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MANILA, Philippines – The sudden burst of rain that hit Metro Manila on this Tuesday morning was making its presence felt outside the imposing Gatorade Hoops Center in Mandaluyong City. But inside the walls of the basketball arena, the intensity from the student-athletes covered in navy blue and white gear was heated.
Plastered on one black wall was an image of arguably the greatest NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan, with the quote “If you quit once, it becomes a habit. Never quit.” On the other end, a picture of a younger and leaping Dwyane Wade was visible, the words “Whenever there is a big game and people don’t think I can do it, I always play my hardest,” right beside him.
In between the two walls and on the middle of the well-furbished hardwoord stood Franz Pumaren, his presence needing no introduction. As his Falcons fought and clawed for rebounds and exploded on fastbreaks every chance they could get, not once did he surrender his hawk-like focus on what was transpiring.
Around the court, his forever lieutenants Jack Santiago and Tonichi Yturri joked in between barking orders at the players. His newest assistants – and arguably the greatest products of his famous collegiate basketball system – Renren Ritualo and Don Allado, were doing the same. The way vocal cords were raised, elbows were being thrown, and knees were scraping the floor, it was easy to feel like the setting was similar to the highest kind of fervour of a UAAP game.
“This is just a drill, actually,” Pumaren responded with a smirk when asked if scrimmages always held this level of zeal. The actual 5-on-5 matches are twice as animated, he promised, and it was hard not to believe him.
With the 52-year-old Pumaren, that wasn’t surprising at all. Very few head coaches in Philippine basketball have ever demanded as much from their players, but the list of those who have achieved success such as his is limited as well. When Franz Pumaren was hired to be the head coach of the Soaring Falcons last December, the school wasn’t just attaining a big name – it was getting a savior for the university’s mediocre basketball program. A symbol for a new era after what’s been a sorry past few decades for the varsity team.
“It’s just like a start-up company, that’s the way I look at this program,” Pumaren said about his new mission, which is crystal clear: change the culture at Adamson University.
Adamson Director of Athletics and Recreation Fr. Aldrin Suan had a lot of thoughts during a November afternoon at Lorenzo’s Way restaurant in Bonifacio Global City last year. In 2014, the team hired former PBA MVP Kenneth Duremdes to be the head coach of a school seeking only its second UAAP men’s basketball championship and first since 1977. They finished the season 1-13, most of it spent as the laughing stock of the league.
In 2015, the head coaching position was taken over by Mike Fermin because “he was more fateful attending practices,” according to Suan. He performed better by winning 3 games in Season 78 – impressive given the limited 3 months he got to prepare the Falcons for the UAAP season after the surprising termination of Duremdes’ contract. But still, where Adamson was as a basketball program, and where management wanted it to eventually be, were far from each other, and the road to getting there did not look promising.
At this point, the coaching changes in the UAAP were beginning. Juno Sauler had resigned from his post calling the shots for La Salle after they missed the Final Four. Pumaren was a name floated around as a replacement, the possibility of a reunion with the school he led to 6 championships on the horizon. But the Green Archers eventually went with Aldin Ayo, who just a few months back had led Letran to its first NCAA title in a decade.
Adamson saw an opportunity. A mutual friend connected management with Pumaren, who at that time did not have the urgent desire to return to coaching. “I’ll hear what they have to say,” he told himself before that meeting in Global City, where what they told him was appealing. One more meeting later, and the school snagged arguably the biggest college coaching free agent in the market. On December 4, he was officially introduced as the new man calling the shots from the bench. And just like that, the interest level in the team was at its highest since 2011.
“They fast-tracked everything,” Pumaren said to Rappler, remembering the process. “They showed me how much they wanted me. They showed me that I’ll be on top of this program.”
“You know let’s sit down, you tell me what you want. You tell me what you need,” were the words Adamson told him. “That easy. That’s when I told myself, ‘How can I turn down this opportunity?’”
Fermin was a candidate for promotion from just an interim to full-time head coach. Frankie Lim, a former champion head coach for San Beda, was another serious option. There were current PBA coaches who showed interest. But when Pumaren’s name came up, Adamson realized they knew the guy they wanted and made him the only priority. So Suan gave the head coach the university’s offer, which included final say over all basketball matters, and a challenge: bring this program up from the ashes of inferiority and make the greatest masterpiece you can create at this point of your career.
Father Gregorio Banaga, Adamson’s president, is set to retire, and he wanted to leave the Falcons in good hands as well. Banaga had always desired to hire a big name for the school to put it on the map. He now gets that with a coach who has made the UAAP finals 8 times and has sent multiple players to the PBA.
