Rebound Magazine - - SMARTGILAS - by Rick Olivares pho­tos by Michael Gohu Yu

When the Pow­er­ade Tigers’ Fran­cis Allera missed a last gasp floater right be­fore the buzzer, it pre­served a hard-fought come-from-be­hind 98-97 vic­tory by Smart Gi­las Pilip­inas. The win, which gave the Na­tion­als a 6-1 slate, also saw them be­come the sec­ond squad af­ter the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Tex­ters to make the play­offs of the short Com­mis­sioner’s Cup of Sea­son 36 of the Philip­pine Bas­ket­ball As­so­ca­tion.

Gi­las’ for­ward-cen­ter Japeth Aguilar hauled down the re­bound and raced to cen­ter court where he slammed the ball down hard. It bounced up high as the crowd of sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple erupted in rap­tur­ous glee.

What a dif­fer­ence a year makes.

Dur­ing the Na­tion­als’ first stint in the Fi­esta Con­fer­ence of Sea­son 35, they limped to a 3-7 record that was both dis­mal and highly con­tro­ver­sial. At first, the team’s matches had bear­ing on the stand­ings. But mat­ters had been head­ing to­wards a boil be­tween the na­tional squad and the PBA.

Smart Gi­las was noth­ing but con­tro­ver­sial. At first, it es­chewed the long tra­di­tion of a pro-laden na­tional team that be­gan with the Robert Ja­worski-men­tored squad of the 1990 Asian Games. Sec­ond, the Sama­hang Bas­ket­bol ng Pilip­inas hi­er­ar­chy in­cluded dis­graced for­mer PBA com­mis­sioner Em­manuel “Noli” Eala, who was then the na­tional sports agency’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. Third, the team had a for­eigner – Ser­bian men­tor Ra­jko Toro­man – at the helm. The Bas­ket­ball Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion of the Philip­pines had clashed one time too

many with pro clubs over the ap­point­ment of for­eign coaches from John Mo­ran to Bill Bayno to Ron Jacobs. There were even calls of concern when Alaska Aces’ grand slam coach Tim Cone was named head coach of the Cen­ten­nial Team. But the SBP lead­er­ship headed by Pres­i­dent Manuel V. Pangili­nan and Eala fought back to pro­tect its choice.

And fourth, there was the pres­ence of the po­lar­iz­ing Aguilar. The for­mer Ate­neo Blue Ea­gle/ West­ern Ken­tucky Hill­top­per was the over­all num­ber one draft pick of Air21 dur­ing the draft that pre­ceded Sea­son 35. He had played for Pow­er­ade in Tian­jin, China, but af­ter that tour­na­ment, in a sting­ing about face, de­clared that he’d rather play for Smart Gi­las than for the Ex­press. The league de­cried the mock­ery of its rules. There were oth­ers who ini­tially re­fused to play for their mother clubs such as Alex Cabag­not who tried to re­scind his be­ing drafted by Sta. Lu­cia but no over­all num­ber one draft pick had done that.

Aguilar even­tu­ally re­lented and played for Air21 if only for one match be­fore be­ing traded to Talk ‘N Text; a move that even­tu­ally paved the way for his in­clu­sion with Smart Gi­las.

The league was not amused and the bad blood that was at first sim­mer­ing was now boil­ing.

That there were two na­tional squads didn’t help. If Smart Gi­las was laden with col­lege play­ers, the Pow­er­ade Philip­pine Team was all-pro. Al­though the lat­ter had a tem­po­rary as­sign­ment un­til such time that Gi­las could take over all in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, there were some quar­ters that lob­bied for the re­ten­tion of the Pow­er­ade team.

And it all came to a head dur­ing a friendly match that was any­thing but friendly. The col­lege stars whupped the pro squad but not be­fore the em­bar­rassed pros landed a few shots of their own on the upstarts. The fric­tion be­tween the two teams and their re­spec­tive bod­ies came to a head when Gi­las played the Yeng Guiao­men­tored Air21 Ex­press. The only way the Ex­press was go­ing to beat Gi­las was through a war of at­tri­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion. With tough play­ers like Wynne Ar­boleda and Beau Belga mak­ing the young­sters pay for their lane in­cur­sions, the crowd, dis­ap­prov­ing of the bul­ly­ing tac­tics, be­gan to heckle the pro play­ers. It be­came so heated that Ar­boleda at­tacked one fan caus­ing not only a long de­lay in the match but also the near-sea­son long sus­pen­sion of Ar­boleda.

