MANILA, Philippines – Nearing the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China, three more PBA veterans brought their experience, leadership and firepower to intensify Smart Gilas Pilipinas’ chances at making it to the 2012 Olympics.
Playmaker Jimmy Alapag, whose only goal since dropping by the country in 2002 was to represent the Red, Blue and White; Cebuano hotshot Dondon Hontiveros, who could provide firepower from long range; and Ranidel De Ocampo, who could solve Smart Gilas‘ frontcourt woes, all joined the fray in 2011.
All three joined a month before the Olympic-qualifying FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China. They also had their experience of a lifetime, battling the NBA-laden Smart All Stars during the Smart Ultimate All Star weekend in July of 2011.
Alapag tried to match Chris Paul’s quickness while Dondon Hontiveros, a Kobe Bryant fan himself, traded treys with the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player. De Ocampo was injured during that point but was present, learning from the sidelines.
Alapag and De Ocampo however, were able to practice barely two weeks before the competition started since their PBA team, Talk ‘N Text was still competing for the Governors Cup crown.
That left Smart Gilas with Hontiveros and Asi Taulava as their two pro reinforcements for the FIBA Asia Champions Cup held in Pasig City, and the Jones Cup 2011 joust in Taiwan in July.
Hontiveros had two memorable performances while donning the Smart Gilas uniform. The first was against ASU Jordan in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, where he celebrated his 34th birthday with a 23-point explosion, including 6 from beyond the arc to power Smart Gilas, 76-74 and top the elimination round.
Another came against Japan when Hontiveros waxed hot in the payoff period, preventing any Japanese comeback with two triples and a fadeaway. He helped the crew survive KJ Matsui’s hot hands, who hit 8 of 8 from three-point land.
However, that proved to be his swan song as he left Smart Gilas, just as Alapag and De Ocampo re-joined the team a week before the competition of their lives.
Jimmy Alapag was 33 years at that point, and has been part of the 2005 (Magnolia Team Pilipinas) and 2007 (San Mig Coffee-Pilipinas) prior to his Smart Gilas stint. As far as experience is concerned, Alapag’s resume is vast enough to lead the squad.
As expected, Alapag did not only bring his shooting and play-making skills to the table, but also mentored younger court generals like Mark Barroca and JVee Casio for the big games. Although he wished he had more time to hone their talents.
“It was unfortunate because I only had a brief stint with Gilas I, but I tried my best to offer any wisdom or experience and really helped them in any way possible,” the 2011 PBA MVP said.
Shooter Dondon Hontiveros, who was with the Air21 Express at that time, also got the green light and was delighted to join the national team. He and Alapag were teammates in the 2007 FIBA Asia lineup. Although already aging, Hontiveros displayed his impeccable touch from the outside, a key ingredient in international teams’ success.
Having younger athletes surrounded him fueled Hontiveros to give his best.
“The desire returned when I’m surrounded by the younger guys. I wanted to improve. Sometimes when you get older, you want to stop or relax but since I’m with amateurs, I get motivated to compete with them every single day,” the 12-time PBA All Star shared.
When I talked to Ranidel De Ocampo for this piece after one of his games in the PBA, the first thing he asked is: “Asan na ba si coach Rajko?” (Where is coach Rajko now?) I responded by saying he’s in Serbia now, after a a three-year tour of duty with the basketball-crazy nation.
According to coach Rajko Toroman, De Ocampo and Kelly Williams are the solutions to the squad’s frontcourt problems. Prior to the 2011 FIBA Asia cage wars, Japeth Aguilar is the only “four” guy in the team. Having De Ocampo – who can shoot from anywhere and bang bodies with big guys from our Asian counterparts – and Williams as additional bigs gave the team not just the size but also the toughness inside.
Rappler: How does it feel to be part of a long developmental program?
Jimmy Alapag: It’s always an honor to represent the country in basketball. We’re so passionate and have so much love for the game. To be one of the chosen few, that’s an honor.
Dondon Hontiveros: It has been a fruitful experience for me. I’m happy that I’m given a chance to play for Smart Gilas. That was the time when I played the NBA All Stars too; unfortunately I was unable to play in the FIBA Asia. But I enjoyed the time while I’m in the team.
Ranidel De Ocampo: The program under coach Rajko has been effective; he’s a veteran coach and had lots of experience. It’s a privilege playing for him. When you play in international games, it boosts your confidence.
Rappler: What’s one experience you’ll remember while with Smart Gilas?
JA: I think it’s the Korea game for 3rd place. We fell short but it served as a springboard for FIBA Asia 2013. We were so close back then, but the second time around we were much better and knew how to react in a tough situation.
DH: It has to be the All Star Game against the NBA players. It’s Manny V. Pangilinan’s birthday treat to the fans actually; so to have him bring those stars, it’s just amazing.
RDO: One thing I’ll never forget is the loss to Korea (FIBA Asia 2011). That served as motivation for Gilas 2.
Rappler: What’s the best thing Coach Rajko Toroman taught you?
JA: Love the game. It’s an honor to play for him. Sadly I wasn’t able to thank him before he left. But to play for a coach who loved the game as much as Filipinos do, he did so much for PH basketball and we made great strides with him.
DH: Don’t stop learning. Once you stop learning, your career won’t progress. Even if you’re getting old, be open to learning new things. I picked up a lot of lessons from coach Rajko’s drills.
RDO: I have so much respect for coach Rajko. He brought Iran to the Olympics. Coach Rajko told me to be aggressive and physical, and I apply that whenever I play.
Established 5 years ago, the Smart Gilas Pilipinas men’s basketball team went all over the globe with the quest of making it to the 2012 London Olympics.
The team fell just two games short but left so many fond memories which still resonate in basketball fans’ minds until now.
It has been 5 years since their remarkable journey. Rappler Sports’ Levi Verora gives you an 11-part special every Thursday as we look back at one of the best Philippine national basketball teams ever assembled.
Bookmark this page and tune in every Thursday as we throw you back to Smart Gilas‘ inspiring road towards basketball supremacy.
Part 5: The Reinforcements II
Part 6: The original big boys (coming out next week)
Part 7: The three musketeers
Part 8: Baracael cherishes ‘second life’ with Ginebra
Part 9: The search for the naturalized center
Part 10: The Dominicans
Part 11: The Pioneers
Check back again next week for the latest story here on The Smart Gilas boys: 5 years after. – Rappler.com