THERISE, FALL, ANDRESURRECTION OFSMART GILAS
THE NATIONAL TEAM HAD A LOT OF PROMISE. BUT WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES. MAYBETHAT CAN BE CHALKED UPTOTHE DREADED SOPHOMORE SLUMP ASTHETEAM WAS MIRED IN ONE CONTROVERSY AFTER ANOTHER. BUT TO PARAPHRASE A SAYING, YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOODTEAM DOWN. RICK OL
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.