Strict but fatherly: Gilas players on Baldwin’s mentorship

MANILA, Philippines – Right before practice, Tab Baldwin wears a stern, sometimes faintly pensive face as his Gilas Pilipinas players mill about, chatting, warming up, or getting some shots in. The 28-year coaching veteran’s face then grows steely as training begins and as it carries on for about 3 hours. 

On ocassion Baldwin would be a picture of calm, though nonetheless engrossed in thought and observation as he watches players execute his instructions to the letter. When they don’t, he’ll let them know. When there are points to work on, he’ll let them know. He’ll take questions here and there, too. 

In the final huddle at centercourt, Baldwin’s aura becomes relaxed as jokes and laughter – sometimes cakes and songs for birthday celebrants – are shared among players and coaches. By the time the customary battlecry of “Laban Pilipinas, puso!” echoes through the gym, signaling the end of practice, Baldwin is grinning. 

Sometimes he’ll engage in playful banter with assistant coach Alex Compton or tease other players before he approaches the waiting media in a jovial but placid manner. “So what questions do you have for me tonight?” 

This is the kind of coach national team players have come to know and respect: a zealous worker and strict mentor on the court, but off it a light and fatherfly figure who cuts through any perceived barriers. 

“He’s a very strict coach but incredibly nice outside of practice,” national team mainstay Marc Pingris told Rappler in Filipino. “When it comes to the game he doesn’t care who you are. He’ll scold you but it’s never for his own gain.” 

Pingris met the 58-year-old Baldwin two years ago when he was on board for Gilas as a consultant during the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Pingris did not need to think twice when asked of his first impression on the American-Kiwi coach. “Stern,” he said with a smile. “He’s a very stern coach.” 

Forward Japeth Aguilar was also there when Baldwin was still a consultant. Baldwin was named Gilas head coach late that same year. “He was very enthusiastic. He’s been a coach for several years but his passion is still there,” said Aguilar. 

Even then Baldwin was tough on discipline. The Barangay Ginebra player recalled a very intense instance in Spain for the World Cup where Baldwin made Gilas do suicides for being sloppy in practice. 

“When he was a consultant I always heard him yelling from the sidelines,” said Japeth. “He really pushed us. Very passionate.”

Two-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo shares the same opinion as Pingris and Aguilar, also using the words “strict” and “intense” to describe Baldwin. Fajardo added that when it’s Baldwin holding practice, you should always go hard. 

The same first impressions resounded through to the guards with relative newcomer Terrence Romeo admitting that at first glance, he already knew what type of coach Baldwin is.

“From the start I knew coach Tab was a strict coach, but in a good way, like it’s for my own good,” the 24-year-old told Rappler in Filipino. 

Keen on details 

At practices, Baldwin can often be heard loudly relaying instructions to his players while they’re executing a drill or a play. He’ll call for them to adjust on the fly or he’ll stop proceedings to explain. He’ll detail how a particular movement may not be ideal for a certain situation in a play relative to the opponent’s capability and movement on the floor. Sometimes, Baldwin will call out bad habits.

“As a coach I must say he’s very (much a) perfectionist,” said veteran Gilas playmaker LA Tenorio. “He knows nothing is perfect but we try to be perfect in everything we do and he’s really strict about execution and everything – on offense and defense. He’s that type of coach. He knows what he’s doing.” 

The 31-year-old Tenorio, who’s played for a number of coaches in his career, confirms with a grin that Baldwin is the strictest coach he’s encountered. Tenorio said the Gilas mentor even draws parallels with his Ginebra coach Tim Cone when it comes to meticulousness and getting things right to the letter. 

Aguilar shared that when they make mistakes in execution, practice is bound to extend. “Practice won’t wrap up until we make it perfect,” he said. 

FIBA Asia’s best point guard Jayson Castro described Baldwin as “tough” on top of being stern, noting the coach is a very good motivator. 

“He’s very professional,” Romeo pointed out. “He’s the coach that’s 3 steps ahead of what you’re thinking and what the opponent is thinking. He’s really good, he knows how to take advantage of his players’ strengths.” 

Father figure 

Gilas players admire Baldwin’s work ethic, dedication, and drive when he’s clocked in for work. But they love him and appreciate him even more for the relationship he forges with each and every player outside of basketball. 

After practices, Baldwin can be seen ribbing his fellow coaches and his players, bonding with them over dinner or lunch and engrossed in long conversations that, at times when trainings took place at night, stretched close to midnight. 

Pingris raves about how Baldwin treats his players off the court. His personal relationship with the coach includes family talk, exchanging travel suggestions for New Zealand and here in the Philippines, and invitations for family dinners in both their homes. 

They mostly talk in person, at times via Viber. “You can open up anything to him,” Pingris said. “Tatay kung tatay talaga siya (He’s very much a father figure).” 

Romeo echoes the same sentiment. “Coach Tab is like a second dad to me because off the court he advises me what to do not just with my game but also on how I can become a better person,” he shared thoughtfully. 

ALL EARS. When Tab Baldwin (C) speaks, everyone listens intently. File Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

ALL EARS. When Tab Baldwin (C) speaks, everyone listens intently.

File Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

Fajardo finds Baldwin approachable. That much was clear when he was in deep conversation with his coach at the Gilas Pilipinas send-off before the Iran tune-up game earlier this month. 

The reserved and soft-spoken Castro likewise appreciates Baldwin’s openness. “Even with your personal life, he’ll help you handle it.” 

For other players, like Tenorio, Baldwin is “a friend.” Tenorio attests there are no player-coach relationship problems with Baldwin because of his willingness to listen and engage in something real with Gilas players. 

Baldwin is more than his job as a Gilas coach. He goes out of his way to form authentic connections with the people around him, and that effort does not go unnoticed. 

He is loyal not only to his players and fellow coaches but also to utility staff. For instance, Baldwin refused to cheer for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the recent NBA Finals because a Gilas utility man fondly known as Kuya Bong insisted that “Le-Bron” is the best player of France, Gilas’ first opponent at the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers. 

No question Baldwin is no-nonsense when it comes to doing his job. But just as Aguilar details exactly how Baldwin embodies firmness on the court one afternoon after training, the coach walks by and, as he notices our ongoing interview, exhibits the light, jocular figure his players have come to love. 

“Don’t talk to her,” a sarcastic Baldwin told Aguilar, referring to this reporter. “She’s nothin’ but trouble.” 

Aguilar laughs heartily. “See? You see what I mean?”

As Aguilar loses his train of thought, Baldwin flashes a grin then walks out of the gym, straight toward more Gilas players, coaches, and utility staff for more smiles and conversations. –