(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin Henson - Alaska coach Tim Cone held court at the Kamayan-EDSA Restaurant the other night and regaled the PBA Press Corps with stories of the Uytengsu franchise he has piloted to 12 titles since 1989.

But more than the past, Cone was particularly excited about the present. The Aces are currently on top of the Philippine Cup standings with a 4-0 record, duplicating their hot start in the same conference last season where they finished second to Talk ‘N’ Text and were a free throw away from clinching the crown in a hair-raising Game 7.

Alaska has a chance to make it five in a row with a win over Sta. Lucia Realty at the Araneta Coliseum next Wednesday.

Cone said the gamble of retaining the same lineup as last season and adding two rookies is paying off so far. Unlike other teams that are struggling because of chemistry issues with revamped rosters, Alaska is cruising as the players are well-adjusted to their roles.

Cone described the Aces as system and familiarity-based. “Our situation now is similar to our ‘90s group that delivered a Grand Slam in 1996,” he said in a previous interview. “We’re virtually intact. We talk a lot about being a family which is why we don’t really want to make too many roster changes.”

The additions to the squad are rookies Mike Burtscher and Sean Co who were picked in the draft last August. Burtscher is in Cone’s regular rotation as a second unit player while Co is in the reserve list.

Back in the fold are Willie Miller, Sonny Thoss, Joe DeVance, L. A. Tenorio, Tony de la Cruz, Larry Fonacier, Reynel Hugnatan, John Ferriols, Mark Borboran, Jeffrey Cariaso, Brandon Cablay and Erwin Sotto. Kelvin de la Peña (recovering from three slipped discs), Ariel Capus and Co are in the reserve list.

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“Willie’s our main man – that hasn’t changed,” said Cone. “Getting Willie back happy with us was a priority. L. A. runs our team. When we got him from San Miguel, we made an investment and a commitment. We didn’t put any pressure on L. A. We didn’t give him a back-up. We wanted him to feel secure and comfortable.

Sonny (Thoss) is a lot more confident now, given his experience with the national team. Joe gives us versatility. Tony is another vital cog. His work ethic is unparalleled. He does the little things and makes a big difference. He makes Willie, Joe and L. A. look good but doesn’t take any of the credit. He doesn’t demand recognition. Tony just gets the job done.”

Cone said he expects Fonacier and Borboran to play key roles this season as they mature. He called Cariaso the team’s “stabilizer” as the leader of the second unit.

But the ambidextrous Hugnatan has been the surprise of the young season, averaging 15 points in four games. The burly Bacolod City power forward was recently named the PBA’s Co-Player of the Week with Mark Cardona for the period Oct. 19-25. He was particularly impressive in collecting 20 points and eight rebounds in Alaska’s 105-96 win over Barangay Ginebra last Sunday.

Cone said De la Peña would’ve been in the regular rotation if not for his recurring back problems.

“K. C’s court vision is incredible,” said Cone. “We could really use him but he’s still recovering. He’ll practice two days straight then on the third day, he’ll sit out because of pain in his back.”

A player whom Cone said has energized the Aces, particularly the veterans, is Burtscher.

“Mike’s very athletic,” said Cone. “He’s our hardest worker. He runs sprints faster than L. A. and leaves everyone behind. He’s all over the floor, jumping, diving for the loose ball. He reminds me of Rudy Hatfield with his motor running all the time. Joel (Banal) thinks Mike’s playing better now than when Rudy started his career in the MBA. I think Mike’s a better shooter than Rudy.”

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Asked to comment on Burtscher’s description of Cone as the “Phil Jackson of the Philippines,” the 51-year-old Alaska coach just smiled. “I can’t be like Phil,” he said. “Phil’s a calm guy. I’m not. Maybe, I’m more like Tex Winter whom I really respect and admire.”

Winter conceptualized the triangle offense of which Jackson and Cone are disciples.

“I’ve tried to keep in touch with Tex through the years,” said Cone. “After moving his wife to a caring home in Portland, he suffered a stroke in his hotel room in Kansas where he went for a basketball reunion. It took a while before anyone found him and he was brought to the hospital late. I think he stayed in Kansas six weeks. I read recently he went to a Lakers practice but wasn’t available to media. I’ve asked Paul (Howard) to find out from Bill (Bertka) how to contact Tex because his cell-phone has been disconnected. The last time I spoke with Tex was about two months before his stroke.”

If Cone had to choose a role model, it would probably be his wife Cristina.

“She’s an amazing person,” said Cone. “A few weeks ago, she joined 7,000 runners in a 21-k marathon in Quezon City and finished seventh among the women. She runs 12 to 16 kilometers a day and still works out in the gym. She bikes and swims, too. She works out with (assistant coach) Dickie (Bachmann) who’s a triathlete. They’re about even in biking but she just blows away Dickie in running. When we run together, I can’t keep up and before long, she’s way ahead. She’s 46 and she outruns men and women half her age.”

Cristina’s father Eddie was a La Salle basketball player and so was her brother Eddie Jr.

Beyond her discipline as a runner and budding triathlete, Cristina is an exemplary wife and mother to three children.

As the PBA’s longest-tenured coach, Cone would like nothing better than to give team owner Fred Uytengsu a fifth All-Filipino title and 13th overall in his 20th season at the helm. It’s the best way to show his appreciation for Uytengsu’s faith, trust, confidence and friendship. A championship will be particularly significant as a prelude to Alaska’s celebration of its 25th anniversary in the PBA in 2011.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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