The Philippine national basketball team headed to this year’s Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea on a high note. The squad, led by Coach Vincent “Chot” Reyes, were hard-pressed to prove that its recent successes are no fluke.
“Gilas Pilipinas”‘ winning run in the international scene started in 2012 when it topped the 2012 Jones Cup. After that, the team went on to finish 2nd in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship (held in Manila) and 3rd in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup.
Adding further momentum for the Philippines was the team’s impressive showing in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where it nearly advanced to the round of 16 after losing to teams such as Croatia, Argentina, and Puerto Rico by four points or less.
While the attention of most Filipino basketball aficionados were focused on the team’s participation in the World Cup, the Asian Games is not and will never be forgotten. The last time a basketball team from the country topped the Asian Games was in 1962.
The stakes will always be high for the Philippines, home of Asia’s first professional basketball league and a nation where narrow streets are routinely used as makeshift basketball courts.
“Gilas Pilipinas” came to Incheon well-positioned to make a run for the gold medal. It instead bowed out of contention Sunday afternoon, not even making it past the quarterfinals. What happened?
While many will readily point to the absence of naturalized player Andray Blatche from the tournament (he was ruled ineligible to play) as the reason for the Philippines’ early exit, the problems actually began to surface several months ago.
Early this year, a controversy surfaced when two of the players Reyes included in the national pool, Marcio Lassiter and Greg Slaughter,begged off, citing numerous personal reasons.
Rumors persist to this day that the real reason why Lassiter and Slaughter turned down the offer is because their management refused to lend them to the national team. Both of them are playing for teams managed by San Miguel Corporation, a corporate rival of business magnate Manuel V. Pangilinan, who is the main backer of “Gilas Pilipinas.”
Reyes’ relationship with the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), the government agency facilitating the Philippines’ participation in the Asian Games, has also been testy. When PSC Chair Ricardo Garcia reminded the management of “Gilas Pilipinas” that they should also do everything they can to prepare for the Incheon Games, the mercurial coach pointed out that the team is bankrolled by Pangilinan, not the government.
The verbal spat is a lingering reminder of how internal squabbles had derailed the organization of a Philippine national basketball team in the recent past. The country was barred from playing in international basketball competitions from 2005 to 2007 when FIBA revoked its recognition of the Basketball Association of the Philippines.
The two-year suspension, although lifted several months before the 2007 FIBA Asia Championships, nevertheless dampened the team’s ability to prepare extensively for that biennial event.
The team finished in 9th place, although they needed to win the whole tournament or at least finish second next to China to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Incidentally, that was also Reyes’ first stint as coach of the national team.
“Gilas Pilipinas” went to the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the Incheon Asian Games with the goal of making its mark on the world basketball scene and regaining its previous status as an Asian powerhouse. What it got is a seemingly endless string of heartbreaking losses.
The combined win-loss record of the Philippines for the two tournaments currently stands at 3-7. All but one of those losses came via single digits. with the Philippines actually cruising to huge leads in the fourth quarter over Puerto Rico (73-77), Iran (63-68), and South Korea (95-97) only to collapse in the end. Meanwhile, crucial endgame miscues enabled Croatia (68-71) and Argentina (81-85) to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As netizens pointed out, “Gilas Pilipinas”’ motto of “puso!” (fighting heart) is not enough to live up to the expectations of Filipinos. What’s next for the team will have to be sorted out in the coming weeks and months. For now, it’s back to the drawing board for the Philippines.