Norman Black is third all-time in the list of coaches who have won the most PBA championships with 11 to his name, trailing only Tim Cone's 22 and Baby Dalupan's 15. But Black is the only coach to win at least one championship in each decade dating back to the 1980s, and joins Dalupan as the only coaches to win five straight UAAP championships.
Black talked about his coaching career with ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna, Noel Zarate and Sid Ventura in a recent episode of the podcast An Eternity of Basketball.
From the booth to the sidelines
Due to import height limitations in 1984, Black sat out that year and instead dabbled in broadcasting as an analyst for PBA games.
One morning a year later, he was called into the office of San Miguel Corporation chairman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco who put forth an interesting offer.
"I remember being called in for a meeting, it was about seven in the morning, with the idea that I was going to be their import for the 1985 season, only to be told that he was offering a job to be player-coach."
Black had never coached before, but he accepted the role and found it to be surprisingly easy in the beginning.
"It became a lot easier for me because I was still playing and I was still productive and I was still putting up points and rebounds. It became a lot easier as a coach because I led by example. In other words, it became a lot easier for the players to follow me because I was putting up 40, 50 points a game."
Black said the early period of his player-coach days was somewhat a mixed bag. He was able to lead by example to his teammates as he pumped in 40 points and 20 rebounds a night, but the other aspects of coaching were simply too overwhelming.
Luckily, he was aided by his assistants Pilo and Derrick Pumaren, who did their lion's share of the dirty work from the sidelines.
"So sometimes in that situation, it wasn't really about my coaching ability because I was just a new coach. It was more about the fact that I was leading the team on the court. I relied on those two guys an awful lot when the games are going on," said Black.
"I averaged 48 minutes a night. So I didn't really sit on the sidelines very much. And I had to rely on Derick a lot to do a lot of the coaching, particularly with the substitutions as the game was going on. And it was difficult in the beginning, but what I started to do was to just go back over the years from my high school to my college, to my stint in the Philippines under Tommy Manotoc and under Baby Dalupan, because I played for those guys."
Eventually, he acquired his own style of coaching, leading to a more clinical approach on every possession.
Asian Games adventures
In 1989, FIBA allowed professionals to play in international competitions, thus paving the way for the formation of an all-PBA selection to the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, China.
Sonny Jaworski was tapped to lead a team composed of Allan Caidic, Hector Calma, Rey Cuenco, Yves Dignadice, Ramon Fernandez, Dante Gonzalgo, Samboy Lim, Chito Loyzaga, Ronnie Magsanoc, Alvin Patrimonio, Benjie Paras, and Zaldy Realubit.
Black and longtime Jaworski deputy Rino Salazar also flanked the sidelines as assistant coaches.
"Well, that was a great experience for me. Like I said, I had some wars with Sonny, but I always respected him as a player because he always played hard and more so than ability always respect the guys who go out and gave their best every game," recalled Black.
"I always felt like for the fans, that's pretty much all they really want. They want to see to you go out and kill yourself on the court whenever you're out there playing in front of them. That's why they pay their money to watch the games," he added.
"And I felt that was one of the reasons why Sonny became so popular, because of the way he played every single game. He could go out and give everything he had on the basketball court and you could never feel like you were short changed after watching him play. Okay, you may not like him. You may love him. Of course, it was a hate-love relationship with Sonny over the years with the fans but you had to respect the way you play. And that was a good experience for me."
It was there Black grew a newfound respect for "The Big J" as the coach never lost sight of his physical wellbeing. Jaworski actually brought his dumbbells on the trip and continued to lift weights and do pushups every morning.
Even though it was a hastily-formed team, the Philippines made it to the gold medal match, where they were dominated by the home squad, 90-76. In the earlier rounds, China bamboozled the Philippines 125-60.
"Even though we got the silver medal, it was a little bit hollow, because we know we lost by large amounts against the Chinese team, but it's something I'm still proud of," Black said.
In the next Asian Games four years later, Black was given the opportunity to lead another hastily-formed squad, comprised primarily of that year's All-Filipino titleholders, San Miguel, per an agreement among team owners before that season.
However, many of San Miguel's players fell to the injury bug and Black had to tap the services of others.
Even though it was his first time calling shots for the national team, Black looks back at the event with sadness. The team was formed about two weeks prior to the meet, according to Black, and some did not even join the team until the tournament itself in Hiroshima, Japan, due to their commitment with their mother clubs.
Despite the lack of time together, the team was able to rise to the occasion, making the bronze medal match against Japan.
But on the day of the match, something fishy happened.
"The bus driver got lost. And we go around for about an hour and a half not being able to find the gym. Right before we're playing Japan for third place. Wow," recollected the tactician.
"This was really interesting because we had no problems getting to the game the entire tournament. Then we went to play the Japanese team for third, all of a sudden it takes an hour and a half to get to the arena."
Luckily, the visitors were able to make to the venue in time, and was toe-to-toe against Japan until the final buzzer.
Alvin Patrimonio flubbed two free throws down the final stretch as Japan escaped with the bronze in overtime, 79-76.
One last time for 'that old Black magic'
Black virtually ended his playing career in 1990 with the Beermen, a year after steering the franchise to the elusive Grand Slam.
He played with San Miguel as a temporary import one last time before leaving the Beermen for the Mobiline Phone Pals in 1997, before joining Pop Cola in that year's Commissioner's Cup.
Black, along with Alfrancis Chua, mentored a squad bannered by former MVP Vergel Meneses, Bonel Balingit, Nic Belasco, and a rookie named Ali Peek.
The team, with Marcus Timmons as its import, found its way to the third-place playoff against Shell. Unfortunately, Timmons had to leave the team for Australia to handle personal issues.
