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In The Ish: The Best Man

This article appears in SLAM #218 So much can be said about The Point Laureate – a Hall-of-Famer, a multi-titled coach, a Champion Fighting Maroon. But above all these things, and underneath all these things, Ronnie Magsanoc is a good person – a rare gift of a man whose individual skills and smarts are exceeded […]

This article appears in SLAM #218

So much can be said about The Point Laureate – a Hall-of-Famer, a multi-titled coach, a Champion Fighting Maroon. But above all these things, and underneath all these things, Ronnie Magsanoc is a good person – a rare gift of a man whose individual skills and smarts are exceeded only by his selflessness. He’s a man we must strive to be, a man we must celebrate.

By Jon Carlos Rodriguez

Ronnie Magsanoc—in baggy gym shorts, a crisp Meralco Bolts shirt, and the whitest sneakers you’ll ever see—walked into the Meralco gym on a rainy Tuesday afternoon for basketball practice. The clothes and his bouncy step made it easy to mistake him as one of the players, but the black-rimmed eyeglasses, the leather satchel draped over his shoulder, and traces of gray hair on his fade were the giveaways: he’s walking into practice not as a hooper, but as a wise person of authority in his 50’s. He’s not dressed in athleisure; he’s in basketball-legend-casual.

For Magsanoc has reached a level only an elite few can ever dream of reaching—a PBA great, a champion coach, a go-to talking head, a respected broadcaster, a beloved father. But instead of commanding attention when he walks into a room—or in this case, a busy practice facility—Magsanoc blends in. He threaded the sidelines, careful not to distract his players as they focus on their free throws. Discreetly, he made his way into the midcourt sideline and stood still, alone, for a good three minutes. He silently surveyed the scene, as if in prayer, becoming the lone holy object as everything in front of him moved in a blur. He embodied the calming presence that the Meralco Bolts needed.

The Bolts weren’t in a very good place, having dropped six straight games—a franchise record (the bad kind)—before eventually stealing a win from the NLEX Road Warriors. Yet looking at Magsanoc, you wouldn’t sense trouble. There were no signs of a losing record in his well-balanced posture. There was only peace. 

Then there was a long whistle from Magsanoc, or Coach Ronnie to his players, to break the trance, then an applause, then a prayer. If there’s a constant thing in Coach Ronnie’s rise to legendary status, it’s that: a few minutes of solemn prayer time. 

“As far as I remember, he tries to go to mass daily,” said Xavy Nunag, also an assistant coach for the Bolts. Nunag has also been a constant in the journey of Magsanoc, being there with him for more than 15 years: for the Ateneo stint; and for the championship run in San Beda (which Nunag argues wasn’t Magsanoc’s first coaching gig—he previously coached the law firm basketball team of Nunag’s father in the 90s).

The San Beda Red Lions job was tough. Magsanoc landed the position as a result of the ugly brawl that virtually ended the glittering San Beda tenure of 4-time NCAA champion coach Frankie Lim. Coming off back-to-back title runs, the expectations on San Beda were soaring. Pressure was mounting. But if there’s one guy who could keep steady and smiling while staring at tremendous odds, it was Magsanoc—one of the PBA’s 25 Greatest Players, and, equally impressive, a father of three intelligent daughters.

“It was a very challenging time for him as the announcement was sudden na he would be appointed head coach, so it was rewarding for him to actually steer Beda into another championship as a first-time head coach,” recalled Magsanoc’s eldest daughter Yana.

NCAA Season 88 ended in celebratory hugs for the Red Lions, yet it was the season opener that really set the tone for Magsanoc’s coaching debut in the NCAA; it was the spark that lit a season-long flame—inextinguishable by doubts, undefeated by the odds.  

Magsanoc started his first day on the job already at a disadvantage, missing nine of his players to suspensions stemming from that same offseason incident that got him the job in the first place. Six players on the roster, more than half of whom were rookies, went to war against a strong Arellano University team led by John Pinto and James Forrester—both of whom ended up playing in the pros. 

San Beda kept the game close, unexpectedly, almost unnecessarily, until Arellano could no longer keep up with the Red Lion fire. By the time the buzzer sounded, San Beda only had five players left (Jun Bonsubre fouled out) and the scoreboard showed San Beda had scored more points. Several kilometers away from the miracle of the “Super Six,” San Beda’s suspended stars, including Baser Amer, could only pray for a good game inside their dorms. They were gifted a 1-0 record.

“Sobrang proud ako sa mga players na naglaro dun and, of course, kay Coach Ronnie. Talagang kahit kulang kulang kami, nandun pa rin ‘yung spirit niya na gusto niya manalo,” said Amer.

Nunag called the convincing 10-point victory “one of the most fulfilling victories” he and Magsanoc ever had as coaches. So fulfilling that as the Bedan hymn played at the San Juan Arena, Magsanoc was in tears, overwhelmed with joy. Magsanoc is a calm and collected person, always unfazed, but apparently not above emotions.

“He gets emotional kapag hard-earned wins, like during that time with San Beda, and pag he’s so happy and surprised,” said Yana, 29, the first Magsanoc daughter to get married. When Magsanoc retired from the PBA in 2002, he waited a full decade before taking a full-time head coaching job, the one with San Beda, the one he got due to unforeseen fists. He waited because he needed to see his daughters grow up. Also, he still had dad duties to drive Yana to her college. 

