Coach Baby

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2015 - 10:00am

It was a rare powerhouse gathering of basketball legends at the Singson Hall of the Ateneo de Manila grade school Monday night. Legendary (and that word has never been more appropriate) coach Baby Dalupan celebrated his 92nd birthday and the launch of his book “The Maestro of Philippine Basketball”. Even those of us who have been working professionals in sports for decades are still giddy kids when this kind of reunion takes place, more so for a figure as universally loved as coach Baby. How often do we see pillars of the sport rush for an autograph, or listen in rapt attention to the stories being told about someone who has done so much for our national passion?

The occasion brought together so many diverse communities that only Dalupan could bring together: his Ateneo de Manila basketball progeny, his University of the East brethren, his Olympians, his champion Crispa Redmanizers, the Purefoods originals, and figures from all those eras. There was so much to take in, dozens of anecdotes that didn’t even make the book, blended with good-natured teasing that only the intimacies of brothers in battle could share. Old foes were now contemporaries, former players loyal sons, rivals now admirers. Everything good about sport was in the air that evening.

Last year, when I sat down with the Maestro in his living room for an interview on our PBA documentary, I was floored by the breadth of his basketball life. He began with how, in the 1930’s, he had realized in all humility that he was never going to be good enough to be a successful basketball player, so he decided to try coaching, instead. I also recall my mind racing because I had no footage of the time period to fill in that story for the film. What I remember most about that interview was how soft-spoken, humble and simple he was. He never spoke about his runaway success, only about the challenges overcome, how fond he was of his players, and how valuable they were to him, as if they were his own flesh and blood. There was no pretense, no bragging, just beaming with how well all his players were doing.

His single greatest gift was being able to bring people together. Look at all the diverse personalities he had coached, and where all of them had gone after he had touched them. His basketball family tree may as well be that of the sport itself in the Philippines. Robert Jaworski (UE) became the most famous player in the country and a senator; Chito Narvasa (Ateneo) is now the PBA commissioner; half of his Crispa team became Most Valuable Player. Alvin Patrimonio (Purefoods) is one of only two players to win the league MVP four times. Allan Caidic (Great Taste) holds scoring records which may never be broken. Some of those players have entrenched themselves indelibly in basketball and school athletics as coaches, managers, teachers, executives. To try to uproot and isolate Dalupan’s achievements would be to render the forest barren. You would have to dig so deep to find how far the roots have gone.

Tim Cone said he envied the people in the room since he was initially a Toyota fan and later a rival coach. But Coach Baby became an idol, and Cone himself never stops paying tribute to the Maestro in glowing terms.

“Someday, when someone is winning 25 championships, people will talk about me and talk about coach Baby,” Cone told this writer in a previous interview. “That’s the beauty of it, that his name is being brought back into the conversation for the younger generations. He is, in many ways, father to us all. Every coach owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Looking back, many greats wax grateful seeing the wisdom in how coach Baby treated them. Some thought they deserved certain privileges, and realized later on how their mentor saw what lessons they needed to learn first. Atoy Co, the first player to score 5,000 and 10,000 points in PBA history, was initially Crispa’s designated stopper. It was only later that he was “licensed” to shoot. In the end, it made him a well-rounded player. It was part of the discipline, the patience that one needed to play for Baby Dalupan. Tardiness was not tolerated. But when players needed help, a hand in renegotiating their contracts, their coach was there with a helping hand.

Some critics once said that his teams were so talented, coach Baby needed only to roll out the basketball to win games. That’s not true. His gift was synthesizing those talents and large personalities, and putting everyone in the right place, preparing them for the right time. Dante Silverio, the grand designer of Toyota’s rivalry with Crispa, admitted it was “scary” looking down the sideline and seeing Baby Dalupan, because you would never know what he would come up with. Silverio is credited by coaches today as being one of the first innovators in Philippine professional basketball before Ron Jacobs came along. That speaks volumes about Dalupan, as well.

What does Baby Dalupan mean to all of us who came after? He was the one who carved a path for us to follow. As the saying goes “The first one through the wall always gets bloodied.” He created the template that hardly anyone has been able to replicate. His firmness was underlaced with genuine affection. And his honesty would lead him to tell you if you, like him, were not meant to play the game at all, as well. There was no pretense, no wasting your time and his. He would tell you what needed to be done, and why. His coaching style was simple and clear. It wasn’t alchemy and science, but common sense. Ironically, it was such an uncommon sixth sense that set him apart.

We consider ourselves lucky that he is still around, encouraging another generation of coaches and players, selflessly doling out wisdom and cheer. His family, friends and disciples spent years putting together his history, and he doubted if anyone would be interested, in the first place. There will never be another Baby Dalupan, who was Adam, David and Solomon to Philippine basketball.

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