Calling it a leap of faith, Jong Uichico yesterday said he decided to join the Gilas national team as an assistant coach and Meralco as a consultant on a three-year contract within two weeks after the offer was made by Talk ‘N’ Text PBA governor Patrick Gregorio last Jan. 2.
“It’s a career move, something new in my life and an upgrade,” said Uichico. “I don’t know who’ll be the Gilas head coach but I’m joining the pool of coaches as an assistant. Right now, the pool consists of Chot (Reyes), Ryan (Gregorio) and Norman (Black). I think Tim (Cone) has also been invited to join the pool. I don’t know if coach Rajko (Toroman) will be back with the team. I’ll also be a consultant with Meralco.”
Uichico gave up his positions at Barangay Ginebra as co-coach and La Salle as consultant in the process. He said if offered to join the Ateneo coaching staff, he will decline. Within the time frame of his new contract, Uichico said the goal is to qualify Gilas for the FIBA World Championships by finishing at least third place in the Asia qualifiers.
“I know there will be pressure in this new assignment,” said Uichico. “As the tournament draws nearer, the pressure builds up. That’s how it felt preparing for the 2002 Asian Games. It’s difficult to say which job means more pressure – coaching in the PBA or the national team because each has its own pressure points. But it’s a matter of being ready for the challenge.”
Uichico said sliding down to co-coach with Ginebra had nothing to do with his decision to move. “That’s management’s prerogative,” he said. “Management knows best in making adjustments to improve the team. I will always be grateful to Boss Danding (Cojuangco), Boss (Henry) and Boss Ramon (Ang). I spent 18 years with the San Miguel group. That’s why before I made my decision, I asked for their blessing. They assured me that nothing’s changed in our relationship, that they’ll still consider me like a son to them and the only thing different is I’ll move to a new job. They told me if I thought it was the right move to improve my career, they won’t get in the way of my advancement, they won’t be a hindrance. They’ve been very good to me through the years and I’ll never forget their kindness.”
Uichico said he spoke to Siot Tanquingcen about the possibility of moving before the Ginebra coach left for the US last Jan. 7. “We’ve been together for years,” he said. “I mentioned to Siot that I was considering a career move and he advised me to think it over very carefully. When I finally decided, I called him on the phone as he was already in the US. I met with the Ginebra team before my decision was made public and they were stunned because they had no inkling I would leave. Siot’s in good hands with his staff of Allan (Caidic), Art (de la Cruz) and Juno (Sauler). Ginebra’s bringing back Chris Alexander for the second conference. There’s a clamor for him to return since he delivered Ginebra’s last championship.”
Uichico said he met with Gregorio for dinner at Outback Restaurant in Libis last week to iron out details of the engagement. They were later joined by PLDT chairman Manny V. Pangilinan, Maynilad president Ricky Vargas, Meralco senior vice president Mon Segismundo and PLDT executive assistant to the chairman Abet Dungo.
“It was a very cordial meeting,” said Uichico. “We talked about the Gilas program, how we want to bring the Philippines back to No. 1 in Asia. I think it will be a collective decision among the coaches as to whom to draft for Gilas. I’m excited to get to work because it’s a big challenge to qualify for the World Championships.”
Before making up his mind, Uichico visited his mentor Ron Jacobs, who remains paralyzed after suffering a stroke in December 2001. “I went to coach Ron in his Makati condo,” said Uichico. “I told him about the offer. I asked if he could show me a sign of agreement or disagreement. I knew he heard me. Coach Ron is my inspiration. He was the last national coach to give the Philippines an Asian championship. I hope I can contribute in making that happen again with Gilas.”
Asked if Reyes will be Gilas head coach, Uichico said that depends on Talk ‘N’ Text. “I don’t know if Talk ‘N’ Text will let go of Chot,” he said. “All I know is I’ll be an assistant with Gilas. I’ve worked closely with Chot in the past so working together again will be exciting for me. I can work with anyone I’m assigned to because what’s important is the coaching staff works as a team towards achieving our goal.”