Taulava, Mercado, Williams: The Reinforcements I - The Smart Gilas boys Pt. 4
MANILA, Philippines - Although the Smart Gilas developmental program started as an all-amateur cast hoping to bag an Olympic basketball slot, the national basketball team needed to draw ample support from grizzled and tested pro veterans to boost their bid.
Head Coach Rajko Toroman always had a wishlist of pro stars, and for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, he got the support of three promising PBA stars.
Kelly Williams, an athletic 6-foot-6 power forward who had donned the national colors as early as 2005 when he arrived in the Philippines from Oakland University; Sol Mercado, an energetic backcourt scorer who bagged the Philippine Basketball League (PBL) 2008 Pivotal Player of the Finals Award; and the evergreen Asi Taulava, unarguably one of the most hulking centers in the PBA over the past decade, all beefed up Smart Gilas for the Asian Games.
The presence of the 6-foot-9 Taulava - who has represented the country in almost all the years he's stayed here - was a key factor, since at that point, Marcus Douthit's naturalization papers were still being processed. Mercado provided the energy and tenacity expected of him, while Williams used his athleticism and defense inside the lane to contain the forwards of other countries.
Together, the three veterans joined hands with other mainstays like Chris Tiu, JVee Casio, Mark Barroca, Mac Baracael and Japeth Aguilar. However, the group finished a dismal 6th place in the basketball wars.
Taulava would always volunteer helping the young group, participating in the 2010 FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup where Gilas finished 4th; when Douthit finally suited up for the national team, Taulava continued pledging support as his chief backup in the 2011 FIBA Asia Champions Cup, 2011 Jones Cup and the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship.
It was not an easy task for Taulava, who was already aging although still proved to be an indomitable force inside the paint. Remember his altercation with Malaysia's Kwaan Yoong Jing, who gave him a low blow in one of their matches in the Jones Cup? It's now just a little piece of history now for the 2003 PBA and 2013 ABL MVP.
"Nothing personal. It's all part of the game," said Taulava, who was ejected in that game after throwing haymakers to Kwaan.
And if there's a big achievement for Taulava during his stay with Toroman's troops, it's the coaching he gave younger bigs like Greg Slaughter, Japeth Aguilar and Jason Ballesteros.
"It's not just me teaching them; they're willing. All the guys had great work ethic and I don't really want to take credit for that. It comes from within, those guys wanted to improve."
Since Mercado has ineligibility concerns with FIBA-sanctioned tournaments, he was not able to participate in most games but his role in the 2012 Jones Cup - the dawn of Gilas Pilipinas 2.0 - surely helped the crew in winning its 4th Jones Cup title. Mercado was a force in the Chot Reyes-mentored squad where he would terrorize his opponents with a combination of speed and versatility. This, according to the newly acquired San Miguel guard, is the most memorable moment in his short stay with Gilas.
Williams was part of the 2009 Powerade Team Pilipinas but his rare disease - idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura or ITP, a rare blood disorder - sidelined him for international competition. But he refused to stop and in 2011 he was given another chance to banner the red, white, and blue. Williams made the final roster for the FIBA Asia joust where he would duel with the likes of Yi Jianlian, Jojie Takeyuchi, and Tsen Wen Ting.
The 2008 PBA MVP was again taken out of the picture in Gilas 2 when his sickness resurfaced, although he has once again defeated it. Asked about another tour of duty, he said as long as he is healthy, he will take it.
"If my body is still ready and I'm given an opportunity, definitely."
Rappler: How does it feel to be part of a long developmental program?
Asi Taulava: It's a great feeling. It's an honor to represent the country. I thank the management for the opportunity to play for the country. You got a great of group of young men and I wish them the very best.
Kelly Williams: It's a great experience to represent the country, I've seen the group, they've grown with the Rajko group and I've been with Chot in 05 and 07, it's a great opportunity. Playing for the country is the dream of every player here. It's an honor.
Sol Mercado: It's always an honor and a privilege to be part of it; it's a tradition to play for the country. The pride and everything that goes along with that.
Rappler: What's your favorite moment while with Smart Gilas?
AT: Just everything, a great bunch of guys, it's like a family. Just being there with Chris Tiu as the captain. Chris may be younger than me but he is more mature than I am. That is humbling. He looks at the game in a different way.
KW: I think there's not really one experience but it's being out there; going to China and seeing the players gel, keeping the team together.
SM: For sure it's winning the Jones Cup. It's the best experience. The whole team felt like a family. I learned a lot not just from coach Chot, I played with Toroman too so I learned a lot not just on the court but also off the court - how to be a leader, how to bring so much talent together and we had one goal.
Rappler: What's the best thing Coach Rajko Toroman taught you?
AT: Just be open-minded. Every time you step on the floor, you keep learning from a coach, from a player, or from a fan. Keep listening, take it in a positive way.
KW: One thing I liked about coach Rajko is he allowed me to play my game. Even if I am playing 4 or 5, I was able to roam around and get touches. I like that. He's always about running and playing basketball the right way.
SM: He's just keen on sticking to the game. He's always thinking of the next play, your assignment. Just stick to the game. He was very knowledgeable about the game. Before the game, we just talk about basketball.
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 4: The Reinforcements I
Part 5: The Reinforcements II (coming out next week)
Part 6: The original big boys
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