What many may consider as a debacle can also be a positive sign of things to come. Gilas Pilipinas, the country’s National men’s basketball squad, went 0-2 in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) recently held in home grounds and had the door to the 2016 Rio Olympics closed on the Philippines’ hopes of qualifying for the first time in over 40 years. Two years ago in Spain, Gilas earned the whole world’s respect with an outstanding performance in the 2014 World Cup that included tight battles against former world champions Greece (70-82) and Argentina (81-85), and South American heavyweight Puerto Rico (73-77). In the same event, the Philippines scored its first victory in the World Cup after so many years by nipping African powerhouse Senegal, 81-79.
So when Manila was awarded the right to host the OQT this year, the entire nation had high hopes that Gilas would at least figure in the final game and get a crack at the lone Olympic berth in the event.
After bowing to France and New Zealand (NZ), the Gilas program was criticized by many so-called experts that started the blame game. National coach Tab Baldwin drew a lot of flak for excluding LA Tenorio and Calvin Abueva from the 12-man roster. They say both players could’ve made a difference in the OQT. Others thought the players didn’t play with the same passion and “puso” displayed in Spain and in the 2013 Asian Championship here.
The disappointment is understandable because many of us expected to get past New Zealand. The Tall Blacks didn’t have any NBA or Euroleague campaigners in their line-up. But the contenders from the Oceania zone are ranked 21st in the world, or seven places higher than the Philippines. Basketball may not be its most popular sport but NZ took fourth place honor in the 2002 World Cup, and its team is composed of top players in the National Basketball League (NBL) in Oceania, plus two NCAA Division 1 standouts. The Kiwis came to Manila determined to make an impression. Of course, they had the luxury of seeing Gilas play on opening day against France. They looked the fresher and more prepared team when they faced the Pinoys in Day 2. Although Gilas made several comeback attempts in the game, NZ was too composed to hold on to the win. It also gave France and Canada a run for their money in the OQT.
So it’s not so much what Gilas failed to do in the OQT. It was more about France and NZ, which are in the same group as the Philippines, showing why they are ranked higher for now. Yes I agree that Gilas could’ve played better against NZ, and even against France in the last few minutes. And to a certain extent I also agree that maybe LA and Calvin could’ve helped. But to expect Gilas to upset all these teams in the OQT and claim that lone ticket to Rio may be too much. Even No. 8 Turkey didn’t make it. Baldwin and the rest of the team surely gave it their best shot. But so did the French and Kiwis.
In my book, the Gilas Program has bridged the gap in FIBA competitions over the past years, bringing back the Philippines to contender status in Asia, and now as a legit threat to even the world’s elite. We must acknowledge the efforts of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), the country’s National Federation, for propelling the Philippines from a forgotten hoops nation to a Top 30 contender in the world.
We must keep the faith. Baldwin is a respected international hoops mentor who knows how to get to higher grounds. The plan to boost the Cadet Program is a sound one, with the aim of making the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I just hope Baldwin gets all the players he wants and gets a full commitment from them. To succeed, the program needs full-time players for at least four to five years, with sufficient international competition each year. But I believe we’ll get there.
Taking the 2019 FIBA Asia Championship gold would be a nice way to get to Tokyo in 2020.