MANILA, Philippines – There will always be plenty of stories, drama, and highlights to go around in the world of Philippine basketball. This is not unexpected from the sport that remains the most popular in the country.
The year 2022 provided enough thrills to keep followers of the sport engaged. But the year also saw the emergence of Filipino fans who were more vocal and more involved, making their voices heard as they felt responsible in protecting the sport that is closest to the hearts of Filipinos.
Gilas’ debacle and recovery
It started when the contracts of a number of Gilas members were not renewed, forcing them to sign with the PBA teams that drafted them and leaving the national pool badly depleted. Then came the unceremonious firing of Tab Baldwin from the Gilas program, just one in a series of head-scratching decisions made by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP).
All these snowballed and relegated to irrelevance the gains from the system that Baldwin painstakingly built around a young core that was showing so much promise.
The reinstatement of Chot Reyes as Gilas coach also meant reverting to the old pick-up system, with the national team barely given time to prepare for competitions given that some players would again be coming from the PBA.
The losses started to pile up in the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers. A 25-point home humiliation to New Zealand in February. A 46-point drubbing from the same Tall Blacks in July. Not even the addition of NBA standout Jordan Clarkson could prevent Gilas from bowing to Lebanon in August. The only teams that the Philippines beat in the Asian Qualifiers were India (twice) and Saudi Arabia.
But the biggest debacle, and the most painful, proved to be the shocking defeat to Indonesia in the Southeast Asian Games as Philippines failed to bring home the gold medal.
Fortunately for this hoop-crazy nation, Reyes managed to end the year with a bit of a silver lining. He steered the Gilas squad to back-to-back wins in November over perennial Asian power Jordan and Saudi Arabia during the last Asian Qualifiers window for 2022. In those games, Gilas looked the most fluid than it had ever been the entire year, giving Reyes something to build on in the coming year.
Filipino fans demanding accountability
Filipino fans will support basketball and the national team come hell or high water. That much has been proven.
But the missteps by the SBP this year which resulted to Gilas’ mishaps revealed two things – first, Filipino fans have their limits, and second, they are thinking fans who cannot just be fooled by propaganda that masks the failures of basketball stakeholders.
Perhaps the age of social media has amplified the voice of the Filipino fans. The Philippines being the country with the most internet users, Filipino fans found a platform in social media to vent their frustrations about how the Gilas program was being handled, or mishandled, by officials who seemed to have cornered the world market for booboos and mismanagement.
The fans who showed up when Gilas hosted Saudi aired their displeasure by constantly booing Reyes.
The message from Filipino fans was very much straight forward – we deserve better. We need longer preparation for the players and by the coaching staff. We want officials owning up to their mistakes instead of them spewing the same old cliches and excuses.
It is not that Filipino fans are being unreasonably demanding. Filipino fans just know what a good national program entailed. They saw it when Baldwin was at the helm as Gilas coach and program director.
They also know time is of the essence. The FIBA World Cup which the country will host is less than a year away. If basketball officials are half-dragging their behind in building a winning culture for Gilas, then Filipino fans want to make sure they applied enough pressure on these same officials to act with some sense of urgency.
NU Lady Bulldogs sets gold standard
Never has there been a team in the history of Philippine basketball which has sustained a stretch of dominance as long as the NU Lady Bulldogs have.
To even begin a winning streak is no easy task in any team sport.
But the NU Lady Bulldogs have shown for close to a decade that their program was not designed to just put up the usual championship-contending team. Theirs is a program with intention, drive, coaching, and tools to produce, year in and year out, a mean, wrecking machine.
From the solid foundation and winning culture put in place by coach Patrick Aquino to the masterful handling of Aris Dimaunahan, the NU Lady Bulldogs have become the standard by which all of women’s basketball in the country is measured. Some of the finest Filipina ballers of this generation strengthened their bite during their stint with the Lady Bulldogs.
In October, NU reached a milestone that seemed improbable. The Lady Bulldogs won their 100th consecutive game. They did it in typical Lady Bulldogs fashion – methodical, incisive, and merciless 35-point demolition of the UP Lady Maroons.