“It’s just like marrying somebody,” explained Pumaren. “Instead of marrying the girl you want, you married the girl that loves you most.”
Pumaren, who hasn’t coached since the 2014 PBA Governors’ Cup with Air21, then made calls to Santiago and Yturri. We’re back in business, he said. But the head coach realized he also needed “new blood” and younger coaches to develop his teenage players. He can still jump up and down to throw orders on the court while keeping his Paul Smith shirts properly ironed, although this is also no longer 2001, and age has caught up with him some.
“Somebody that players can look up to,” was how he described what he was searching for. So he made the calls to Allado and Ritualo, guys who had just recently retired from professional basketball. “There’s a future in it for us,” was his selling point to his former captains. “I have a 3-year plan. I have full control on how to run a team.” The CEO needed his right hand men.
“It was very casual,” Ritualo said about the phone conversation, which was short: “Ren, let’s meet at Capitol Commons.” The actual discussion in person was very quick, too. By the end of lunch over ramen at Nomama, it was official: Ritualo was going to become an assistant coach. Presently, he’s even handling the basketball program’s Team B.
“He has the potential, he has the patience, and what’s important is that he is enjoying what he is doing. It’s not a job for him, that’s what’s important,” said Pumaren.
Ritualo admits coaching wasn’t in the immediate plan before the offer arrived last December. Aside from running shooting camps, he also helps his wife in handling their pre-school, Children’s Little University, in Quezon City. The two endeavours take up loads of his time. But when he saw an opportunity at first to help out his alma matter, he jumped right at it.
Alumni from La Salle gave calls to Ritualo following the departure of Sauler and his staff. “I wasn’t expecting the head coaching job,” Ritualo said of his application to the Green Archers. “I just wanted to help, and I told them that. I went there.”
His resume needed no introduction – especially not to that school. All of La Salle’s 4-peat teams from 1998-2001 included him playing a major role. The gym where DLSU practices only has 3 retired jerseys, including his. Whenever there’s a discussion of the best and most clutch shooters in college basketball history, his name is constantly a part of it.
“I’ll be plastic if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he admitted on not getting a response. For him, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Pumaren had always told Ritualo that once he retired from professional basketball, an assistant coaching spot was going to be open for him. “I did not hesitate because it was Coach Franz,” Ritualo said about taking the offer, highlighting the trust between the two which has included countless battles together on the court and nearly two decades of mentorship.
The staff was complete. The next step? It was time to change the culture. Being okay with losing at Adamson was no longer an option.
“Look to your left, then look to your right”
Pumaren’s contract was set to begin on the first day of 2016, and 3 days later, the Soaring Falcons were scheduled to have their first practice under the head coach. But the new judge of the program didn’t bother waiting until the calendar shifted to send a message and deliver a stern warning.
“When I first took over, one thing I noticed here is that they easily get satisfied,” he said. “You know, just competing. Whatever the result of the game, they were happy already. They were just going through the motions, getting all the perks: scholarship, dorm and everything.”
That mindset was no longer going to be acceptable – not for someone whose obsession with winning is well-known.
Right after his introductory press conference in campus, Pumaren walked to the university gym and talked to the team, surprised to see that there were 36 players in training, most of them unaware of what roles they should play. “Look to your left, then look to your right,” he told each and every one of them. “The guys beside you, you will be competing with them. You have to fight for your spot. You have to earn your spot here.” It didn’t matter how many points a player averaged the year before or the reputation that carried over with them from high school. The whole system was going to have a tabula rasa.
Another important factor? “Don’t gain weight during the Christmas holidays,” Suan remembered hearing the head coach seriously telling the student-athletes. When December turned to January, the coaching staff didn’t waste time putting the players through tough ordeals and obstacles to see who could fit the fast-paced, press-oriented and relentless style of play. The first two months of training were a screening process. Those out of shape or had discipline issues were instantly cut, including known recruits like Ivan Villanueva, Jerome Garcia, and William Polican.
“When we started getting rid of the bad apples and everything, I said I think we have a team, [that] we’ll be okay,” Pumaren said.
Eventually, the Fil-Am standouts joined the party. Two weeks after getting hired, Pumaren flew to California to find players who want to make their mark in Philippine basketball under his tutelage. He asked for help from management to sponsor his odyssey – noting this was the way to compete against the bigger schools getting the better local recruits – and they unwaveringly provided it, aware this was one of the responsibilities needed in order for them to get closer to their championship dreams.
