Right man for job

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star
Right man for job
Tim Cone.
Philstar.com / Erwin Cagadas

Gilas head coach Tim Cone will be the first to insist that Chot Reyes deserves recognition for laying the groundwork to build the foundation for the national squad whose four-year goal is to make it to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Reyes took a lot of flak for failing to keep the SEA Games men’s 5x5 basketball gold in Philippine hands in Hanoi in 2022. But it was Reyes who brought the championship back to Gilas in Cambodia last year under extremely difficult circumstances with the host nation parading a slew of instant naturalized players. And it was Reyes who led the country back to the FIBA World Cup in 2014 after a 36-year absence and nailed its first FIBA World Cup win in 40 years.

Cone was by Reyes’ side in Cambodia and they played beautiful music together. Reyes called the Gilas shots at the FIBA World Cup last year and piloted the team to another monumental triumph, a 96-75 thrashing of China. That win rewarded the Philippines with a slot in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July. Reyes never got full credit for his achievements and bashers conveniently forgot what he did, remembering only what he didn’t. To shield his family from the brickbats, Reyes walked away from Gilas and the reins fell on Cone’s lap.

Reyes, 59, is back as TNT head coach in the PBA while Cone, 66, remains with Barangay Ginebra aside from helming Gilas. It has always been Cone’s thinking that the best players should represent the country. That’s the reason why in the latest Gilas iteration, he called in only 12 players, later adding Japeth Aguilar to cover for injured AJ Edu.

For years, SBP collaborated with the PBA to hold a “special draft” to recruit players for the national pool. In 2016, the “special draft” listed the likes of RR Pogoy, Jio Jalalon and Matthew Wright. In 2019, five players were chosen – Isaac Go, Rey Suerte, Matt and Mike Nieto and Allyn Bulanadi. In 2020, the Gilas picks were Jordan Heading, William Navarro, Tzaddy Rangel and Jaydee Tungcab. The experiment failed as there weren’t enough games to sustain playing conditions for the pool.

The idea of retaining a permanent national coach with the sole responsibility of guiding Gilas also couldn’t fly. What would he do when players in the pool are in the PBA or college or overseas? And in between FIBA windows and SEA and Asian Games, what would keep him busy?

Cone’s appointment wasn’t only timely but also appropriate. He took the Philippines back to the Asian Games throne in Hangzhou after 61 years and there’s no one close to matching his 25 PBA championships. Cone’s first mission is to qualify the Philippines for the FIBA Asia Cup next year. There are 24 teams in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers and 16 will advance to the main draw. The FIBA Asia Cup qualified teams will then join the FIBA World Cup Asia qualifiers for the chance to book a ticket to the 2028 LA Olympics. The best Asian finisher in the World Cup is an outright entry to the Olympics.

But wait, there’s still a small window open for the Philippines to make it to this year’s Paris Olympics. It will mean winning the championship of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Latvia on July 2-7 over Georgia, Brazil, Cameroon, Montenegro and host Latvia. That’s a tall order but Cone’s looking beyond Latvia and hoping to use the experience as a toughening stepping stone on the road to Los Angeles.

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