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Sun 23 June 2024

STRONGEST GILAS: The 2020-21 Pandemic Collective (6/6)

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On August 21, 2023 former Philippine men’s national basketball coach Rajko Toroman declared that this year’s national team is the “strongest team in the history of Philippine basketball.” These bold words, however, is wanting of results—the team’s performance in the ongoing FIBA World Championship will be the ultimate affirmation, or rejection, of Toroman’s pronouncement. History is providing us with a better hindsight of our century-long basketball tradition and armed with knowledge of the past, we can provide the six best nominees for the strongest Gilas of all time.

Today, we are examining the Philippine team in the 2020-21 FIBA Asia Cup and 2020 Olympics qualification tournaments.

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Strength may mean a thousand things in basketball: Total domination, like sweeping an entire tournament; becoming a world power, like having a podium finish in a world championship; or the ability to resurrect a dead program and reclaim the team’s place in the world.

But strength, beyond basketball and more applicable in life in general, may simply mean being prepared, and being consistent, in overcoming adversity.

What the Philippine men’s national team manifested at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were these timeless ideals that seem to have been forever taken for granted in the history of Philippine basketball.

Despite the reforms and incremental improvement brought about by the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas (SBP), i.e. consecutive FIBA World Cup appearances since 1978, the Philippine men’s basketball program once again became inconsistent, direction-less, and short-sighted.

The all-PBA era of Gilas ended come 2020, marked by missed podium finishes in the Asian Games (despite having NBA stars Andray Blatche of the Brooklyn Nets and Jordan Clarkson of the Cleveland Cavaliers), a seventh place finish in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup despite two successive silver medals, the infamous rumble in Bulacan against Australia in the 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifiers that resulted in a mass suspension, and the humiliating doormat finish in the final tournament in China the next year, losing by 29 points per game.

In the middle of the pandemic, veteran internationalist Tab Baldwin was appointed not only as head coach, but program director of the men’s national team. Under his leadership, an all-amateur pool was formed to compete in the 2022 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, with hopes of returning to the current FIBA World Cup. Baldwin did not bother the PBA, this time, preferring player development and committed instead of picking available pros in short notice. The Baldwin program was based on the sports pyramid, harnessing our country’s rich basketball grassroots to adopt to modern basketball.

A “bubble” camp was held in Laguna, with months of mentoring the young team with the European style of play marked by ball movement, cuts, screens, motion, team defense, fundamentals, and total team work. That team introduced Dwight Ramos—who would become Philippine basketball’s poster boy—out of California Polytechnic, and had twins Matt and Mike Nieto from Ateneo and brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano from the University of the Philippines (UP). La Salle center Justin Baltazar was also fielded but was played as a small forward alongside fellow big Will Navarro from Ateneo. Baltazar and Navarro, alongside Ramos, Mike Nieto, and Isaac Go, would become permanent core members moving forward.

The Philippines, as expected, swept Thailand by 28 points in the November 2020 window. What was problematic, though, was the June 2021 window in Pampanga that would feature two games against South Korea in a span of five days.

For that window, 6’2” point guard Matt Nieto was dropped due to injury and was replaced by the smaller SJ Belangel of Ateneo and high school standout RJ Abarrientos from Far Eastern University. Fellow high schoolers joined the fray with 6’8” forward Carl Tamayo from the National University and 16-year-old Lebron Lopez from Ateneo. That team would introduce the much-hyped 7’3” phenom Kai Sotto into the seniors squad and joining him in the shaded lane is the 7-foot Atenean Ange Kouame, the reigning UAAP Rookie of the Year, as Gilas’ naturalized player. Shooter Jordan Heading was the only PBA player and the oldest in that squad at 27, although he opted to play for country instead of club after he got drafted in 2020.

Fielding the youngest senior national squad to date, Gilas vanquished South Korea in the first game, 81-78, via an SJ Belangel buzzer beating three. Proving that win was not a fluke, the Philippines repeated, 82-77, four days later.

What transpired was unprecedented for 48 years as it was the Philippines’ first consecutive win against South Korea since the 1973 ABC Championship team bannered by Sonny Jaworski. And this was done by a no-frills team with three high schoolers, with no PBA and even NBA stars.

Most importantly, to the fans, this version of Gilas was meant to be globally competitive. Gone were the individualistic hero ball/dribble-heavy playstyle of the past and the reliance to a dominant import. Yes, this team was not marketable, except for Ramos, Sotto, and, because of his famous surname, Abarrientos. But Gilas fans wanted this team more than ever and would surely go nuts if it would be disbanded or be treated as a mere placeholder for the PBA.

This rejuvenated young team would be put to the test in just nine days at the 2020 Olympic qualifiers in Belgrade.

Facing world number 5 Serbia, led by 7’4” giant Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks and back-to-back EuroCup Most Valuable Player Milos Teodosic in front of a hostile crowd in Belgrade, Gilas suffered a major setback with an injury on Ramos. Playing with an 11-man lineup, without their leading scorer, the world number 31 Philippines fought toe-to-toe against Serbia, playing like clockwork on their offense, defending Serbia’s set-plays with perfection, piercing their zone defense, and containing Teodosic and Marjanovic to a t.

Narrowly down, 62-67, to start the fourth quarter, the 20-year-old Tamayo erupted for five points and the less-heralded Mike Nieto frustrated Serbia’s offense in a 12-6 Philippine run, with Abarrientos scoring the go-ahead basket as Gilas led for the first time against Serbia, 74-73, with four minutes left.

Unfortunately, Belangel and Baltazar missed on open triples despite having an open lane for a driving layup as Serbia simply dumped the ball to Marjanovic down under to avert a homecourt upset by the Filipinos, 83-76

For Baldwin, a loss is still a loss—there are no moral victories, in his own words. Still, millions of Filipinos embraced this young team as the national team that should usher in a new era of Philippine basketball that has embraced modernity.

What this version of the national team showed was strength acquired through preparation, execution, and player development. This team and the program have moved from the era of showtime, superstar basketball to the era of scientific, team-first basketball.

But what defines this team as the strongest Gilas ever is its sense of program. That with a modern program, consistency, sustainability, and competitiveness can be guaranteed regardless of players. For as long as Pinoy cagers down to the littlest barrio can be taught of the basics of modern basketball, there is no limit to what the Philippines can achieve in our most favorite sport.

Yes, the pandemic Gilas might have played in only seven FIBA fixtures, having a 5-2 record, but it showed that we can be a top 10 basketball country in the world. It took not only eleven young men and one brilliant mind to achieve that, but an entire community—the pool members, coaching staff, and, yes, Filipino basketball fans—to revive Philippines basketball. That collective effort makes the 2020-21 men’s national basketball team the strongest Gilas of all time.

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