MANILA, Philippines - Gilas Pilipinas has taken over the sports landscape in the Philippines in addition to making a lasting impression all over the world thanks to their impressive play at the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Despite winning just once in five games, the Philippines demonstrated that they can match some of the highest level of basketball competition the globe has to offer after going down the wire in three of their defeats.
Against 16th ranked in the world Croatia, Gilas led by three late in the fourth quarter and was ahead by a field goal midway through overtime before running out of gas on both sides of the floor, and not getting a favorable call from the referees on a 3-ball miss by Jayson Castro wherein his defender did not give him the necessary landing space after the shot attempt.
Against third-ranked Argentina and Puerto Rico, the Philippines led by double-digits in each game before faltering late due to their inexperience in international competition and lack of a go-to-guy. (The 2014 FIBA World Cup is Blatche's first international tourney.)
And against Greece, Gilas stayed within striking distance - trailing most of the game within 7-10 points - despite struggling with their outside shooting, going a paltry 6-of-22 from downtown.
All of the heartbreak seemed to fade away after the team pulled together and defeated Senegal in their final game of the tournament, earning he nation its first win at the World Championship since 1974.
According to the winningest head coach ever in Philippine basketball, the success of the national team provides a great image for the nation's premier basketball league, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
"Well, in a word, they're awesome," the San Mig Coffee Mixers head coach said of the team. "They've been absolutely shocking at how well they've played.
"It's just been phenomenal. It sends a great message. It's a great reflection of the PBA."
Excluding naturalized big man Andray Blatche, every guy on Gilas' roster is currently under contract with a franchise in the PBA. The national club's head coach, Vincent "Chot" Reyes, is the only 5-time PBA Coach of the Year.
"I just really, you know, appreciate the way Chot (Reyes) is coaching," Cone said of Reyes, who was once his coaching assistant with Alaska. "He's just doing a fabulous job of preparing these guys and developing a system that works in the national area and getting these guys to buy into it."
Cone also specially mentioned two guys who have caught his attention: Jimmy Alapag, who hit five crucial 3-balls in the second half of Gilas' loss to Argentina, and Marc Pingris, who plays for Cone's team in the PBA and hasn't been lighting up the stat sheet but continues to provide irreplaceable hustle and determination for the team with his constant diving for loose balls and battling for offensive rebounds.
"It's great to see Jimmy (Alapag) play as well as he's playing. My guy Ping (Marc Pingris) is playing well, too," said Cone, who together with Pingris has led San Mig coffee to four straight titles in the PBA dating back to the 2013 PBA Governors' Cup.
"They're getting great contributions from everyone every night despite Andray (Blatche)'s injury," he added, referring to the NBA big man's right knee problem in Gilas' first three games. Cone even went as far as to say that "They might have won two of those lost three," had the naturalized player's knee not given him any trouble.
"Erik’s the nicest guy in the world"
Two days after winning his second Grand Slam with the Coffee Mixers (his first was in 1996 with the Alaska Aces, the team he coached for 22 years prior to shifting to San Mig Coffee in 2011), Cone was already back to work as he flew to Las Vegas for the annual NBA Summer League, where some of the best freshmen, sophomores, and other young hopefuls trying to make it to the NBA showcase their talent for their new teams for the opportunity to land a contract or training camp slot come October.
Cone was in Las Vegas to scout for potential imports he could ask to play for San Mig Coffee in the future if ever certain circumstances call for a replacement
"My idea was I wanted to know which imports are out there and available to get," he explained about his visit to the heart of Nevada.
The SMC Mixers coach says that the franchise's current preferred course of action is to bring back some of their mainstays in previous seasons like Marqus Blakely and James Mays, both of whom have helped the team win championships over the past year. (The PBA allows its teams to bring in foreign help in their latter two of three conferences.)
"Hopefully we'll bring back Marqus (Blakely), height-permitting, and we're going to bring back James (Mays)."
But if it just happens that one or both are unavailable to suit up for the Mixers again, Cone liked the idea of having other names in mind as potential replacements, though he opted not to specify anyone he was keen on in particular.
"I like to know who's out there and make sure in my mind if something does happen, I'd know who I like to get," he said while also mentioning his scouting mission was "not necessarily to find who's the best, but who would fit us."
Cone's trip to Las Vegas also granted him the opportunity to run into and talk to two-time NBA champion Erik Spoelstra, the Fil-Am head coach of the four-time defending NBA Eastern Conference champions Miami Heat.
"Number one, Erik is the nicest guy in the world," Cone said about Spoelstra, whose first job with the Heat in 1995 was a video coordinator.
"One of the most humble persons I've ever met, if not the most humble. He's a thrill to be around. He really engages you. He'll sit down and talk to you. He'll probe you and ask you questions. He's always working all the time. He really is a lot of fun to be around."
Despite being a championship-caliber head coach, Spoelstra is about to face a tough challenge this upcoming NBA season with four-time NBA MVP LeBron James leaving the Miami Heat to sign with his former club, the Cleveland Cavaliers during 2014 free agency.
With James out of the picture, Spoelstra will have to rely on returning veterans Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, and Chris Bosh, newcomers Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng, and the rest of his roster which consists of mostly veterans and a few young prospects.
Spoelstra will also have to "re-invent himself," as Heat President and five-time champion head coach Pat Riley put it, and Cone is confident he will do just that.
"My sense is that he's really challenged that now he's got to come out. He's always searching for new and innovative ways to coach. He wants to get more people movement."
Cone says that he expects the Heat to be one of the teams to look out for from the East this coming season, saying that they will "surprise" many.
"They're going to be very competitive. They're going to surprise teams and the fans. They'll be one of the best teams coming out of the east." - Rappler.com