“How do I describe myself? Simple lang. I give my utmost priority on the particular assignment that I have, which is to take care of my family and I try to give them as much time as possible,” Magsanoc said after another productive Bolts practice. 

At the top of Magsanoc’s priority list, work-wise, is his assistant coaching job with Meralco. Between that and being the (only) man of his house, Magsanoc juggles being a TV broadcaster and a mentor to a (still) growing number of players.

“It’s all about focusing on the task at hand, sharing and imparting ‘yung mga kailangan in playing the game and understanding how to do it. Ganun din naman ako sa bahay—kung paano mabuhay, paano salubungin ‘yung mga roadblocks,” Magsanoc said.

His most recent assignment to add to a long list of assignments: the head of the country’s 3×3 program. It’s the closest thing he’s doing to being a father to Philippine basketball’s top talent. His responsibility in leading the four-man Philippine team selection extends beyond the court. In competitions held outside the country, Magsanoc also oversees how the players practice, rest, eat, and sleep. He’s taking care of his boys. He’s teaching awareness. He’s setting standards. He’s building a system, planting seeds for future competitions.

“It’s not about me. It’s about what I will leave for the program para Filipinos will treat it as something as a sport that they can really win,” said Magsanoc. “The moment I see that it is a part of the culture, second nature na ‘Tara laro tayo 3-on-3!’ Sa ‘kin malaking step na ‘yun towards success. If you do things right on this level, winning will follow.”

It’s a proven formula, this winning culture that Magsanoc is so good at building from the ground up. Amer is walking, ankle-breaking, defense-busting proof. From their days in San Beda, to Hapee, and now in Meralco, Amer and Magsanoc meticulously worked on developing the point guard game. The result? Amer has developed into a big problem for opposing teams.

“Siguro isa si Coach Ronnie sa mga dahilan kaya napunta ako sa PBA. Kasi nag-improve ako,” Amer said.

When Magsanoc puts down the drawing board and puts on the headphones for broadcasting duties, the same principle of sharing is at play. The legendary PG once dubbed The Point Laureate imparts knowledge to his audience while simultaneously blessing his colleagues with nifty assists.

“He’s a true pro: respects you regardless of age difference or the fact that he’s a Hall of Famer. He’s taught me so much about the game though—how to read a stat sheet, how to read body language, and how to read game situations,” said Nikko Ramos, fellow analyst and SLAM editor-in-chief.

But ask Magsanoc about all the lives he’s affected, how much of his self he has given to Philippine basketball, and he simply shrugs it off, not taking credit for anything grand.

“It’s not even intentional. Kami ‘yung second generation of professional players that were taught nila Atoy Co, Coach Sonny Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Abet Guidaben, without them intentionally teaching us. It’s just playing and us watching and paving the way,” said Magsanoc.

“They call it paying it forward, sa akin, it was just helping. Some people may not even recognize or appreciate it. Pero ano ba naman ‘yung mag-share ka ng knowledge, magturo ka, mamahagi ka ng kalaman. ‘Yung simple sharing is tantamount to serving.”

For Magsanoc has reached a level only an elite few can ever dream of reaching—a compassionate person with genuine care for others. He shows it when he tries to appease a nervous interviewer with a soothing “How can I help you?” He shows it when he hands Amer the Red Lion keys to boost his confidence (Amer won the NCAA Finals MVP). He shows it when he brings packed lunches to games because he thinks his colleague Nikko Ramos is losing weight. 

“He’s genuine, honest, sincere in the most disarming way. He truly cares about everyone around him,” Ramos said.

Even when things are grim, like in instances when Ola Adeogun’s temper gets the best of him, Magsanoc doesn’t stray from the kind of man he is. To keep Adeogun’s head in the game, he offers him his stash of candy, which he carries in his pocket every game to soothe his throat that tends to get dry at the heat of the game. He usually carries six pieces of candy, one for every quarter, with a bonus two ready for an Adeogun hot-headed emergency. It’s a trick (or treat) to lighten the mood.

“Kasama ko si Benjie Paras, si Coach Xaxy Nunag, si Coach Patrick Fran, I think we find humor in what we do, we try to find reason and sense in what we are trying to teach and preach. We also try to find something light in spite of the fact that the objective is to win,” said Magsanoc.

As Adeogun followed Magsanoc in the D-League, so did the candy. The tactic was “crazy funny” for Adeogun, but he likes it because it does sometimes work on him. Just another example of Magsanoc’s magic. 

“He’s a very disciplined coach. His style is different from other coaches I have played with during my time in San Beda, but as long as he is getting the job done, then you can’t complain,” Adeogun said.

Perhaps Magsanoc’s style is different because there is no style to even speak of. Trying to define it is a futile exercise. Magsanoc is a good person simply wanting to do good things because he tries to do the best at whatever he does. 

“Do it right, be disciplined, and learn the proper fundamentals. Even in life, that’s how I do things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but at least you know that you are on the right track,” said Magsanoc.

“Simple lang ang buhay eh,” he said, in a voice that was as soothing and as peaceful as ever. “Sometimes it’s just people who complicate things.”