"So he said he had to go home just to handle a custody case, he woould be right back and we said yes, we allowed them to go. And he was a pretty good kid. He played pretty well for us. So we were playing for third place. So you know, he did pretty well in the tournament," recollected Black.
However, Timmons was unable to return to the team in time. Faced with a prospect of playing without an import and being meted a P300,000 fine, the coach decided to activate himself one last time at the age of 41.
Management agreed, opening the doors for an unofficial retirement game for one of the greatest imports ever. Despite not having played a competitive game in years, Black was able to tally a double-double in his last hurrah.
Although he still had athleticism by that point, Black seemed to play a little bit differently during the game.
Now revealed for the first time, the former import bared that he was playing hurt the whole game, as a result of a warm-up dunk gone wrong.
"I could actually still play a little bit back in those days, even though I was 39 years old (note: Black was actually 41 already at the time). But at the same time, I was no longer a player. You know, I wasn't playing on a regular basis, but I could still jump," said Black.
"So, in warmups, I figured I'd show off a little bit, I go up and I do a 360 dunk and come down, slam it really hard. I'm really proud of myself and then I hit the floor. And something happened. I felt something in my knee. And I said, 'Oh my God, what have I just done just showing off out here?' I just ruined my whole return to basketball because I was never the same player the entire game I got through the game."
Black ended his magical career as an import totaling over 11,000 points and 5,000 rebounds.
'If you don't have players, you ain't winning'
Norman Black talks about his toughest coaching opponent and what it takes to succeed as a coach.
His toughest match-up and finding his groove as coach
Black, who has steered Meralco to finals appearances in three of the last four PBA Governors' Cups, hasn't gotten over the hump yet against Ginebra.
Ginebra, of course, is led by Cone, who has also been coaching in the league for over three decades. So it came as no surprise when Black named Cone his toughest coaching opponent.
"Is there any question? Tim Cone!" he said with a laugh when asked. "He's the one winning all the championships. He has 22. Isn't it? Twenty-two championships and counting. It's interesting about coaching, though, because you also have to be a little bit lucky," explained Black.
During his collegiate stint with Ateneo, he referred to Leo Austria, then coach of Adamson, as his toughest foe. Even though the more superior Blue Eagles found ways to win, it was never handed over easily.
"We coached against each other maybe five or six years in college. I saw him a lot, Adamson. But all of our games were a struggle. You know, he would put on like 1-2-2 press, 2-2-1 press, a half court press, full court press. His offense was always elaborate," reminisced Black.
"He was a good coach in college, but he just never had the players to go along with him. You see what is happening now. And now that he has the players, he's winning games," Black said of Austria, now a multiple-time PBA Coach of the Year.
"When it comes to coaching, there are a lot of guys who are really talented, but they don't really get the breaks as far as the players are concerned. Because no matter what you say, and no matter how great a coach you think you are, if you don't have players you ain't winning. Because I know as a player once the game starts, the coach doesn't have too much to do with that game anymore," explained Black.
"The players on the court are going to decide the game. The coaches make big decisions, they substitute, they call plays, but the players are the ones that actually go out there and win the games for you. The coaches take the blame. The players win the games. That's what it comes down to as far as I'm concerned."
"Yeah, we probably have skills as a coach, but at the same time, you know, the players are the ones that are getting us over the hump and, and giving us that recognition as being good coaches. And, and I truly believe that."
His favorite players
Black has coached hundreds of players over the years, but six stood out for him.
The first was pretty obvious, since he considers him as the greatest of all time, Ramon Fernandez. Although "El Presidente" was in the latter part of his career when they joined hands in 1989, he was still able to lead the team to a Grand Slam.
The next one was the 1985 PBA MVP, Ricardo Brown. The Pepperdine product is considered by Black as the most productive player he's coached.
"I mean, he could just put the points and the assists on the board for you, and adding a few steals to help," mentioned Black.
Another one was a silent yet effective Hector Calma, the conductor of Black's championship teams with San Miguel.
"We knew who the boss was on the court. Hector Calma was the boss. He told you to do something, you better do it. Maybe it was a little bit because I always used to tell him, 'You are the coach on the floor. If something goes wrong, I'm gonna look at you first'.
"So he maintained organization on that basketball court. And when people looked at him, they knew he was going to lead them. They knew, if he told you to do something, you just do it."
Another one was the 1992 PBA MVP, Ato Agustin. Even before joining the PBA, Agustin had already commanded the attention of Black.
Agustin, who was playing for a selection squad from the Philippine Amateur Basketball League, forerunner of the D-League, torched the San Miguel squad bannered by Black himself.
Following injuries to Brown and Calma in the latter part of their storied careers, the second-round pick blossomed as the new star of their team.
"I always say Bong Quinto was probably one of the best second-round picks ever. Well, Ato Agustin probably is the best second-round pick in the history of the PBA. The fact that he went on to become the MVP of the league will tell you something like that," recollected Black, who noted that they were lucky that Agustin was still available after they picked Bobby Jose with their first-round pick in the 1989 draft.
Rounding out the guards was the "Skywalker," Samboy Lim for his impact on the game, particularly on his ability to run and finish on the fastbreak.
Completing the squad was one of his prized role players with the Beermen, Dignadice. Although he did not put up gaudy numbers, Dignadice was able to manage his role well on the defensive end.
Black, who has coached other bigs such as Marlou Aquino, Dennis Espino, Nelson Asaytono, Belasco, and Peek, chose Dignadice for being a key cog in stopping the opposing imports.
"He wasn't going to put the points on the board like some of the other players, but he could defend anybody. And that's one of the reasons why he was a mainstay in the national team doing those 1980s runs and towards the beginning of the 1990s."