Pumaren returned from his trips to San Diego, Los Angeles, Frisco, and San Jose pleased. He secured commitments from recruits he was confident would make practices more competitive and become contributors when the UAAP rolled around the corner. Eventually, he also attained the services of Jerrick Ahanmisi, the brother of PBA player Maverick, plus the athletic Tyrus Hill and Kurt Lojera. Expect a few more to arrive.
“I think it opened the door for us because we have to face the fact that local players here, they still tend to go to the big schools,” said Pumaren. “But they don’t realize that there are other programs that’s also for them, here. You know, God-willing, hopefully we perform well this year. It’s going to open the door for us to get local, homegrown talents.”
There are indications that’s where the trend is directing. In May, notable players from Ateneo left the Blue Eagles due to academic issues. Jerie Pingoy, once upon a time the biggest name in Philippine high school basketball, transferred to Adamson because, as he admits, of Pumaren’s track record with developing guards. Arvin Tolentino and Hubert Cani, both of whom ended up in FEU, also had the Soaring Falcons as a finalist before making their choices.
When Pumaren landed in California, he expected to go through a lot of explaining and convincing before securing commitments from kids willing to leave their home country. Instead, it turned out to be the opposite. “They started researching everything about me. And you know, their parents were saying, ‘Coach, you know you have the highest ratio of turning professional players?’
“In fact, two of them were first picks – JVee Casio and Mike Cortez. They know that even third-round picks get signed up. So we have to face the fact that, of course, the priority is the school (Adamson tops in Chemical Engineering), but their main goal is to make it all the way to the professional level.”
Nowadays, all Pingoy has for dinner is a banana and some yogurt. He’s dropping weight, in the process of trying to re-discover the exciting potential that was derailed by injuries, off-court issues, and an expanded waistline during 3 years in Katipunan. A season more of residency, and he will come in with a loaded roster that may turn out a UAAP title contender sooner than later. “My Team B is already really good,” Pumaren said.
Terence Mustre, who transferred from DLSU to Adamson before Pumaren came aboard, can’t believe his luck. He’s already lost 20 pounds himself, and is excited to see what his body fat percentage test will display before this season begins. “He’s so strict when it comes to our errors,” he said about the new head at the table. “We have to make it perfect.” When one player makes a mistake during training, all of his teammates have to ruin suicides while he watches on.
Adamson may still be a long way out from rising to the top of the UAAP pyramid. But in just 9 months, it’s clear Pumaren has already turned the program around.
Back to a familiar beginning
From boisterous and energetic, the Gatorade Hoops Center turned as quiet as a church an hour after the Soaring Falcons departed in a rush to make sure they weren’t late for classes. Pumaren had just answered a series of questions about the team and then started to stare at what at first seemed like nothingness. For a moment, it felt like maybe he had seen something move near the bleachers leading to the entry of the lockers. A second later, it turned out he was actually in reflection.
“You know, to tell you honestly, when I walked away from coaching from the PBA, I was enjoying life already,” he suddenly said.
After Air21 was sold following the 2013-2014 PBA season and became the NLEX Road Warriors, Pumaren entered self-imposed basketball exile. He says he travelled the world. “Where?” he was asked. “You tell me,” he responded with a laugh. He had more time to spend with his wife and children, visiting a city like Paris, taking images at the Eiffel Tower, and going on shopping sprees, which, as he admits, is one of his favorite and most costly habits. As he described it, he got to “chill and relax.”
NCAA and PBA teams called with offers, but each one closed the phone getting turned down. When the UAAP was taking place last year, Pumaren, for the first time, was unplugged, instead spending hours sight-seeing and trying out different restaurants around Europe. “Those were the perks of not coaching, because coaching for me was so demanding. I was [also] able to fully focus on my construction business. All of those things.”
Truth be told, Pumaren never imagined himself having the profession for which he has become most known for. He played 12 years in the PBA, most of it spent with the San Miguel Beermen where he built a reputation that would later on become his coaching mantra: hard-nosed, in-your-face, and always-on-the-move. His head coach, Norman Black, let him become his extension on the floor, with Pumaren deciding which plays to run on the go. Together, they won a Grand Slam in 1989 and a total of 9 championship.
What many are unaware of is that while playing in the PBA, Pumaren also had a part-time job by coaching in the PABL. “It was difficult,” he admitted. After practices with his amateur team, he had to rush to make training sessions with the Beermen. When he wasn’t doing either of the two, or playing professional basketball games, he was working at the Office for the Marketing Development of San Miguel. “The enjoyment was not there, because for me, it was just another job,” he felt about coaching at that time.
