Recalling Johnny’s close NBA call
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - March 27, 2020 - 12:00am

It was in 1997 when Charlotte Hornets foreign consultant and scout Joe Betancourt met with Johnny Abarrientos, his Alaska coach Tim Cone and his adviser Anton Montinola at a suite in the Manila Peninsula Hotel to discuss the possibility of signing the Flying A to a 10-day contract during the NBA season or bringing him over to summer training camp.

Betancourt was no stranger to Philippine basketball. His eyes were opened to the skills of Filipino players when in 1993, as Saudi Arabia national coach, he arranged practice games with PBA teams to prepare for the FIBA Asia Cup in Jakarta. Saudi Arabia was the surprise of the tournament, racing to a 3-0 record and bringing down China, 74-69 in overtime. Betancourt became an overnight hero in Saudi Arabia.

The other day, Betancourt reached out from Dubai en route to Los Angeles to gather stories of his Philippine experiences for a book on his basketball career to be published in early May by Simon and Schuster. I hadn’t heard from Betancourt in over 20 years so the blast from the past was welcome news.

Betancourt, 70, said the meeting with Abarrientos, Cone and Montinola was “a special moment as we were so close to making history with Johnny, the PBA and what it would have meant to Filipinos around the world.” At the time, Betancourt tried to convince Charlotte executive vice president Bob Bass and coach Dave Cowens to take a chance on Abarrientos. “I remember how I discovered Johnny,” he said. “I was flying from Istanbul, where the Europe All-Star game was held, back to Charlotte on Delta Airlines and I woke up to watch this highlight film of Johnny. I immediately talked to Bob about him.” Betancourt’s idea was to replace Muggsy Bogues with Abarrientos. As it turned out, David Wesley was signed up instead then during the season, Cowens brought in Donald Royal and Vernon Maxwell to join Jeff Grayer in the backcourt.

“We were really so close to bringing Johnny over,” said Betancourt. “Before Bob died (in 2018), we reminisced about Johnny and how I thought we missed the chance on what he could’ve done. I often watch PBA games on satellite and keep up with Philippine basketball. I’m very impressed with June Mar Fajardo. I think he could’ve made it to the NBA. But my heart will always be with Johnny and Tim. In his prime, Johnny was better than any Filipino could’ve been with a shot to play in the NBA. I believe Tim is one of the top three coaches ever in the PBA.”

Betancourt said when the coronavirus pandemic is finally over, he’ll visit the Philippines and reconnect with his Filipino friends. In the 1997 Jones Cup, Betancourt coached the US team and met Sta. Lucia Realty governor Buddy Encarnado and coach Chot Reyes who flew to Taipei to scout for imports. “I love and respect Filipinos as they are positive, hard-working and manage to keep their wits despite dire circumstances,” he said. “I’ve been to Asia quite often and I love to pass through one of my favorite places in all the world, Makati.”

Although Betancourt has made a fortune in investments through his participation in IPOs, basketball remains a major part of his life. He used to be the Mexico national coach and won two club championships in Venezuela. Betancourt hinted that he may be involved in basketball at the Tokyo Olympics. “I coached the Mexican team in 2000 but there was a boycott of top players against the federation president and we still did great,” he said. “The top Mexican player Eduardo Najera chose not to play. You know my modus operandi – win championships in 90 percent of places I’ve coached, make bad teams good and good teams champions. I have lots of contacts in the NBA. I was close with the late Kobe Bryant. I coached in Italy when he was a kid and managed to stay in touch through the years. One of my neighbors in North Beverly Park in Beverly Hills is Magic Johnson. I’m fixing to take a coaching job with a team qualified for the Olympics. I don’t need the money but I’m taking it because I love to coach.”

TIM CONE
Philstar
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