MANILA, Philippines – Marcus Douthit, Greg Slaughter, June Mar Fajardo and Japeth Aguilar are the names that immediately come to mind far as big guys from the Smart Gilas Pilipinas program is concerned.
But prior to their dominance in the PBA and the national team, head coach Rajko Toroman already had a list of hardworking big guys that played key roles and braved larger foes in international competition in the early stages of the national squad’s long road.
The 2008 UAAP Most Valuable Player Rabeh Al-Hussaini out of Ateneo de Manila University, his teammate Claiford Arao, 2007 NCAA Defensive Player of the Year Jason Ballesteros and University of the Philippines Fighting Maroon Magi King Sison all spent time under Smart Gilas in the program’s early years.
Al-Hussaini was fresh from leading the Ateneo Blue Eagles to the championship in the 2008 UAAP finals, the first of what would be five straight titles for the Katipunan cagers under head coach Norman Black. He put up scintillating numbers to buck off a dismal season prior to a phenomenal end to his college career.
He played backup to Ford Arao the year before; the latter used to be the starting center of Ateneo in 2007 and had to work double-time to match well with the other tough big men in the league during that time.
Though Sison suffered through another dismal campaign as his cellar-dwelling UP squad finished last, he managed double-double averages in his final UAAP year en route to playing in the D-League and getting picked 11th overall by the Shopinas.com Clickers in the 2011 PBA Draft.
Jason Ballesteros stayed the longest for Smart Gilas; he used to start when then-naturalization candidate CJ Giles went injured in the 2009 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the nationals finished 5th.
He kept playing until the very end, exerting 100% each time despite having limited minutes on the floor. He was cut off from the roster in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, yielding his spot to Marcus Douthit, Asi Taulava and Japeth Aguilar.
The 2010 10th overall pick Arao pursued a coaching career. He is now an assistant coach for the NLEX Road Warriors, where the team executes many of the plays Arao picked up from the Rajko system.
Al-Hussaini was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft and is now a force in the paint for Meralco.
Ballesteros was the 7th overall pick in the Smart Gilas-studded 2011 draft, although he almost had a short-lived PBA stint after getting relegated to the D-League. Fortunately, the San Miguel Beermen signed him in February of 2014.
Sison is currently playing for Barako Bull.
All four credit their success to the program that gathered them and improved every aspect of their game.
Rappler: How does it feel to be part of a long developmental program?
Rabeh Al-Hussaini: I’m very proud. At least we’re part of the very first recruits of Smart Gilas. We’re happy to be part of it.
Magi Sison: It’s an honor since of all the players in the UAAP and NCAA, I’m one of the chosen names. I’m proud and it’s a dream come true to be part of a long term program.
Ford Arao: I’m very grateful even if it’s just six months. At least they considered you, and the coach who got you is an Olympian coach from Serbia.
Rappler: How did the Smart Gilas program help you in improving your game?
RAH: You gain more exposure. You play with a lot of guys in our international trips so you get an edge.
MS: The program helped me big time. I matured in terms of decision-making and I finished with a double-double average in my final year in the UAAP.
FA: He helped me with my confidence. It boosts my game. When I turned into a coach, we actually run some Coach Rajko plays with NLEX and San Beda.
Rappler: What’s your favorite moment while with Smart Gilas?
RAH: Actually I like all the moments we’ve had there. The bonding is different.
MS: We had an international tournament in Nanning, China. We won the championship and that is my first championship. I’m also happy because I wasn’t a bench guy during that time *laughs*
FA: My Serbia trip is the most unforgettable. It’s a privilege to get a slot at the national team and play for a very experienced head coach.
Rappler: What’s the best thing Coach Rajko Toroman taught you?
RAH: Just go hard all the time and give it your best whenever you get the chance to enter the court.
MS: Coach Rajko is a perfectionist. He wants the practice to be like a game. If we’re out of the country, we should eat at the same time. He gets mad when someone eats first. He emphasizes discipline. He taught me, “run like crazy.”
FA: Be passionate about the sport. When I was in the PBL and Gilas, he said don’t relax no matter what. Even if you’re the last man off the bench, you have to be ready even if it’s a pick-up or tune-up game.
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 week 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