And then, one phone call to his big brother Derrick changed everything. The elder Pumaren coached the DLSU Green Archers from 1986-1991, winning titles in 1989 and 1990 before moving on to the pros. From 1994-1997, La Salle made the UAAP finals consecutively, but fell short of winning a championship each time against either FEU or UST. Derrick was asked if the recently-retired Franz was interested in finally leading the Green Archers to the promise land. The opportunity – and chance at glory – were too hard to pass up on.
“If you look at the character of the team – nothing against [them] – they tended to fold up. I guess I was able to [implement] the values of not giving up. Because even when I was playing, I may not have been the best athlete, not the best skills-wise, but come game time I would find ways to stop you, ways to play well. That’s the most important thing.”
Pumaren scrapped the system at La Salle in his first year, introducing new methods including a press defense which has become synonymous with his brand of mentorship and helped lead to a decade of unmatched success in college basketball. Allado won league MVP in 1998, and then Finals MVP after the Green Archers finally beat FEU for the title. He won both awards again in 1999, a year where La Salle exacted its revenge against UST in a finals classic for a repeat.
Taking the challenge at Adamson presents similarities to when Pumaren accepted La Salle’s offer nearly 20 years ago. The Falcons haven’t advanced to the Final Four since 2011, making the road ahead even more gruelling. “It’s the opportunity to rebuild the program. You know, starting from scratch, I think that’s a priceless situation in my part,” he said. The appeal was strong enough to pull him back from the lifestyle he was enjoying and so long craved for.
But the coach today is also different from who he was back then. The fire is still there, although he’s become more willing to let others take control of the rope from time to time. He sits on his chair as a spectator more often nowadays while his assistants run drills. He allows his team trainer, Diego Lozano, who also works on the physiques of multiple PBA players, to take command of the Falcons’ fitness.
“That’s why I hired them,” said the head coach, “because they know my style already and they can incorporate their knowledge. In fairness to those two guys (Ritualo and Allado), even to my staff, I think they’re doing a good job developing these players.”
Of course, Pumaren has also been the subject of criticism over time. When La Salle was suspended an entire season from the UAAP in 2006 for fielding ineligible players in prior years, there were questions if Pumaren had really been oblivious to the false documents of back-ups Mark Benitez and Tim Gatchalian. Until today, he swears he was unaware, and adds that his concentration is focally on the basketball program; not concerns over enrollment requirements, nor how much allowance his student-athletes get.
When he wants a recruit, he tells management and doesn’t bother with the process.
There are questions of what really takes place at GlobalPort, a team which has Pumaren on the staff as an active consultant. Many times this PBA conference, he’s been spotted designing plays on the white board and deciding which players to sub in and out. Some say he’s really the head coach in acting, only limited by the rules of the UAAP which prohibits its universities’ coaches to have the same title in the pros. “I’m just a consultant,” he said, explaining that he “imparts his knowledge” to help the team’s rookie head coach.
Some critics view him as self-centered and too hard on his teenage players, but many of his former players swear his tough love approach comes from a genuine, caring place. “He’s really hard, but outside the court, he’s not. He’s hard, but it has a purpose. Look at where we got. Half of our team went to the PBA. We did well. You can’t question how hard he is, because he knows his players have potential to get far,” argued Ritualo.
“I am a very demanding coach, that’s why some people misinterpret me. I’m so hard at the players. Because for me, if you’re good, I want you to become a better player – if you’re a better player – I want you to become the best player as possible,” said Pumaren.
The head coach is unafraid to sub out a big name on his team for an entire game if they continuously commit the same mistakes, nor will he hesitate to tell him about it in front of an entire jam-packed crowd. Sometimes, it seems like Pumaren may be disinclined to caring, but he insists he acts as a father figure to his guys, reads everything that’s written online, and, even has his kids tell him, what they see on Twitter.
Pumaren has always craved for competition. He and Black remain close, with both serving as the godfathers to each others’ children. But during the heated La Salle and Ateneo battles in the late 2000s, Pumaren constantly tried figuring out ways to defeat his former mentor.
That competitive spirit is why he has every Soaring Falcon except the one with the lapse in judgment do suicides in training after errors – to motivate heightened accountability, but not to the point of physical violence. “Just imagine the 19 guys will be after his ass,” Pumaren said. Emotions always hang in the balance whenever the clock strikes 8 am for these players, but once they push past their allowed limits, the coach isn’t afraid to kick them out of the gym.
“I am a very demanding coach, that’s why some people misinterpret me. I’m so hard at the players. Because for me, if you’re good, I want you to become a better player – if you’re a better player – I want you to become the best player as possible.”