In Gi­las’ next match against the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Tex­ters, the PBA was an­gered when then Amer­i­can re­in­force­ment CJ Giles played a measly four min­utes be­fore be­ing sent back to the bench for good. With Gi­las skip­per Chris Tiu also out with an in­jury, the league felt that the Na­tion­als had gifted a fel­low-Pangili­nan backed team with a win. Al­most im­me­di­ately, the rest of

Gi­las’ games were de­clared as non-bear­ing.

Un­known to many at that time, the Na­tion­als had been a team in con­flict.

Fol­low­ing their ear­lier in­ter­na­tional vic­to­ries in the FIBA Asia Cham­pi­ons Chal­lenge Cup and the Pow­er­ade match, the team had added a cou­ple of new play­ers in Rabeh Al-Hus­saini, Mar­cio Las­siter, and Aguilar, throw­ing chem­istry out the win­dow. Giles had be­come some­what un­ten­able and a loose can­non. On match day against Talk ‘N Text, he re­ceived word that a sib­ling was rushed to the hos­pi­tal. The for­mer Los An­ge­les Laker draftee did not in­form team man­age­ment of his predica­ment and in­stead chose to con­fide in team strength and con­di­tion­ing coach Jim Saret. The coach­ing staff at that point had been fed up with his re­peated trans­gres­sions from re­port­ing to prac­tice with a hang­over to his lack­adaisi­cal attitude. They mis­took his dis­in­ter­est as be­ing re­bel­lious hence the bench­ing

The league on the other hand in­ti­mated col­lu­sion.

Giles was soon booted out and re­place­ment Ja­maal Samp­son fared no bet­ter as the team was mired in con­tro­versy. A part of that was also be­cause they had be­come a refuge for the con­tro­ver­sial and the dis­en­fran­chised. Ear­lier, Gi­las co-cap­tain Mark Bar­roca was re­moved from his Far East­ern Univer­sity team un­der sus­pi­cion of throw­ing a game. A teary-eyed Bar­roca de­nied all the charges as Gi­las man­age­ment picked him up from the school’s cam­pus.

Af­ter bomb­ing out of the PBA, the team sought so­lace in a tour­na­ment in the Mid­dle East. They per­formed well away from the lo­cal spot­light as they racked up stir­ring vic­to­ries and painful de­feats. The team was close to im­plod­ing with mem­bers of the man­age­ment and coach­ing staff feud­ing and play­ers un­happy over the sud­den change in the en­vi­ron­ment. Re­ports fil­tered out about the play­ers not re­ceiv­ing their salaries on time and many play­ers be­came dis­en­chanted with Toro­man’s Spartan, tough love tac­tics. That was high­lighted dur­ing one mid-East tour­na­ment when team man­agers in­ti­mated that it would help if the Serb at times curbed his con­stant crit­i­cism of the play­ers and

in­stead gave them a pat on the back. “I am not like that,” said Toro­man. “That is the job of the as­sis­tant coaches.”

“Yes, the as­sis­tant coaches will do that, but it’s dif­fer­ent if it comes from you,” rea­soned out the staff mem­ber. Toro­man said he’d think about it.

Some play­ers felt that Toro­man would get more re­sults if he en­cour­aged more than he bad­gered them for their mis­takes on court. This was never clearer dur­ing the team’s sec­ond train­ing stint in Ser­bia when they no­ticed that the yelling among coaches and play­ers was nor­mal. “It might be a cul­tural di­vide,” said one player who re­fused to be named. “But some­times, I think coach doesn’t take time to un­der­stand the Filipino player.”

In the mean­time, San Beda Red Lions head coach Frankie Lim was named team man­ager, dis­plac­ing Butch An­to­nio. Then a few reg­u­lars thought about leav­ing the team. Al-Hus­saini to­gether with long­time Gi­las mem­bers RJ Jazul and Rey Gue­varra de­cided to in­stead ap­ply for the up­com­ing PBA Draft.

