and onto courtside for the second half, they came out firing, rebounding, playing their defensive sets with much more intensity and hung-on–until they finally took the lead early in the fourth quarter and executed perfectly down the stretch to win the title. It was a draining series for both squads.

And for Banal, 45, the championship could not have been any sweeter. Not only did he guide his club to its first crown ever with one of the most successful comebacks in finals history (they were down 0-2), he won it for them on the eve of team owner Manny Pangilinan’s birthday.

"It would have had less meaning if we swept them or if we won it in seven games. The fact that we got it on the night of the boss’ birthday is the best gift we could give him. It was incredible," Banal recalls on a late Monday afternoon at a hotel coffee shop in Ortigas Avenue, just over a week after that red-letter day.

It is hard not to notice the 6’ 2" Banal, who shuffles his way to the table, sporting an Ateneo Blue Eagles shirt and a day’s growth of beard. His eyes sparkle with delight at the hotel’s employees and guests who constantly interrupt our interview to congratulate him on his latest triumph. Always quick with a handshake, he would politely chat with his admirers for a few moments before going back to my questions.

"I’m a very busy man these days. I even have to forget time for myself just to be with my family," he jokes as he punches out a few text messages on his cellphone. "But I’m not complaining."

Not that he has any reason to. Banal, after all, led two of the most remarkable come-from-behind championship teams in less than a year–with the Ateneo against archrival La Salle in the 2002 uaap season, and now in the pro leagues with Talk ‘N Text. All of a sudden, the man who found himself without a coaching job just two years ago has become one of the most sought-after and recognizable figures in local basketball.

It is Banal’s unique perseverance, hard work, "grace" and astonishing "faith in God" that separate him from other coaches. And "faith in God" is where he always attributes all of his success. He uses the phrase so much that cynical hoops analysts actually start to believe that his devotion to the Almighty may actually have something to do with his basketball victories. Not once during our interview did he comment on any specific section in his playbook that was key to winning the title.

"Of course my teams must have talent and chemistry in order to be competitive. But above all, it is inner strength and sense of guidance from the Lord that is truly essential. I guess that’s my so-called magic touch," he shares.

Indeed, his convictions have propelled him to almost god-like status on the sidelines. He could come out swinging with the best of them when pushed into a corner–just like the way his Blue Eagles did last year when they were staring at another dismal season. Ateneo was tied for third place with the ust Tigers when it unexpectedly came out of the rut at the right time and wrestled the trophy away from the trailblazing Green Archers.

And just this month, when Coca-Cola buried Talk ‘N Text in the first two games of the finals, Banal again found himself in familiar territory and in dire need of a miracle to turn things around. But in perfect Joel Banal fashion, he once more looked up to the heavens for help and got his answer.

He motivated his team to near exhaustion and at the same time orchestrated well-designed offensive sets that baffled the sticky Coke defense. More importantly, he was somehow able to keep his team believing that they could still take the crown. As a result, The Phone Pals, led by Taulava and Victor Pablo, fought back and eventually won the title. He suddenly became King Midas and everything he touched turned to gold. And despite another slow start of the Blue Eagle this uaap season, Banal says he is up and ready for yet another difficult challenge.

"I’ve been in this situation a lot of times before and now I know what needs to be done. Ateneo must forget the glory of last season and admit to where we are right now. If we can do that, I’m sure we’ll get better everyday," he says.

Although his optimism is quite astounding, Banal has had his share of setbacks and defeats. After retiring from professional basketball, he had a few coaching jobs with other pba teams, but said that he didn’t have enough control over his players. He did have some heartbreaking losses as a player and a coach–most recently when he lost a job to Purefoods coach Eric Altamirano.

"The biggest disappointment of my career came early during my first coaching job in the Philippine Basketball League with RC Cola. We didn’t perform very well because I did not stand firm on my thoughts that we did not have a good enough team. We lacked preparation and talent. It was horrible," he sadly recalls.

Banal admits that he almost gave up basketball in 2001. But it was at that crucial moment that he received a lot of support from his family, particularly his father who "taught me dedication" and brother, newsman Conrad, who "showed me how to enjoy life". Banal believes that their encouragement helped him know the value of his mistakes and learn from them.

"I felt that while it was necessary to look back on your past, you still had to plan ahead for the future," he says philosophically. "And that’s what I’ve hopefully done. I guess I was really cut-out for basketball. Nothing could give me more excitement. I love the competition, and I just strive to be the best in what I do."

That doesn’t mean, however, that he is already satisfied with himself. During an awkward moment in the interview, Banal says that one of his next missions in the field is to be given the chance to coach the Philippine basketball team in the next Asian Games.

"Maybe I can do better than the others (past coaches). I can learn some of the things that they did wrong and turn it into something that can be positive. Who knows, it might actually work out right," he muses.

At the same time, he stresses that he also hopes to guide Ateneo to another "defy-the-odds" uaap title and keep on improving his Talk ‘N Text squad. He is currently juggling two coaching jobs–Ateneo and Talk ‘N text–and says that while he adores both teams, he finds coaching college ball more exciting.

"When I think about it," he admits, "I actually enjoy coaching the game more than playing it. I did have some great moments as a player, but I always felt that I could do better as a coach."

And "better" is a word that has always been inside his thoughts. While Joel Banal is evidently pleased with all the adulation he received over the past month, he claims that he has to "keep working" and try not to let success get into his head.

"There is always the temptation of becoming bigheaded and arrogant because of all the glory, and that is why I am most careful not to think that way. I try to stay humble but focused," Banal admits.

"It’s not good to be too proud because I realize that someday, all this must come to an end. And I have to be ready for that. But I hope it’s still a long, long time from now. I have yet to win a grand slam," he smiles.

Two years ago, when he was still in hiatus from basketball, Joel and his wife put up a pre-school. And while he no longer runs the day-to-day activities of the business ("My wife takes care of that"), he is still very much involved with the major decisions of the school.

Banal was in the middle of a thought when another guest comes up to him and shakes his hand again. He then becomes giddy and says that the country, particularly the government, could actually look back on his latest championship as a great example.

"People and public officials can actually emulate our difficult comeback in the last series. It shows that if you work hard enough, and you believe enough, and you have faith in God, you can hope for glory and actually get it. Now that’s nationalism!" he declares.

Although I was fascinated with what he had to say and how he said it, our interview came to an abrupt end when some of his friends turned up. He shook my hand, and bade me goodbye–my hand still wringing with sweat. As a person, Joel Banal is actually an enigma. But his coaching brilliance, passion and childlike enthusiasm for the game of basketball is as clear as his faith in God.

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