– Franz Pumaren
“Macmac Cardona,” Pumaren instantly answered when asked which player was most usually in his doghouse. The coach can’t remember the amount of times he sent his former star home from practice, only to find him after leaving the gym ready to apologize. Cardona ended up winning a UAAP Finals MVP award and was one of the greatest ever to put on a La Salle uniform before becoming an MVP candidate in the PBA. Years after leaving Pumaren, Cardona saw his former coach one day while driving a new car. “Coach, sayo ‘to galing (this is from you)!” he said. The partnership was at times rocky, but ultimately substantial for both parties.
“I’m going to be very passionate,” promised the multiple-time champion. “Sometimes, if you’re too laid back, players will interpret that as you don’t care, that you don’t really guide them. Probably next year or two years from now when it’s already in their system – what I’m trying to teach them – probably, I’ll be more of a mellow coach. But right now they’re still in the guiding process. So I have to be on my toes.”
“It’s easy: effort, effort, effort, effort is all he needs,” said Ritualo. “If you’re not hard-working, that’s when he’ll be hard on you. But if you give 100% effort every practice, every game, you won’t hear anything from him.”
Members of the Alaska Aces started to emerge from the film-viewing room at the Gatorade Hoops Center. Some came over to say hi to Pumaren, who engages them in small talk. To his right, Calvin Abueva was practicing his shooting form by flipping the ball in the air. In front of him, Chris Banchero was getting shots up from downtown. Two straight go in, one misses, and then another two hit nothing but net.
Sometimes, Pumaren still thinks about the life he was having away from coaching. He reflects on the simple pleasures that he doesn’t get to do as constantly because of his busy schedule: hitting the boxing gym, trying out a new restaurant like Salvatore, or getting to watch a recently-released movie like Bad Moms. He also wants to explore the entire Eastern Europe the next time he rides on a plane. “We have to travel,” he said about his family.
But all of those delights have been put on hold, at least for the moment. “I really wanted this challenge,” he said about taking the offer from Adamson 9 months ago. Succeed, and his name becomes immortal in that university. “I don’t know what it is in me – why I’m like this – but I don’t run out from challenges.”
That philosophy is what he needs his team to adapt. He wants the Soaring Falcons to get used to a bigger crowd at the largest stage. He wants his boys not to run away by the sudden heightened expectations from the press and the public that comes with his hiring. He wants them to embrace the pressure and take joy in every moment.
Nowadays, Adamson has practice games ahead of the season against other collegiate teams twice a week. They lose some, but they win a lot more. Recently, they faced reigning NCAA MVP Allwell Oraeme and the Mapua Cardinals and beat them even without starting center Pape Sarr, who was nursing a hip injury. The Falcons at one point were ahead by 16 points, but wound up winning only by 5. “Of course I’m happy with the performance but I don’t want to show them that I am satisfied,” Pumaren said. “When somebody is down, you make the most out of it, you make sure they won’t stand up again.”
A year ago, the Soaring Falcons couldn’t even get other schools to scrimmage with them. Nowadays, the team gets requests to play PBA D-League teams, and recently beat clubs like Tanduay and Racal. Sometimes, the head coach has to decline practice game invites from other schools. Suan says there’s a new vibe around campus. Students and administrators have displayed excitement and curiosity for the upcoming season unlike before. They believe that, outside of Tab Baldwin, they have the best coach in the league.
During the Fil-Oil preseason tournament, Adamson was eliminated by NU in the quarterfinal round. When Pumaren and his staff entered the locker room post game, they saw some of the guys crying – not due to the agony of defeat, but because the players accomplished the school’s best finish in tournament history and finally got a taste of what it was like to win. The head coach urged his guys to let out the emotions, but inside, he found it “cute.”
Pumaren admits there’s a lot of work to be done before the team can be considered a finished product for the basketball season. Chemistry is strong but needs to get stronger, some roles have to be more defined, and actual game-time experience is required. But those little victories such as the locker room scene is important as well for further growth.
In the first few months of the job, Pumaren constantly asked his players “Are you scared to be good? Are you scared to succeed?” He believes his guys have so far answered the challenge, but everyday he still reminds them, “You don’t have to be scared to be great.” He’s been driven by the same fundamental for years. It’s put him through numerous trials and tribulations, but has also led to countless of wins and most of the banners that currently hang in the gym of La Salle.
Make no mistake about it: that’s the same philosophy he will use in his mission to one day do the same for Adamson.
One of the greatest lines ever uttered in a movie was said by Thetis to Achilles in the movie Troy from 2004. “If you go to Troy, glory will be yours. They will write stories about your victories in thousands of years! And the world will remember your name.”
For Franz Pumaren, it’s simple: “I won’t sugarcoat anything. I won’t be a hypocrite. My main goal is to give Adamson a championship.” – Rappler.com