The Malta Independent 6 December 2021, Monday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Reaching 1,000 games was a milestone’ - John Tabone

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 18 April 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 9 months ago

John Tabone was born in Sliema on 12 February 1951, son of Frank and Evelyn née Borg. He is married to Christine and has three children, Jon Jon (an Olympian swimmer Sydney 2000), Philippa and Andrew (ex footballer with Luxol St Andrews).

Kicking off this interesting interview with a person who has a vast background to recall, John started to relive his early days. “My childhood was fine. We lived a very healthy and an energetic life. I’m the third born of five boys and one girl. Sport and particularly football was what we lived for at home. Obviously my father was the reason for that, his wisdom and knowledge in football and life in general, made being around him fun and always enjoyable. My father Frank was a Floriana FC footballer and later on he managed and coached the famous Floriana Ajax team. My late brother, Anthony, was an avid all-rounder, among other sport he also played hockey and he eventually was appointed the HAM national coach. Another brother Franz was a footballer, up to today he is still involved in football with the MFA administration.”

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“However having said that, my choice to practise and play basketball and waterpolo were somewhat totally different to what we were accustomed at home. A decision I never regretted. I think both sport gave me everything, mostly numerous friends, health and strength, commitment, and why not, quite an amount of personal and team-sporting success.”

John attended St Joseph Convent School, Sliema and Blata l-Bajda ending up at St Joseph Secondary Technical School, Paola.

But talking about sport how did his interest in basketball begin? “At 14 years, the great Tony Micallef Borg “Il Bossy”, my PE teacher introduced me to the game. Everyday we used to have basketball sessions during our school mid-day break. I represented the school in the Inter Schools League, where we remained unbeaten and crowned League winners. I never looked back; the game became literally my life.”

And how had his career made a dream turn into reality? “My ex-school mates Norman Falzon, Anthony Attard and I, signed and played the 1967/68 season with Athleta Juvenis; we enjoyed that playing stint with Athleta. However, our dream to form another Basketball Club was always on the agenda. The following year, 1968, together with Joseph Falzon (il-Fusu) we founded the Luxol Basketball team, which has been competing within the MBA, uninterruptedly ever since. Thus giving birth to the great Luxol Sports Club in the process. We competed within the MBA in the 2nd Division 1968/69 and I continued my playing and coaching with the club for a full 51 years!”

“I played for 10 seasons with Luxol under the guidance of our coach Valentine Drury, a true gentleman, apart from teaching me how to play an aggressive all-round game; he also gave me the needed advice on how to play certain defensive roles on our opponents’ key players. We won four league titles and three KO during that period. When Valentine left Luxol to join another club, I took over as a player/coach for three seasons and subsequently as a full head coach for another 38 years. April 2019 was my last game as head coach at Luxol; marking my 1,000th competitive match.”

In a career that spanned so long there were obviously good and also bad experiences. “My experiences with Luxol were mostly very good; I believe that we achieved what we planned, both administratively and competitively. I was an integral part of the team’s administration too; we worked hard to strengthen the team, we planned well, we always got what was expected, especially when we were having our youngsters making their debut with our senior team and with the signing of top players most of the time, we managed to have many of Malta’s elite performing for us. The feeling was simply great and exciting.”

Being so actively involved John had certain moments during his entire career that he still remembers vividly. “With my basketball career spanning over 50 years with Luxol, special moments were quite a few. As a player I have to remember the 1971/72 double winning team and the 1978/79 season, a run of 20 unbeaten games to give us another memorable double.

I still remember two good wins we had – the one that was played on 17 April 1983, a league decider game against Lyceum Stars, where we won 98-97 after being down for most of the time. Our late Darko Pehlic was the star of the match scoring 48 points. The other was when we played Sliema Juventus on 14 April 1991 winning that game when we were down by 18 points with 3 minutes 40 seconds to go. We ended winning it by six points. Ruben Dalli’s 3-point shots were the turnaround.”

“But my proudest, as a coach, were seasons 2007/08 and 2008/09. We managed an unprecedented Quintuple crown – League – KO – MBA Shield – Louis Borg Cup and Super cup and a run of 23 unbeaten games in the process. We nearly repeated the same feat the following season where we managed another Quadruple. We won a total of nine from a possible 10 trophies that were for grabs.”

