Gilas through the years: World basketball glory within reach
Gerry Plaza on Aug 27, 2019 11:07 AM
Gilas Pilipinas' crowning glory was its colossal performance at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships, where they booked its ticket to Spain for its first ever World Cup appearance in 35 years (Photo by Arvin Lim)
As Gilas Pilipinas prepares for mammoth competition in the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, its second stint in the biggest stage of world basketball since the program’s inception in 2009, let’s look back at key milestones of what has become our most illustrious bid at global cage glory in ages.
Birth of the SBP
As the squabbles of two top basketball governing bodies in the Philippines, the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) and Pilipinas Basketball (under the Philippine Olympic Committee) led to the Philippines’ suspension from FIBA tournaments in 2005, a neutral party had to be called upon to end our woes.
FIBA had prescribed a unified body before it could lift this ban, and it came with a stroke of genius—tapping business magnate Manuel V. Pangilinan to lead this new organization, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, to chart the country’s new direction for the sport. And with MVP’s sterling management acumen, the raging fires that had been burning in governing basketball in the Philippines had been put off.
Thus FIBA welcomed back the Philippines to its fold in 2007, the year the SBP had now been in full throttle to carry out its mission of bringing back the glory days of international basketball prominence to the Philippines.
And as Pangilinan’s team buckled down to work, it still had to settle with a status quo of sorts in the national team, maintaining the current system of fielding the best amateur players with some Fil-foreigners and professionals in their line-up.
It was by and large an ambitious prospect—enter the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a mere two years since the FIBA ban was lifted and the same year the SBP started its reigns over Philippine basketball. And the SBP realized that there’s indeed a lot of work to be done. While it did win over China in the FIBA Asia Championships’ Group of Death in Tokushima, the Philippines to Iran to start and would also lose to Jordan to bow out of contention.
Missing the flight to London
After that failed 2007 campaign, SBP would then rebrand the team and name it Smart Gilas, sponsored by Pangilinan’s wireless telecommunications firm. Patterned from the successful farm team model of Danding Cojuangco’s Northern Consolidated branded Philippine squads in the early 1980s, Smart Gilas would look at both getting commitments from the best collegiate players and eventually sign up naturalized cagers.
In 2009, Smart Gilas took in Serbian coach Rajko Toroman to mentor the squad, which drew three-year commitments from collegiate standouts Chris Tiu, Mark Barroca and JVee Casio, among others. Fil-Am prospects Marcio Lassiter and Chris Lutz were also later added to the national team. Under its new name, the team went on to finish fifth in the 2009 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia.
But this version of Gilas called Gilas 1.0 had their eyes trained on the 2012 London Olympics. In doing so, they would have to clinch that berth in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships in Wuhan, China, now with the naturalized Filipino Marcus Douthit. But just like their quarterfinal exit in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, their hopes at reaching London were dashed when they lost to the same South Korean team in the bronze medal match. Smart Gilas earlier lost to Jordan again in the semifinal, losing an opportunity to take on host China for the gold medal.
Gilas Pilipinas and the road to Spain
With Vincent “Chot” Reyes returning as mentor of the further renamed national team, Gilas Pilipinas, his mission was clear: have the squad land in Spain for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
In so doing, Reyes had to refurbish and strengthen his artillery—and here, he took in his own team of assistant coaches and consultants, and they knew their own tasks well: from scouting opponents to implementing the dribble drive. And, best of all, he had the commitment of a flurry of professionals, including Jimmy Alapag, LA Tenorio, Jayson Castro, Larry Fonacier, Jeff Chan, June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar, Marc Pingris, Gary David, Ranidel De Ocampo, and Gabe Norwood. Marcus Douthit once again played center for Gilas.
With Gilas 2.0 in place, the team went on a monumental start—winning the 2012 William Jones Cup against a United States team behind guard LA Tenorio’s heroics.
But what became this team’s crowning glory was its colossal performance at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships that was held at the Mall of Asia Arena. It sparked a renewed sense of pride of patriotism anchored on the battle cry #LabanPilipinas that became the country’s first legitimate top worldwide trending topic. With its inspiring and impressive run in the tourney, most especially, its centerpiece semifinal encounter against perennial heartbreaker South Korea, which it won, Gilas finally booked its ticket to Spain for its first ever World Cup appearance since 1978.
With a new naturalized player in the line-up, NBA standout Andray Blatche, Gilas would end up 21st in the 2014 World Cup with a solitary win over Senegal and near-victories against Croatia, Argentina and Puerto Rico. It also lost by a mere 12 points to a Greece squad, which had a raw Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring a mere three points.
That same year, Gilas would place seventh in the controversy-marred Incheon Asian Games.
