As logistical woes bogged Gilas preps, Chot says Clarkson ended up carrying the offense
(Second of a series)
After stepping down as Gilas Pilipinas head coach, Chot Reyes made sure he would clarify just how much he was accountable for a botched Fiba World Cup campaign.
There were other lapses, he said. But those lapses were just the surface of the story.
“I know we should’ve beaten Angola,” he told the Inquirer on Wednesday. “I think that was the really big problem. We were so focused on the Dominican Republic.”
It was in those two opening World Cup losses that another key criticism of his coaching style came to the fore: He put too much of the offense on Jordan Clarkson’s back.
“Yes [that happened],” Reyes said. “I admit, there were times when it really looked bad.”
“And that’s again because of the lack of [preparation]. If you think back, we were playing well in China, things were okay: The ball movement, the [movement of the] players. We were already getting to that level [that we wanted to be],” he added. “But we all knew how it was going to be when Jordan arrived. We had no idea how we would react [with] the way [other teams would defend Clarkson].”
Reyes gamely took on the points raised against him, but also took time out to explain the behind-the-scenes problems that handcuffed him during the team’s run to the global basketball showcase.
The national program, Reyes said, looked for ways to fly Jordan Clarkson and Kai Sotto as early as possible, penciling July 25 as the ideal date for the team to begin practicing together. And when the logistical problems left the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) unable to do so, the team tried to book a flight to Los Angeles, where Clarkson was based, to bring the training to him.
“We tried to be the ones to fly to LA to train with Jordan. But a lot of us had no US visas and that’s not easy to get. Then we were coming from Europe. And when we arrived, we surrendered our passports to process our trip to China. So there were so many logistical problems and though we wanted to go to the US last week of July, we couldn’t do it,” Reyes said.
The problems with Clarkson meant Justin Brownlee was consistently in play as an option for the naturalized player’s spot. In fact, Reyes said, Brownlee’s injury was a turning point for the program.
“The big blow for us was the injury to Justin Brownlee,” Reyes said. “That took away our flexibility. When he got injured, we were still trying to salvage the Jordan Clarkson situation, to [either] get him in earlier or for us to go [to train with him in LA] earlier.
“And if we couldn’t [do either of that], at least we have Justin.”
Gilas also encountered the same kind of problem when it went to a pocket tournament in China, which caused another wave of delays. The team was only able to practice at full strength—with Clarkson and Kai Sotto—on Aug. 18 at PhilSports Arena.
And that spelled trouble.
The champion coach also addressed insinuations that he was playing favorites with his rotation, with critics pointing out his reference to using Kiefer Ravena. He said there was a mistake there, but not the one he was getting bashed for.
“The mistake actually, especially against the Dominican Republic, was we should have played Kiefer more,” Reyes said, referring to the big second quarter that Ravena had and how the former Ateneo star no longer played in the second half.
On his penchant for using “learning experience” as a way to soften pre-World Cup losses, he said the learning was evident in the way the players performed and the way the team played.
“Didn’t they see how well Rhenz Abando [played]? Was Abando a product of magic, his game just improving? Isn’t that because he learned from our stint in Estonia? AJ Edu. Did he just come out of the woodwork? And Dwight Ramos, was he already that good? I think all of these guys who were playing well learned from their experience,” Reyes said.
“That’s No. 1. Number two is that they’re saying I couldn’t win winnable games. What do they want, that we get routed right from the very start? They are attributing to me the fact that we cannot close out games. But they are not attributing to me the fact that we are close in those games in the first place.
“They called me “Choke” Reyes. What is the No. 1 requirement for you to choke? You have to be in the game first. We were in every game. We put ourselves in a position to win in every game and I attribute that to the learning that we had because we knew how to play [teams like] Italy.”
Reyes admitted that the World Cup stint was a failure, and has stepped aside to allow the SBP to recalibrate the national program.
But he had always envisioned something huge for Gilas Pilipinas.
“We knew it was going to be difficult. But we were confident because we knew with the type of preparation we were going to have the best team ready during the World Cup,” he said. “Obviously, we did not see the injuries and the problems with player availabilities.”