Gilas Diaries: The First Practice
I entered the Philsports Arena last night giddy with the thought of witnessing the first practice of Team Gilas Pilipinas 2013. It was my first time to attend the national team’s, any national team’s for that matter, practice, and I felt a big measure of anxiety mixed with an even bigger measure of anticipation.
As I made my way towards that crowd of warm bodies, I could feel the unique atmosphere of this age-old basketball arena just weigh down on me. It was a far cry from the spacious dome of the Araneta Coliseum and even more so from the ultra-modern Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena, where the 2013 FIBA Asia Men’s Championships will be principally played. And yet, it seemed fitting to hold Gilas’s first team practice in this ancient, if rickety, house of hoops.
The Philsports Arena, otherwise known as the Ultra, was, of course, home to the PBA for many years. In fact, on rare occasions, a sprinkling of PBA games are still played here, though, by and large, the pros now refer to the MOA Arena or the Big Dome whenever they talk about their stomping grounds. Philsports, however, is part of Philippine basketball history, and that’s exactly what made it a great venue for this first practice.
I closed in on the team huddle to see what all the fuss was about. The players and most of the coaching staff were all holding folders labeled “ABC ’73.” After seeing that, it was quite easy to tell what was happening. Again, it was a fitting start to the practice – coach Chot Reyes was talking about the historic 1973 Philippine Men’s National Team, the last Filipino team that won the FIBA Asia (then known as the Asian Basketball Confederation or ABC) senior men’s crown. Consequently, that edition of the tournament was also held in Manila at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, which is even older than the Ultra.
Coach Chot talked about how that legendary team was chock-full of household names in local hoops – guys like Bogs Adornado, Mon Fernandez, Robert Jaworski, and many more. Coach Chot reminded everyone that, finally, after four long decades, Manila would host this biennieal meet once again, and that the team’s aim was to reprise the championship run of that mythical team from ages past.
That, friends, was how a lesson in history was used as the first step of a team tagged to make history.
History. It seemed that would be the theme for the night, if not, perhaps, for the whole campaign.
After the huddle, the players were given their practice jerseys. The only brand printed on them was the signature swoosh of uniform sponsor Nike. No other brand was there. No Smart. No San Miguel. No Jollibee (of course!). No nothing. Just the swoosh, and the now ubiquitous Team Pilipinas badge, which is basically an artful rendition of the Philippine flag.
Below both symbols, emblazoned proudly on the chest of each player, was GILAS PILIPINAS.
I felt my spine tingle.
“This is the real deal,” I thought.
I counted the players and tried to check attendance from memory.
Everyone who should be there WAS there, save for one Jeff Chan, who was reportedly injured in Rain or Shine’s practice earlier in the day. Jayson Castro and Greg Slaughter were both dressed, too, but they didn’t participate in the drills because, again, of some ailments.
Before the actual drills did begin, though, coach Chot talked to the team again and discussed one over-arching philosophy that the team would imbibe.
Before coach Chot even named his wishlist for the national pool, he already emphasized one thing – that the squad would leverage its usual strengths – speed, quickness, and shooting – in lieu of sheer athleticism or overwhelming size. This is why he chose guys like Ryan Reyes, Jayson Castro, Gary David, Jeff Chan, Larry Fonacier, etc. Coach Chot knows, based on his past FIBA Asia experience, that matching up principally in terms of size against the best Asian teams was futile. Instead, we should just maximize what we’re really good at, and take advantage of the opposition’s weaknesses – the gaps in their play.
That was one of the early lessons coach Chot imparted to Gilas Pilipinas last night.
GAPS stood for gaps, angles, pace, and space.
He showed the members of the national pool that the best way they could compete at the highest FIBA Asia level was by exploiting gaps in their foes’ defenses, taking advantage of different angles of attack, making the opponent play Gilas’s pace, and utilizing optimal spacing to find sweet spots. Already, it seemed like a lofty philosophy fit only for dreamers, but, hey, what is coach Chot if not a dreamer?
When coach Chot first helmed the national team in 2007, he was working for the “other” big PBA conglomerate – San Miguel Corporation. Back then, SMC Team Pilipinas was bannered by a star-studded cast of PBAers. It was composed of the who’s who in local hoops – crowd darlings Danny Seigle, James Yap and Mark Caguioa were there alongside rough-and-tough vets Asi Taulava, Mick Pennisi, and Kerby Raymundo. Despite the star power, however, that particular iteration of the Philippine team failed to make it past the first round in the 2007 FIBA Asia Championships held in Tokushima, Japan.
