In less than a month, the country will be hosting one of three FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments (OQT), where only the winner of the six-nation joust gets a ticket to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics basketball event in August.
The Philippine men’s national squad carries the hopes of this hoops-crazy nation of qualifying for the Olympic basketball games for the first time since 1972. But the team known as Gilas Pilipinas faces the daunting task of topping five other nations here at home that are just as determined to make it to Brazil. They first face powerhouse France on July 5 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City. France is an eight-time Olympic qualifier that took home the silver in 2000. The French are considered the heavy favorites to win the Manila OQT with San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker leading five other NBA campaigners that include fellow Spurs Boris Diaw and Charlotte Hornets’ Nicolas Batum. Then, Gilas tangles with New Zealand the next day. The Tall Blacks are dangerous with mainly veterans of the high-level National Basketball League (NBL) of Australia. The Philippines hopes to be one of two teams from Group B to advance to the semis, where Canada, Turkey and Senegal, from Group A, are potential opponents. Only the winner in the July 10 final game advances to Rio.
Only three more nations can join the 12-team Olympic basketball event, one each from the three OQTs. Already seeded in the event are the United States, host Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, Lithuania and China.
Saying that Gilas has a Herculean job is an understatement. Should they manage to get past France or New Zealand in the first phase, facing either Canada, Turkey or Senegal in the semis won’t be a lesser assignment. All these countries are bannered by NBA and Euro League stars, and they have more experience in FIBA competitions.
But Gilas head coach Tab Baldwin knows international basketball like the palm of his hand. He has once led New Zealand to a fourth place finish in the World Championships. More importantly, he knows the potential of his squad having worked with Gilas since 2013 at the FIBA Asia Championship here and the 2014 FIBA World Championship in Spain. Baldwin believes they can do the improbable with the effort that the entire team put in the last few months. They are now in the final stages of preparations, where the team will undergo a training camp in Greece before playing the Turks in a friendly match in Istanbul. From Turkey, Gilas flies to Bologna, Italy to join Canada, China and host Italy in a four-nation pocket tourney.
A week before the OQT, the Nationals play Turkey again in a tune-up game here in Manila, which completes a hectic training schedule that should get the team in top shape for the tough games ahead.
Here are the fourteen players (including two reserves to be named before the tournament) that will carry the country’s hopes in the OQT: June Mar Fajardo of San Miguel Beer, Jayson Castro, Ranidel de Ocampo, Troy Rosario and Ryan Reyes of Talk N’ Text, Gabe Norwood and Jeff Chan of Rain or Shine, Marc Pingris of Star, Calvin Abueva of Alaska, Japeth Aguilar and LA Tenorio or Barangay Ginebra, two-time UAAP MVP Ray Parks, Terrence Romeo of GlobalPort, and naturalized and former NBA player Andray Blatche. Greg Slaughter, Marcio Lassiter, Paul Lee and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser could’ve also beefed up the squad but were saddled with health issues and injuries.
The Philippines has the most wins and highest achievement in the Olympic games among all Asian countries. It won fifth place in 1936 and qualified seven times in the Olympics. But it has not returned to the Olympic stage for over 40 years.
The current Gilas squad has come to a point where it has the best chance of breaking this long dry spell. The team assembled by Baldwin, Team Manager Butch Antonio, and the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) National Federation and the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) looks ready to make history.
My prediction: Gilas gets past New Zealand in Round 1, and Turkey in the semis to get another crack at France for the lone Olympic berth.