Derrick Pumaren was caught by surprise.
“Well,” he began to laugh, “what am I going to say?”
The question just posed to him centers around the first big collegiate coaching hire of the decade, which in essence, is also a throwback. This week, De La Salle University announced it has reunited with Pumaren for him to be the next head coach of the Green Archers. He is now La Salle’s seventh men’s basketball coach since 2010.
“I was excited to be going back to where I started. That was the first feeling talaga,” he told Rappler in an exclusive interview on Friday, January 10.
Derrick and La Salle are back together with the mission to revive a stagnating basketball program used to glorious expectations. Pumaren, a veteran in the Philippine basketball coaching scene, led De La Salle to its first couple of UAAP titles in 1989 and 1990, and played for the university in the early ‘80s. Images of his teams’ glory remain proudly framed within La Salle’s halls in Taft Avenue.
There’s a case Derrick returning to La Salle comes at the right time, along with skepticism that his style of play has been surpassed by the modern way of basketball. The old-timer, popularly referred to as “Manong,” begs to differ, promising he still has new tricks up his stylish sleeves to offer.
“I just [have] to get the job done,” he says. “I know what I can do and it doesn’t mean [just because] I coached at a younger age [back then], I still do the things that I used to do when I was starting. I am still a student of the game. I’m still learning. It’s a continuous process as far as coaching is concerned.”
His first meeting with a DLSU representative was over steak in the last week of November. Around the holidays, whispers about a potential reunion between Pumaren and La Salle surfaced in the DLSU community. By the time Christmas rolled around, both sides had come to an understanding.
There was excitement, especially within La Salle management, after Pumaren agreed to man the ship under another new era. But UAAP fans online – some of them, La Salle alumni – had countering views to the hire, especially since it signaled the arrival of another voice calling the shots.
Pumaren’s recent college stints tell both sides of the story. In his 4 years coaching the UE Red Warriors (2014-2017), he amassed a record of 21 wins and 35 losses, and failed to make the Final Four. The resulting belief was that his old-school, discipline-driven approach to coaching had failed to evolve with the times.
But after becoming the head coach of Centro Escolar University, he established a culture which refused to tolerate game-fixing, and a system which powered the Scorpions to the finals of the PBA D-League, where their seven-man roster put up an admirable fight against the Ateneo Blue Eagles. The same Ateneo, give or take a few names, which would then go on to defeat every team in the UAAP during a 16-0 season sweep for a three-peat.
As for his “disciplinarian” ways, Pumaren states any of the players he has coached will admit that for as demanding as he can sometimes be, “his style isn’t too tough.”
But what about La Salle – a place both his brothers Franz and Dindo, as well his father Pilo, have also coached – drew him back?
“It’s because of feeling the Animo spirit,” he says, all these years later. “Things aren’t going right now for La Salle. We should be in the Final Four, right? Yung fight yung kailangan (They should have fight in them).”
La Salle’s performance last decade in the UAAP is tough to gauge. On one hand, the Green Archers won 2 championships and made 3 finals. On the other, they missed the Final Four 4 times and shuffled through 6 different head coaches.
One of them, Jermaine Byrd, is now part of Pumaren’s staff, and expected to develop recruits from raw talents to collegiate standouts. The others are Gabby Velasco, Mon Jose, and Gian Nazario – all La Salle alumni – which signals a return to DLSU tradition.
It is also a significant factor, especially for the old-school La Salle faithful, that the Green Archers’ biggest rival, Ateneo, has been the standard of UAAP basketball since 2008. From that point until the conclusion of UAAP Season 82 in 2019, the Blue Eagles have won 8 out of 12 championships, similar to the dominant reign of the Green Archers from 1998 until 2007.
“Parang nabuhay na naman (It’s like it’s alive again),” Pumaren says about his own Animo spirit.
He’s been in the profession for a while, and the head coach admits he needs that sense of excitement when accepting a new challenge at this stage of his venerable career.
This new task checked the box.
“I’m sure I’m going to have goosebumps,” he laughs, when asked to imagine his first game back in green and white.
“I’m sure I’m going to be nervous at the start. Probably, but that’s going to be part of excitement.”
Pumaren, who also clarifies he will eventually transition out of his role as CEU’s manager of basketball operations, was told by La Salle’s managers that his new job comes with the expectation of winning a championship. La Salle has been title-less since 2016. He understood immediately what was at stake.
“The immediate goal for us is to make the Final Four,” he states.
“I didn’t come here just to work or coach. I came here to win.”
Pumaren expects La Salle to have a “disciplined team” when the Green Archers compete in UAAP Season 83 later this year. On Monday, January 13, he will have his first practice with a team which failed to make the Final Four the last two years, but has talent from top to bottom.
The graduating veterans, Justine Baltazar and Aljun Melecio, are the ones Pumaren is most eager to work with, especially given the responsibilities entailed out of them.
“Right now, I won’t be able to say the specifics, because I want to see them up close. I’ve watched them from outside, but now that [I’ll be] inside and up close, I can see and I can say what they need to do.”
There is also intrigue if he will do something that many La Salle fans feel might be necessary.
Towards the end of Pumaren’s tenure with the Red Warriors, he caught the public’s attention for his style and fashion while walking the sidelines of UE’s bench.
In a recent photo released online, Pumaren is seen beaming with DLSU management while wearing a denim jacket which drew impressed comments from social media accounts. In addition to that, Manong Derrick also wore jeans folded up to his ankles, and footwear that can be considered modish.
Pumaren guffaws when asked if he will bring his sophisticated choice of clothing to Taft. “I have to wear green pants?” he asks, before answering his own question with an “I don’t know” 3 times.
“We’ll see,” he adds. “Maybe the La Salle community expects that.”
What the La Salle community will surely expect is a return to the days of past glory. The kind of days which Pumaren, once upon a time, was right in the middle of, as he led the charge, like he will once again.
And following recent times which were damagingly influenced by inconsistent play and constant upheaval, maybe a return to the old school is exactly what De La Salle needs. – Rappler.com