The riddle of Barangay Ginebra San Miguel continues to baffle even multi-Grand Slam champion coach Tim Cone two games into his watch in the PBA Philippine Cup.
And at 0-2, the Kings are groping for answers to what has been ailing them for a long time, with Cone nowhere near, it seems, to solving the puzzle.
Bogged down by nearly a decade of fruitless campaign, with its last championship coming in 2008, Ginebra, with much exuberance, announced the transfer of Cone from the original Purefoods franchise during the off-season to herald the impending return of the Kings to the throne.
Cone had led the Alaska Aces to Grand Slam I in 1989 and San Mig Super Coffee in Grand Slam II in 2013, and his arrival triggered a massive reaction from the Ginebra faithful usually reserved for a messiah.
With the Twin Towers of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar manning the post in the vaunted triangle offense, which has accounted for 18 PBA titles under Cone, the Kings were expected to reach new heights never before scaled since 2012 when they made it to the Commissioner’s Cup Finals with a badly-hobbled Vernon Macklin only to be swept in four games by Alaska under Luigi Trillo.
But then came an ominous sign.
Scheduled to face the Meralco Bolts in its first game, Ginebra was instead matched up early with the Hotshots, energized by the run-and-gun system put in place by new coach Jason Webb, after Typhoon Lando forced the cancellation of the inaugural game between Star and Rain or Shine.
The Manila Clasico was a rout, with Star, led by James Yap, Mark Barroca and comebacking Ian Sangalang, roaring to as big a lead as 31 points before coasting, 86-78.
“If we had to pick a team to play in the first game, Purefoods (Star) would be the worst. What we’ve been doing for two months, they’ve been doing for four years,” said Cone, who nevertheless shrugged off the setback as “just our first game.”
Next up: Barako Bull.
With half a dozen new players and a roster extra heavy at the backcourt and thin at the frontline, Barako Bull was deemed easy picking for Slaughter and Co., with the Kings expected to bulldoze over the Energy.
For three quarters they did.
Then Barako Bull, thought to be dead and buried on the eve of Halloween after falling behind by 21 points, returned from the grave behind JC Intal and RR Garcia, who hammered one nail after another on Ginebra’s coffin for an 82-79 victory that reportedly sent Cone exploding inside the dugout.
No Ginebra player would reveal what was said in the locker room, but a team insider bared Cone’s fury could have awoken the dead.
So what now?
Ginebra faces league-leaders Alaska in Dubai on Nov. 7 and San Miguel Beer at the Philsports Arena on Nov. 15, must-win games that could spell the difference for the Kings between threading a new path and going down the old road.
Cone has five days, from today, to find a way to handle another familiar ballclub which has shunned most of his tried-and-tested system but appears to be fired up every time it encounters its former coach.
The riddle of the Kings in their first two games – one yielded, the other blown – will continue to beg for answers. From being baffled to getting bedeviled, the Kings will be walking a thin line from now on.
With Tim Cone pondering, with each passing loss, what indeed did he get himself into.
One big win, of course, would slay the ghost and wipe the slate clean. (Tito S. Talao)