But it wasn’t all de­par­tures. For­mer Mar­shall Thun­der­ing Herd cap­tain Chris Lutz, who first joined the squad af­ter their ini­tial Cham­pi­ons Chal­lenge Cup stint, was now on board full time. And Mar­cus Douthit had re­placed Samp­son as the can­di­date for nat­u­ral­iza­tion. An­to­nio re­turned to his fa­mil­iar role while Eala and his SBP col­leagues were tasked to sim­ply man­age SBP af­fairs and leave the na­tional team mat­ters to Lim, An­to­nio, and Toro­man.

To­wards the end of the sec­ond year of Smart Gi­las, the ob­vi­ous weak­ness of the squad was at the four and five spots. For the team to be able to thread the eye of the nee­dle that had been placed be­fore them (mak­ing the 2012 Lon­don Olympics), they would need some help. PBA help to be ex­act.

Pro play­ers Asi Taulava, Kelly Wil­liams, and Sol Mer­cado were brought in at the ex­pense of some of the long time mem­bers.

In its in­fancy, Gi­las was pat­terned af­ter the famed North­ern Con­sol­i­dated Ce­ment squad of the 1980s that had stand­out col­le­gians backed up by three nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­cans. Now, some within and from out of the team ques­tioned the move. Why now? Why were the pros not added be­fore? Did that re­peated call by Toro­man for PBA help mean that the NCC-

model was a fail­ure? While some may view it that way, for oth­ers it was sim­ply that Gi­las was a vic­tim of the per­son­al­i­ties that ini­tially made up the team.

The draft of AlHus­saini, Gue­varra, and Jazul made it clear to the re­main­ing play­ers that there was light at the end of the tun­nel. Swing­man JR Cawal­ing like­wise quit the team, cit­ing a de­sire to help Far East­ern Univer­sity win a UAAP ti­tle. By late 2010, word was out that the en­tire team will ap­ply for the PBA Draft im­me­di­ately af­ter the FIBA Asia stint in Septem­ber what­ever the re­sult.

But first there was the Com­mis­sioner’s Cup where Gi­las was show­ing the pros and the pub­lic how much had changed since their dis­as­trous first stint. If they were first in awe of the PBA play­ers, now they were giv­ing as much as they got.

They beat Talk ‘N Text and neme­sis Alaska in overtime and came back from the dead to beat Pow­er­ade while play­ing with Douthit who was in­jured in the team’s first loss to B-Meg Derby Ace.

“The chal­lenge re­mains the FIBA Asia,” re­vealed Toro­man. “We did not set out to win any PBA ti­tle. We know this tour­na­ment will toughen us up. We need that prepa­ra­tion.”

The team had also be­gun to change its face. Talk ‘N Text head coach Vin­cent “Chot” Reyes was now Toro­man’s top as­sis­tant. For­mer La Salle cen­ter Oliver Bunyi was added to the staff as was for­mer Ate­neo Blue Ea­gle Charles Tiu. For­mer top as­sis­tant Al­lan Gre­go­rio moved to Air21 as team man­ager. What was once “The Ra­jko Toro­man Show” had evolved. “I think you can say that the team is adapt­ing to what it needs to bet­ter per­form,” said An­to­nio. “Many things be­came clear as time went by. For this team to ac­com­plish its mis­sion or to have a fight­ing chance, it has to make changes from the com­po­si­tion of play­ers down to the coach­ing phi­los­o­phy.”

As a re­sult of that par­a­digm shift, the team’s sta­ple of multi-faceted plays had been changed as Gi­las had be­come well scouted by the op­po­si­tion. Their fight­ing heart – what they are known for in in­ter­na­tional cir­cles – re­mained in place.

The pres­ence of the 6’11” Douthit not­with­stand­ing, Smart Gi­las needs to shore up its in­te­rior de­fense.

Af­ter romp­ing through the elim­i­na­tions with an 8-2 record, the Na­tion­als fell to Gine­bra San Miguel in the semi­fi­nals in four games. The peren­nial crowd fa­vorites dis­patched them by an av­er­age of 5.0 points. Al­though Toro­man said that the Com­mis­sioner’s Cup crown wasn’t the ob­jec­tive – to gain as much ex­pe­ri­ence as they can was – the dis­ap­point­ment was no­tice­able among the play­ers.

Af­ter the end of the tour­na­ment, pro hoop­sters Dondon Hon­tiveros and Jimmy Ala­pag joined the team to shore up their com­ing FIBA Asia cam­paign. “The mo­ment of truth is upon us,” said An­to­nio.

Whether that was an op­ti­mistic or pes­simistic view is any­one’s guess.

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