Tim Cone is forever a perfectionist.
In 1998, Cone was tasked to handle the men’s national squad, collectively known as the Centennial Team, which represented the Philippines in the Asian Games held in Bangkok, Thailand. The all-PBA selection captured the bronze medal with a 73-68 victory over Kazakhstan. That third place romp in Bangkok will be remembered as still the highest finish for the Philippines after four editions of the quadrennial meet.
However, Cone sees their performance at the 1998 Asian Games in a different perspective.
“Failure. We were not proud at all about the bronze at that time.”
Take it from the cerebral 21-time PBA champion coach, the winningest in the league’s history.
ASIAN GAMES STINT OVER SECOND GRAND SLAM
In that same year, the Alaska Milkmen were on track for a second PBA Grand Slam after successful title runs in the 1998 All-Filipino Conference and the Commissioner’s Cup. The Wilfred Uytengsu-owned franchise was poised to replicate their 1996 season sweep, and were looking to join the legendary Crispa Redmanizers in the list of two-time Grand Slam champion teams.
However, Alaska faced a fork in the road in 1998. Alaska’s key players Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa and Kenneth Duremdes, and their very own head coach Tim Cone were tapped to represent the country in the 1998 Asian Games. Scheduled from December 8 to 19 that year, the basketball competition ran smack to the staging of the PBA Governors’ Cup.
For a team seeking its second Grand Slam, it was a tough choice. But for the Alaska organization, national team duty was far more important.
“It was a tough thing for the organization to do. For our owner Mr. Wilfred Uytengsu, it was a feather in the cap of the organization. The thing that we all realized is that the national team supersedes everything,” shared Cone in an interview with FOX Sports Philippines.
“Coaching and supporting the national team was the priority and was worth the sacrifice. I was very good with that. I was very proud to have been selected to do that at that time.”
As fate would have it, the Milkmen placed dead last in the 1998 Governors’ Cup despite the spirited efforts of the local holdovers led by Rodney Santos and Rhoel Gomez, and imports Sean Chambers and Monty Buckley.
AIMING FOR NOTHING LESS THAN GOLD
Compared to their predecessors, the Centennial Team was said to have a formidable lineup and longer build-up prior to the 1998 Asia Games joust. The 1990 PBA selection, handled by Coach Robert Jaworski, was formed barely two weeks before the Beijing Asian Games. The 1994 team, on the other hand, was a Norman Black-mentored San Miguel Beer side beefed up by a handful of PBA and amateur basketball standouts in time for the Hiroshima Asian Games.
Much so that the expectations for the 1998 Centennial Teams were so high, after having training stints in the US and a sweep of the 21st William Jones Cup. For Cone, the goal was to win back the gold medal for the Philippines, which last tasted Asian Games glory in 1962.
But at the podium in 1998, the Philippines would stand at the third place spot behind first runners-up South Korea and gold medallists China.
“Looking back, my wife always says ‘You won the bronze. You should be proud of that’. At that time, it just felt like an abject failure. We were so intent on winning the gold and we prepared hard. We thought we had a real good chance,” Cone quipped.
After sweeping their preliminary round assignments, the Philippines barged in to the second round of competition with full confidence. In the quarterfinals, the Centennial Team blew out the United Arab Emirates and Thailand by margins of 36 and 26 points, respectively. The blowout victories by the Philippine quintet set up an interesting clash with rival South Korea for a chance at a better seeding in the semifinal round.
SETTLING FOR BRONZE
The South Koreans dealt the Philippines with a 103-83 beating, sending the Tim Cone-mentored squad to an unenviable semifinal duel against powerhouse China. The Philippines then absorbed an 82-73 defeat against China, relegating the squad to a bronze medal round against Kazakhstan.
“I think what shook us was we unexpectedly lost to Korea, badly. Then we went out to play China, and we played them very, very well. We had a chance to beat them, but we didn’t pull it off. That knocked us into the bronze medal game against Kazakhstan,” Cone recalled.
Cone vividly remembers the heroics of Lastimosa in the bronze medal-clinching win against the Kazakhs. “It was a tough recovery from the China loss to beat Kazakhstan. Jojo Lastimosa came off the bench and willed us to victory, and we ended up gaining the bronze. But we all felt we let the country down. The goal really was the gold,” said the current Barangay Ginebra mentor.
“The journey was great, the result was devastating. To this day, by far that was the most devastating experience, Korea and the 1998 Asian Games. Korea handed me the fire and I got burned.”
SECOND TOUR OF DUTY FOR CONE?
Always in the discussions as a candidate for the Gilas Pilipinas head coaching post is Cone, now in his 29th season in the PBA. After that eventful 1998 Asian Games stint, Cone has concentrated primarily in the PBA, handling Alaska, Purefoods and now Ginebra. The 60-year old tactician recently steered the Gin Kings to the Commissioners’ Cup title over the heavily-favored San Miguel Beermen.
Asked if he is still interested in making a comeback as a national team head coach, Cone replied in the affirmative. “It was such an honor to do it. I have accomplished quite a bit in the PBA. It would be fun to be able to sow some success in the international arena with the national team,” said Cone.
“If I will be called upon, I would certainly do it.”