Remembering Ron Jacobs
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 27, 2015 - 9:00am

This year, the sports community celebrated a more sober Christmas, due in large part to the passing of basketball legends Lim Eng Beng and Ron Jacobs. Lim Eng Beng rose to fame a little before my time, and all I can really say about him in our few encounters is that he was a simple, principled man of immense talent, but even greater gratitude and integrity.

I knew Ron Jacobs, though, and he was a man after my own heart. He inspired me to do my research and know the rules of the game. As a college student and – ever so briefly – an Ateneo Blue Eagle, I would sit in the dark, musty tands of Blue Eagle Gym when the Northern Cement squad would practice, and marvel at their almost wordless efficiency. Coach Ron would just say a few words, and the entire engine of practice would hum at a higher level. Sometimes, he would only say one word to get everyone going, “Harder.” To this day, his players, almost to many, are still giving back to basketball, and are considered some of the greatest players in Philippine history.

In my first few years of having the honor of writing this column for The Star, I knew there would be times I would have to say what was unpopular, in the spirit of fighting for what I believed was right. The first time that happened, I would rather forget because of the hostility it engendered from my fellow in sports writing. But the second was standing up for Ron Jacobs’ right to coach professionally in the Philippines. This was more than 20 years ago. A few days later, my family and I were having dinner at a restaurant where the wing of Greenbelt 5 now stands. I was quite surprised when Coach Ron walked up to me, shook my hand and thanked me for what I had written. I saw the pain in his eyes, and the relief he felt knowing someone had spoken up in his defense. At the time, I wrote in defense of how private corporations are free to hire and fire executives and spend their own money as they saw fit. That was the first of many meaningful encounters we would have.

Jacobs was also the first coach to go over the PBA rule book word for word with league technical officials. He never assumed he knew it all. He wanted to know what he could and could not do, what was within the proper interpretation of the rules. As a result, he made it a practice to substitute players after a timeout, right before play resumed, which is perfectly legal but was rarely done then, catching a lot of opposing coaches offguard. But far be it from me to comment in depth about his coaching style. I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing from the Facebook tribute to Jacobs of a basketball hero and dear friend, former PBA MVP Ricardo Brown, who knew Coach Ron long before he arrived in the Philippines.

“Ron’s coaching philosophy, practice routines, and most importantly, his “attention to detail” were very familiar with me because I played for his mentor at Pepperdine University, the great Jim Harrick, who went on to win a NCAA championship at UCLA several years later, as well as have great success at Rhode Island University (Lamar Odom and Cuttino Mobley) and the University of Georgia,” the Quick Brown Fox recalled. “Ron was Jim’s assistant coach at Morningside High School in Inglewood for many years, a legendary basketball school here in Southern California. Coach Harrick was a true disciple of the great UCLA coach, John Wooden, the ‘Wizard of Westwood’, who to this day, is still considered the greatest basketball coach of all time. The ‘John Wooden’ approach to the game and his emphasis on the “basic basketball fundamentals” were 100 percent a part of Coaches Harrick and Jacobs, and Ron carried those with him as he became head coach at Morningside HS, El Camino Junior College, Loyola Marymount University, and ultimately to Philippine basketball.”

Jacobs found ways to score easily, such as after a made basket or free throws. He exploited lapses in opponents’ attention, and got a handle on rule changes and the evolution of the game ahead of his opponents. In the famous breakthrough Jones Cup win against the US, he also used the three-point shot as a great equalizer when other coaches still laughed it off as a gimmick. He gave his players freedom to create, responsibility to take big shots, and encouragement to take risks when needed. If you were open and didn’t shoot, you were sure to hear about it. He was fortunate enough to have the full support and trust of Ambassador Danding Cojuangco, whose vision also gave Jacobs the luxury of having his players grow together as a cohesive team.

The last time I spoke with Coach Ron was the first day of tryouts by invitation for the Philippine team in 2002, the day before his stroke. He talked about how today’s players needed to be better outside shooters to win at the international level, and was spot-on about his analysis of which players would be able to contribute to the national team, and which would not. He had a particular interest in a few Metropolitan Basketball Association players like Chris Clay, and was looking for the next Allan Caidic. We shared a few inside jokes, and laughed underneath the basket at the Moro Lorenzo gym as the players did their drills.

Then Coach Ron was silenced by his ill health, and became a prisoner in his own body. I heard stories of how he would get tearful when his players would visit, and how he needed to have one eye held open so he could watch PBA games. I was furious that he never even got a thank you from the former Basketball Association of the Philippines, and prayed he would recover enough for me to do another interview with him. Even throughout production of our documentary “PBA: A Nation’s Passion” when his protégés like Jong Uichico would pay tribute to how he changed the game, I prayed he would sit up and give us the benefit of his wisdom at least one more time.

Thank you, Coach Ron, for teaching us how the game we all know can be better played.

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