Close to a month and a half later, the Lady Bulldogs finally tasted something all teams in any sport in the Philippines regularly go through – the agony of defeat. It took a near perfect game from the La Salle Lady Archers to finally put an end to the NU streak of 108 straight wins.
But there was no sulking. No disgrace. No loss of face. All streaks come to an end.
The Lady Bulldogs eventually ended the UAAP season by once again hoisting the championship trophy, the seventh straight year NU has crowned itself basketball queens.
But the Lady Bulldogs will not be defined by their winning streak alone. Their real competition has always been themselves. Their true commitment is rooted in the steadfast desire to continue to exemplify a level of excellence that is unmatched in Philippine basketball.
Exodus of stars continues
The exodus of Filipino basketball standouts that began two years ago not only continued in 2022, but it extended further to another league in an Asian basketball powerhouse country.
In the Japan B. League, PBA stars Matthew Wright and Greg Slaughter, along with Roosevelt Adams, Jordan Heading, and Justine Baltazar came in to bring the total of Filipino imports to 10. They joined the trailblazing Thirdy Ravena, now on his third year with the SanEn NeoPhoenix, and returning imports Ray Parks, Kiefer Ravena, Dwight Ramos, and Kobe Paras.
With the exception of Baltazar, who recently parted ways with the Hiroshima Dragonflies, all the Filipinos in the B. League are integral parts of their respective teams’ regular rotation. Heading, Ramos, the Ravena brothers, and Wright are all scoring in double figures. Parks is close to averaging twin digits.
Filipinos have also taken the Korean Basketball League by storm. RJ Abarrientos has been clutch and sensational for his squad, with the Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus looking like a strong title contender. His performance has prompted talks from Korean media that he could become just the second player in history to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP. Abarrientos is also the only Asian import chosen to play in the KBL All-Star Game.
After missing the start of the season due to an injury, Rhenz Abando has been a key addition for the KBL-leading Anyang KGC. SJ Belangel of Daegu Kogas and Ethan Alvano of Wonjy have also impressed in the KBL even as both their teams remain outside the top four in the team standings. More Filipinos are expected to sign with other KBL teams soon.
In Taiwan, former Rain or Shine tactician Chris Gavina took the reins as the Taichung Suns’ coach in the T1 League. KG Canaleta is said to be joining his staff as an assistant coach.
All these are testament to the talent that is recognized by foreign teams, which are willing to pay top money to secure the services of Filipinos. This trend looks likely to continue and could become the norm in the years to come.
Collegiate finals captivate nation
The most attended games in Philippine basketball in 2022 happened not in the PBA but in the collegiate men’s basketball scene.
And it was two times the treat for fans as two seasons of both the NCAA and the UAAP were played this year alone after the pandemic forced the cancellation of previous collegiate athletic seasons.
In the NCAA, the Letran Knights completed something they last accomplished close to forty years ago when a “Skywalker” named Samboy Lim brought them basketball titles from 1982 to 84. This time around, the Knights began putting up the framework for a dynasty after winning their second and third consecutive championships.
But it was not only Letran which celebrated a milestone. The College of St. Benilde Blazers under coach Charles Tiu took out San Beda and booked themselves a finals slot for only the second time in the last 20 years. The Blazers finished runner-up to the Knights in a finals that went the distance in Season 98.
The UAAP, on the other hand, saw back-to-back finals encounter between the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the UP Fighting Maroons in what is turning out to be arguably the most compelling rivalry in college basketball right now – the Battle of Katipunan. The two proud institutions have met in the finals three times over the last four UAAP seasons.
In May, the Fighting Maroons bagged their first title since 1986 when they defeated the Blue Eagles on a game-winner, 72-69, in Game 3 of the Season 84 finals.
Just as the Fighting Maroons seemed poised for back-to-back championships in Season 85, the Blue Eagles clawed their way back to UAAP glory by dethroning UP in another pulsating finals series that reached another Game 3.
The college basketball scenes from both the NCAA and the UAAP offered fans exciting basketball action that was both intriguing and hard-nosed. Rivalries were formed, stars shone brightly, and winners showed up. – Rappler.com