“I was extremely fortunate to have had a star-studded team with a line-up that included Marco Matjevic, the Schembri brothers Steve and Dirk, Robert Azzopardi, Alan Borg and Marco Mercieca, Alex Bianchi together with Avraham Portelli, Ruben Dalli, Matthew Bonnici, Edgar Caruana Montaldo, Beppe Micallef Trigona, Tom Paris and Mark Micallef.”

“Remembering the bad experiences – I had quite a few setbacks but, as these were always involving the same clique of persons, whom I was convinced that they had a personal agenda, I made sure that I took them in my stride and remained focused on my sporting basketball plans.”

Tabone managed the National Basketball Team, making an immediate impact when he won bronze in the 1985 GSSE on the debut of the Basketball Team. “When I was asked by President Emeritus Louis Borg to coach the national team, in the first edition of the San Marino GSSE, way back in 1985, I accepted immediately. It was a great responsible recognition and an honour to represent my country. As the national team had no international matches going on, no competition experience and no information whatsoever on our opponents, we had to venture into the unknown.”

“In San Marino our squad was hit with injuries and some players had fever. However, we overcame these setbacks, by winning the historic Bronze. It was the first ever medal that Malta had ever won in the international scene. We repeated a Bronze medal win two years later at the 2nd GSSE held in Monaco.”

John also won various honours being named, among others, the Official of the Year. “I think I gave my all to achieve the various honours. I also made sure that my players worked hard to remain focused, healthy and most of all fit. To be recognised by the national sports writers for the results achieved is a satisfaction that makes you feel proud. I think that these awards, rubber stamp one’s all-round plans; a confirmation of one’s work done well. I was voted Ufficjal Sportiv tas-Sena for 1991.”

Though a never-ending list but I couldn’t not ask John to give a detailed account of the honours that he won throughout his career. “Mainly I won 13 league titles and 16 MBA Knock Out as the following details confirm. League Championship: 1969/70 – 1971/72 – 1977/78 – 1978/79 – 1981/82 – 1982/83 – 1983/84 – 1992/93 – 2000/01 – 2002/03 – 2007/08 – 2008/09 -2016/17; MBA KO: 1972 – 1975 – 1979 – 1980 – 1981 – 1984 – 1985 – 1990 – 1991 – 1992 – 1993 – 1997 – 2006 – 2008 – 2009 – 2012; MBA Shield: 1990/91 – 1991/92 – 1992/93 – 1999/00 – 2004/05 – 2007/08 – 2008/09; Super Cup: 1990/91 – 1991/92 – 1992/93 – 1997/98 – 2003/04 – 2007/08 – 2008/09 -2017/18; Louis Borg Cup: 2002/03 – 2007/08 – 2013/14; Pre-season competitions: Super 5 1990 – Independence Cup 2019; As national  coach: two Bronze Medals GSSE 1985 and 1987.”

“As already stated I was awarded The Sport Official of the Year for 1991 and in 1975 In- Nazzjon Tagħna Player of the year.”

One would think that the above awards were achieved by means of smooth and easy course of action. It was extremely hard to remain competitive, year in year out. It had to be done with the likes of the following gentlemen namely Alfred Pace, Joseph Falzon, Louis Azzopardi, Roland Sollars, Ruben Dalli and our present president il-Perit Edgar Caruana Montaldo. Biggest satisfaction is that I was always surrounded with healthy strong athletes; some 240 played for Luxol.

Though I hate mentioning names but I cannot not mention a few players that had some great performances for Luxol: Norman Falzon –  Val Drury – Kevin Decesare – Salvu Vella – Lorry Agius – Ray Lautier  (late) – Philip Degabriele – Bernard Micallef – Stephen Rizzo (late) – Darko Pehlic (late) – Andrew Cefai – Ivan Attard – Ruben Dalli – Don Ross – Ivan Riolo – Ray Muscat – Robert Azzopardi  – Paul Sultana – Richard Schembri – Tony Cassar – Silvio Cassar – Marco Mercieca – Chris Sammut – Steve Schembri – Dirk Schembri – Alan Borg – Marko Matjevic  and Samuel Deguara.”