Grouped with up-and-coming West Asian teams Iran and Jordan, not to mention the perennially dominant Chinese (they actually sent their “Team B,” but, hey, they were still plenty good), the Pinoys were greeted with tough luck early on. Iran and Jordan advanced to the second round, with Iran eventually winning its first ever FIBA Asia title thanks to a young and talented core and the Serbian coach who revolutionized Iranian hoops, Rajko Toroman. Meanwhile, both the Philippines and China were relegated to the consolation/placing games. Reyes’s team went unbeaten as they beat Syria, India, Kuwait, and China (for the second time in the tournament) to finish a spot outside the top 8.
That remains a painful memory for coach Chot, and a significant reminder of how important it is to field a team not necessarily of superstars or big names, but of guys whose skill sets enable them to fit well into the team’s philosophy.
Right after naming his national pool, Reyes had this to say, “Magbubuo tayo ng team, di tayo magbububo ng collection of superstars.”
Of course, a lot of people put in their own two cents. Noticeably missing from the pool were the six aforementioned names -- Seigle, Yap, Caguioa, Taulava, Pennisi, and Raymundo. It’s clear that this time around, coach Chot was aiming for a new look, perhaps a completely new start, a revamp, of how things are supposed to be done.
This might have been an off-shoot of his time with the 2011 Smart-Gilas team that finished in the top four of the Wuhan FIBA Asia tournament. That was the best finish of any Philippine team in the tournament since the 1973 9-0 sweep. Curiously enough, it was Rajko Toroman, too, who helmed that particular Gilas squad.
After the actual practice – a slew of shooting drills and a quick run of some diagramed plays – Reyes spoke to some reporters and, when asked about the naysayers, he simply said, “Kung alam lang nila ang mga giyerang pinagdaanan namin.”
Once again, coach Chot nodded at history’s lessons. Once again, he implied how this team, this new Gilas squad, was out to change things. This team was out to make history.
Right before everyone dispersed into the warm, beckoning evening breeze outside the Ultra, the team had one final huddle on the hardwood. Long-time national team patron Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) and some members of the SBP joined in, reminding the boys of what was at stake and thanking them for their uncommon sacrifice.
“All we want is to send you guys to Spain next year,” said MVP. “Spain is a beautiful country, but, more importantly, you guys deserve to play with the best basketball players in the world.”
One other SBP official also chimed in, commenting on how guys like Japeth Aguilar, Marcus Douthit, and June Mar Fajardo, judging by the power of their slam dunks, would probably break the aging rims of the Ultra in one of their next few practices. This same official suggested they should, ideally, practice at the MOA Arena to truly make it their home court.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
For a while, all present stood quiet, just savoring the reality of having all these players, these talents, under one roof, prepping for a war bigger than any they’ve ever fought.
And then coach Chot calls Gary David to break the silence with a joke – a national team tradition apparently. David obliges and cracks everyone up, and he reminds San Mig Coffee’s Marc Pingris, who was named to the national team for the first time ever, that he will have to give his own joke the next time around.
The mood was light. The players were loose. They were in their element, happy to be of service to flag and country. They were relishing at the thought of giving their adoring countrymen something they haven’t tasted in 40 years – a FIBA Asia gold medal.
After the practice ended (they yelled “PUSO!” in the last huddle), some players posed for pictures, while some chatted with reporters – usual fare I guess for this kind of occasion.
Somewhere on the bleachers stray cats were doing the nasty, while most of the other seats lay bare and empty, all unmindful of the promised greatness of this collection of Pinoy hoopsters. The lone Iwata air-cooling contraption soon died down, and the people filed out of the Ultra’s visibly frayed interior.
About 6 months down the road, this team will play on a bigger stage, under brighter lights, and with their Filipino fans cheering them on. They will fight and claw their way towards a singular goal.
For now, though, the 2013 Gilas Pilpinas team’s first ever practice ended pretty much like a good history class does – with the students leaving quietly appreciative of the lessons imparted on them, and aware of the responsibility that learning these lessons entails.