After Reyes’s exit amid the team’s disappointing finish at Incheon, consultant Tab Baldwin took over the coaching chores of Gilas, and had the mission of this time qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But there were missing troopers in the line-up that Baldwin would need to reach another pinnacle in the Gilas program. Despite this, a formidable squad of mostly big men were fielded to compete in the qualifying 2015 FIBA Asia Championships in Changsha, China. Blatche, De Ocampo, Pingris, were still the main forces in the frontline with the addition of Sonny Thoss and veteran Asi Taulava. Norwood remains at the wings with the support of Matt Ganuelas-Rosser, Calvin Abueva, JC Intal and Dondon Hontiveros. Castro would man the backcourt with Terrence Romeo.
Considered a ragtag bunch then, Gilas ended up in the Gold Medal match against China, which it lost, missing an automatic ticket to Rio. It had to deal with an extra qualifying tournament that was held at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City in July 2016 for that last spot in the Olympics. Facing tough competition from Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Pacific, Gilas failed in its Olympic bid anew losing its two matches against New Zealand and the eventual tournament winner France.
Gilas would later retain the Gold in the SEABA Cup that qualified them for the FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran later that year. But Gilas would suffer its worst finish in an Asian tournament at ninth place, given that no professional or naturalized player were available and had only Gilas Cadets available.
Return of Chot Reyes and the Bulacan incident
After the Iran debacle, SBP decided to bring back Reyes and reassign Baldwin as consultant in late 2016. Reyes would again steer Gilas to a series of regional triumphs—the 2017 SEABA and the perennial Southeast Asian Games gold. It would also compete in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon, with new Fil-German recruit Christian Standhardinger, Roger Pogoy, and Matthew Wright, beefing up the line-up that still included Romeo, Norwood, and Castro. It would sweep the group stage, including a decisive win over China, but it bowed out in the quarterfinals in yet another sorry loss to South Korea.
This Gilas squad would again vie for world basketball glory in the refurbished format for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, wherein a home-and-away format had been implemented. The Philippines had a chance to take group lead after round 1 of the Asian Qualifiers provided that Gilas Pilipinas beat Australia in a rematch at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan.
That never happened and instead, Gilas engaged the Boomers in a now infamous brawl. A total of nine players were ejected on the part of Gilas and the Philippines had to eventually lose the game by forfeit after two of the three remaining players fouled out against an Australia team already up by 36 points.
Later, FIBA suspended 10 Gilas players for the incident. Chot Reyes was also suspended and the Australia loss would become his last game with the national team.
With the FIBA suspensions meted on Gilas, including Reyes, the SBP nearly called off participation to the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games. But it eventually had a change of heart due to public clamor and hastily formed yet another ragtag squad in cooperation with the Philippine Olympic Committee and the PBA.
Former national team coach and decorated PBA mentor Joseller “Yeng” Guiao was appointed to man the team of mostly PBA players, composed of the core of the Rain or Shine Elastopainters ballclub. Called the “Gilastopainters,” the national team got the services of ROS mainstays Maverick Ahanmisi. James Yap, Beau Belga, Chris Tiu, Raymund Almazan and consistent Gilas member since 2009, Gabe Norwood.
Paul Lee, Stanley Pringle, Poy Erram, Don Trollano would also join the lineup with Standhardinger and veteran Asi Taulava. And as they reached the Games, Fil-American NBA superstar Jordan Clarkson entered the line-up after getting approval from the NBA and his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Clarkson ended up replacing Trollano.
As they prepared for a mere two weeks for the Games, with Clarkson joining them on game day, it was unlikely Gilas would reach far into the medal rounds, but they performed well beyond expectations. After winning over Kazakhstan, Gilas would face giants China early and almost won if it were not for a late game collapse. That loss led to another early face-off with fierce rivals South Korea in the quarterfinals, which they also lost. Gilas would eventually end up in fifth place after decisive wins over Japan and Syria in the consolation round.
Road to China
Guiao ended up taking over Gilas Pilipinas for the remainded of the Asian Qualifiers, giving him another shot of making the World Championships. Coach Yeng’s national team stumbled out of the game though, taking a 1-3 record through windows 4 and 5, including back-to-back home losses to Iran and Kazakhstan.
Gilas rebounded with back-to-back road wins against Qatar and Kazakhstan. However, the Philippines didn’t have a sure slot to the World Cup even with a win prior to the rematch against the Kazakhs. But South Korea, led by former PBA import Ricardo Ratliffe, beat Lebanon on the road about three minutes of game time earlier than Gilas, setting up favorable quotients to the Filipinos. The Philippines’ eventual win in Astana then officially earned Gilas a return trip to the World Championships.
In China, coach Yeng Guiao will bring Andray Blatche, Japeth Aguilar, June Mar Fajardo, Raymond Almazan, Troy Rosario, RR Pogoy, CJ Perez, Gabe Norwood, Robert Bolick, Mark Barroca, Paul Lee, and Kiefer Ravena. The Philippines start the World Cup with an Aug. 31 showdown against Italy followed by games against Serbia and Angola to finish preliminary group play.