Tabone was also part and parcel of another sport, though a summer one, but rather intensive. It’s good to note that throughout those years, I was also committed to the game of waterpolo with Sliema ASC for a full 17 years, both as a player and later as coach. I played with the minor and senior teams and coached the under 14s, 16s, 18s, Reserves and the First Division team. Lucky to have been part of the teams that won every honour the waterpolo game had to offer, both as a player and coach. Obviously the 1st Division championship with Sliema in season 1983 is what I cherish the most as I blended the junior players I had coached all through the ranks namely Marco Mannara, Simon Gatt, Albert Petrococchino, Alex Tanti, Carlos Cluett, Edward Refalo and Andrew Borg with the established Sliema’s greats like Peter Decesare, Adrian Meli, Michael Gatt and Edward Calleja.

So is 1983 the most cherished year? Will be definitely remembered as I coached two winning championship teams namely Luxol Basketball and Sliema ASC though it was a real rollercoaster experience, even though basketball was considered a winter sport and waterpolo a summer sport. I had to juggle with preseason and in season preparation of both teams with no remuneration of any kind. I had to bear in mind that my job as car Sales manager was to be given the utmost attention at the same time. I gave up waterpolo the following season. 

John’s opinion about today’s level of basketball is a positive and optimistic one. “Yes the game has improved. The MBA is continually thriving and working hard to take the game to higher levels in the organisation and running of the different competitions which include over 400 games per season, also providing the match and table officials.”

“Maltese players taking part in today’s game are getting stronger and faster each year. But other local quality players are needed to better the basketball standard. Unfortunately, the spectators are too little; hope that by lifting the Covid-19 measures, basketball enthusiasts will return to watch basketball. It’s also good to note that we have Maltese players performing in foreign leagues, complementing well for our national teams.”

And with the improvement of facilities along the years, are we still lagging behind other countries? “Definitely not, our facilities have improved; we do not lag behind any country. With Paul Sultana at the helm of the MBA, the Ta’ Qali Basketball Complex has been developed and totally transformed; apart from the main court, two training “bubble” courts have been added. The main court has been totally refurbished into a complete basketball venue with all the required standards to meet any kind of competition whether be it local or FIBA.”

And how is a typical day for John today? “With Covid-19 around, keeping safe took away lots of quality time and I am not doing much. But I am still helping around with odd administrative jobs at Luxol. Also I’m enjoying another coaching stint with the Men’s Under 19 Luxol team. To be honest, at 70, I cannot do much, but being with my grandchildren Ella and Matteo, which is an unimaginable nice feeling to have them around. I also make sure to mark my calendar with all the dates of international sporting events as reminders to watch Juventus, Formula 1, Moto GP, Tennis and NBA. In a nutshell all sporting events.”

Family life is something that John savours a lot. “I suppose like everyone else, the family has to have the centre stage, everything revolves around it – the good, the bad and the ugly. The memorable moments – laughing and crying together. That is what family is all about.”

John’s favourite hobby is cooking. In fact he also delves into mentioning his favourite culinary plate. “I like most of the ethnic food but overall I do not consider myself fussy about food.”

Mentioning driving around Sicily as his pick when choosing a favourite destination Tabone has one final advice that he would like to pass on to the young generation about basketball and sport. “You have it all, organised clubs, affiliated with a truly professionally-run Basketball Association. Clubs need to contact as many parents as possible to enroll their children to their respective nurseries. Once these youths are part of the basketball setup, then it’s up to the various coaches to teach the importance that as a person in general one needs to be reliable, dependable, available, honest, loyal, enthusiastic and confident.”

“Working on those lines an athlete will need to add the following traits – faith, ambition, skill, sincerity and cooperation to attain with patience any form of success.

Coaches need to understand that today’s youths are spoilt for choice; there are many distractions that might interrupt their interest in basketball and move on to another pastime or sport. One needs to make sure that understanding them is imperative. Don’t forget to show interest in their scholastic progress.   

“Success is a peace of mind, which is knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming” – John Wooden from the Pyramid of Success.

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