In need of redemption, Gilas Pilipinas looks for best SEA Games squad from among those available
MANILA, Philippines–Matthew Wright, a dynamic sharpshooter who several years ago was recruited to serve Gilas Pilipinas, took one last glimpse at the basketball as soon as it left the hands of Thirdy Ravena, a young, athletic guard being groomed to become one of the cornerstones of the cage program.
Not that Ravena’s heave from mid-court of the Thanh Trì District Sporting Hall in Hanoi still mattered. The final tally was set—seared into the minds of those at the arena and the hundreds of thousands back at home.
The pair then dipped their heads and made their way to the Philippines’ goal as if to distance themselves from the revelry that was breaking out on the opposite end of the court. And perhaps, from their own embarrassment, as well.
The Philippines lost, 85-81, giving up the basketball gold it had a stranglehold on for 33 years. It was a mortifying result from a collection of professionals that Wright, days before jetting into the Vietnamese capital, labeled as “the Team USA of Southeast Asia.”
“We’ve been saying it from the start. We cannot take teams from Southeast Asia lightly,” national coach Chot Reyes said in a parting shot to reporters that fateful evening. “You’re here, you saw the competition, the level. Not only Indonesia. Thailand, Vietnam—those are all contenders. We should take Southeast Asia seriously,”
About a year later, Reyes’ refrain remains the same. Only this time, he prefers to speak about the debacle in tangents, chalking it up as one of the many truths that this cage-crazed nation has to come to terms with.
“We’re just focusing on doing the best we can,” he told the Inquirer. “We know that other teams have gotten better. We already said last year we can’t take (them) for granted. All of them now had an extra year to prepare. We also know that Indonesia has been weeks into their Australia camp. They’re all getting better and preparing. Vietnam and Thailand, they’re doing their own stuff.”
Other realities that hound Gilas are player health and availability. Less than two weeks before the contingent flies for Phnom Penh, Reyes revealed that Jamie Malonzo, Barangay Ginebra’s uber-athletic two-way forward, has begged off from SEA Games duty. Also opting out was Mikey Williams, TNT’s top gun and the PBA’s scoring champion who would have been the perfect player to take advantage of the SEA Games’ relaxed eligibility rules.
Another Reyes guy who has ruled himself out of the biennial meet is Roger Pogoy, whose absence because of an injury significantly slashes Gilas’ options for scorers.
Then there’s AJ Edu. Or, more aptly, there’s no AJ Edu. The 6-foot-10 big man is unlikely to join the national pool due to school chores. Edu would’ve been a logical pick at a time when two-time World Cup participants Japeth Aguilar and June Mar Fajardo are still working their way back to tip-top shape.
Aguilar and Fajardo can actually suit up in Cambodia, but Reyes pointed out that the two big men are likely picks for the roster that will be sent to the Fiba World Cup, a global showcase that the Philippines will co-host this August.
“We love to have Japeth but I don’t think he’s anywhere near 100 percent. We don’t want to risk that because remember, our big picture here is the World Cup. We’re doing everything to win this SEA Games, of course, we want to get the gold. But the big picture, still, is that World Cup. June Mar is also not healthy,” he said.
BEST AVAILABLE TEAM
Fajardo and Pogoy were the only members of that ill-fated crew in Hanoi who are part of the current SEA Games pool.
“We just give an honest assessment: These are the players that we have, and these are the players who are out. We’re putting together the best available team. There’s a lot of talent, but who’s available? Who’s a hundred percent?” Reyes said. “That’s why I hope people appreciate our situation.”
Reyes’ pool of talents still runs deep. Also in the 28-man pool are standouts from the vaunted San Miguel Beer squad: CJ Perez, Marcio Lassiter, and Chris Ross.
Joining them are TNT’s Calvin Oftana and Poy Erram, Meralco’s Aaron Black, Chris Newsome, and Raymond Almazan, NorthPort’s Arvin Tolentino, and NLEX’s Kevin Alas. Also in the bunch are Jeremiah Gray, Stanley Pringle, and Christian Standhardinger, the best player of the PBA Governors’ Cup who has been playing splendidly alongside the indefatigable Justin Brownlee.
Brownlee is also available for national duty.
There is no shortage of youthful options for Gilas as well. College stars Schonny Winston, Kevin Quiambao, Jerome Lastimosa, brothers Michael and Ben Phillips, and teen Mason Amos are at Reyes’ disposal. Amos was a revelation for the program in his debut during the Fiba World Cup qualifiers, while Winston has been tearing it up at camp, according to observers.
Standhardinger and Pringle have always been the odd men out in most international competitions, as they are deemed naturalized players in Fiba-sanctioned contests. That won’t be the case this time in Cambodia, as the SEA Games only require a player to have a passport to be able to represent his country.
“[I agree] that we have more talent, better talent. But again, we’re all into basketball. We know that it’s not all talent that wins games. It’s a team that plays the best—that will play together—that does,” he said.
Reyes and the rest of the Gilas coaches will have over a week to determine the best possible combination of players for the gold-grabbing task at Morodok Techo beginning May 9.
As of April 29, the selection has been reduced to just 15 names, according to Reyes. And that bunch will head for Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba,
Laguna, to further develop cohesion.
Tim Cone, Reyes’ deputy and the mentor who called the shots for Gilas in its dominant homestand back in 2019, he is liking what he has been seeing thus far
from Ganuelas-Rosser, the Phillips brothers, and even Ross and Lassiter— his charges in that Manila campaign.
“I think we’ll gonna have a hungry team, guys that really wanna come and play. That’ll be our edge,” said Cone, who is no stranger to redemption arcs, having
gone through the agony of defeat in the 1998 Asian Games, before finding rediscovering the thrill of a national team victory 21 years later.
‘ALL ON THE SAME TEAM’
When asked about Gilas’ chances, Reyes played it coy.
“There are some people who are going to say we’re being pessimistic. But then if we say we’d easily manage our opponents, they’d say we’re being arrogant. That’s why I tend not to give these interviews because I get nothing pleasant out of this,” he said with a chuckle.
Turning serious, Reyes reached for a plea.
“We understand and appreciate the Filipinos’ love and passion for basketball, but hopefully, they also remember that we are all on the same team. There’s nobody in the program who wants to perform poorly for the country,” he said.
The Philippines is bracketed with Malaysia, host Cambodia, and Singapore in the group phase. The top two performing nations will then figure in a treacherous crossover for the medal stages. But armed with a bruised ego and aching to be worthy of its fans’ love, Gilas will have every reason to do well.
And the Filipinos may yet be the Team USA of the region. But no longer the “Dream Team,” Gilas Pilipinas hopes to make good this year as the “Redeem Team.”
Inquirer’s special coverage of the Cambodia SEA Games 2023.
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