How Jeff Viernes went from basketball journeyman to Malaysia’s hoops hope

Trying to carve out a basketball career as a point guard in the Philippines is challenging. Genetically, Filipinos are not gifted with height and even if basketball has evolved, the competition at the point guard position is still fierce, to say the least. 

There were a few pint-sized phenoms who have emerged in recent years with the likes of Johnny Abarrientos, Jimmy Alapag and LA Tenorio—all elite in this role, but unfortunately even a stellar college showing may make even the most talented playmakers a statistic in the category of those who have fallen by the wayside in pro hoops.

Jeff Viernes didn’t appear to have that destiny when he started his collegiate run in the National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (NAASCU) in 2009, bagging Rookie of the Year honors with the University of Manila Hawks and later the MVP plum with the St. Claire College Saints. 

In the PBA D-League, he was seen as player with vast potential because of his abilities to score and create for his teammates despite being only a shade over 5’7”.  His dream of making to the PBA came true in 2017 when he was signed by the Phoenix Fuel Masters.

But his time in the PBA was cut short by allegations that he played under a false name in an unsanctioned tournament, forcing him to eventually seek his fortune abroad.

In 2017, when he was hitting the peak of his form as a cager at the age of 27, the Isabela native caught the eye of some Malaysian basketball officials when he suited up in the Seri Mutiara Cup in Kuala Lumpur for Negeri Sembilan (NS) Matrix.

One fateful day in 2018, he was given an offer that would alter his basketball path.

“After one of our games in 2018, the team owner (Dato Lee Tian Hock—also the President of the Malaysian Basketball Association) asked if I wanted to be a skills coach for NS Matrix,” Viernes Viernes said in the vernacular in an exclusive interview with The Rivalry Network. “That’s when my coaching career began.”

He went back to the Philippines to give the PBA another crack, but after a mere two games with GlobalPort in the 2018 Commissioner’s Cup and a more-than-decent showing in that year’s PBA D-League Foundation where he led the Che’Lu Revelers to a runner-up finish and was also named MVP, he found his way back to NS Matrix and began his role in player development. 

With Batangas City Athletics signing him to a contract after his tour of duty abroad, Viernes shuttled back and forth between the Philippines and Malaysia until he landed a spot on the Malaysian national team coaching staff that competed in the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games men’s basketball competition—ironically in the Philippines. That slot was made possible when NS Matrix captured the 2018 Malaysian Basketball Association (MABA) Agong Cup and management recommended him for the national team. 


Viernes found himself being given more responsibilities with the national team until he eventually became the Head Coach of the program and led the national team—under the name of Harimau (meaning Tiger)—to an unblemished record enroute to snaring the inaugural FilBasket International Championship. 

Harimau point guard Ong Wei Yong finished second in the MVP balloting for the tournament behind sharp-shooter Chun Hong Ting but showed a vastly upgraded skill set which he showcased in the team’s recent participation in the FilBasket Summer Championship when they flew the colors of Kuala Lumpur Aseel. 

Many observers saw the youngster as a near Jeff Viernes clone.

“My goal is to develop and produce more great young talent here in Malaysia and help them win medals in the SEA Games,” he declared.

Viernes went on to lay out his program.

“(I want to) improve their skills (especially in) shooting, participate in more competitive leagues and international tournaments, have a naturalized player of at least 6’10” and have players that can run the floor, (have) good attitude and (develop) rim protectors.”

This undertaking is not exclusive to the men’s team.

“(My goal is also to) develop young and tall players and have this same training program from U12 to U23.”

Viernes also acknowledges that his current position could not have been attained without the help of many who believed in him and his process.

“Satyaseelan Kuppusamy (a former member of the Westsports Malaysia Dragons) was the person who recommended that I play for NS Matrix in 2017. I probably wouldn’t even have overseas opportunities if it weren’t for him,” he shared. “MABA president Dato Lee Tian Hock as well as NS Matrix Team Manager and MABA Development Chairman Richard Lim have also been instrumental in where I am today. I cannot thank them enough.”

Veteran Malaysian broadcaster Ben Ibrahim jokingly quipped in one of the FilBasket International Championship coverages: “There are two things that don’t grow on trees here in Malaysia: big men and point guards.”

With Viernes at the helm, the latter portion of Ibrahim’s statement could change very soon and a renaissance in Malaysian basketball is now on the horizon.

Before this year, the last time the Philippines was beaten in the SEA Games was in 1989—by Malaysia. 

The new belief brewing is that with Viernes at the helm, repeating that feat might not be that far off.

(Photo courtesy of FilBasket)


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