The Philippine Star

Blatche says this could be Gilas’ year

- By Joaquin Henson

Gilas’ naturalize­d player Andray Blatche said yesterday he can’t wait to start working out with coach Tab Baldwin and the national team to prepare for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena on July 5-10 and confirmed his arrival in Manila on May 27.

“I’m committed to the Philippine­s, the Filipino people, the fans and the Gilas program,” said Blatche in an overseas phone interview from his home in Atlanta. “I wanted us to make the second round at the FIBA World Cup in Spain but it didn’t happen. I wanted us to beat China in the FIBA Asia final but it didn’t happen. I just want us to make it happen this time in Manila. Experts can say what they want about our chances. All I know is the experts predicted we would lose every game in the World Cup by 30 and we surprised everyone. We were one or two players short of making it to the second round. We were close to beating some of the top countries in the world. If we show up with the right mindset and focus, we can pull it off. This is our year to do it. Canada’s talented but they’re a young team. Some NBA guys like Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert won’t play for France. I just got a feeling we can win this thing.”

Blatche said after playing out the season in China last February, he chilled for a month then went back to work. “I had no injuries from China but I wanted to rest my body before hitting the gym, shooting and mountain climbing every other morning for about 10 miles up and down,” he said. “I did swimming, things to keep my body in shape. I didn’t want to go hard as I couldn’t risk anything flukey to happen before I get to Manila. I played some pick-up games but not the kind of 5-on-5 competitio­n that will get me ready for the qualifier. As soon as I get to Manila, that’s when I’ll do all my running and hard work.”

Blatche was initially scheduled to arrive here May 15 but postponed it to be with his mother Angela who will undergo surgery on Tuesday in South Carolina. “My bags are packed, I’m ready to go but I need to be with my mom when she has her procedure,” he said. “It was her birthday a few days ago and I surprised her with a 2016 Escalade. I’d overheard her saying she’s always wanted a car like that but she never expected it. When I handed her the keys, she was completely overwhelme­d. I love my mom, I’ll do anything for her. Thank God, my mom’s fully recovered from (breast) cancer. Doctors are doing this surgery to repair something that wasn’t done right. Her spirits are high. To God be the glory. I’m thankful and blessed she’s here to witness what’s happening in my life. She’s strong. I’ll drive two hours to South Carolina to be with her then I go back to Atlanta and take a flight that will connect to my flight to Manila.”

Blatche, 29, said he’s looking forward to his fourth trip here. He’s arriving with best friend Bryan Extra and trainer Rory Jones. His brother Tre will fly in later. “I’m looking at buying real estate in the Philippine­s,” he said. “I love the Philippine­s, the people, how everyone loves basketball and of course, the food. It reminds me a lot of how I grew up with a close-knit family and good friends. I can relate to families spending a lot of time together, eating together, believing in each other. It’s so inspiring to me. I’m thinking of getting a house so I can live in Manila when it’s winter in the US. I love the good weather. I’m hoping to get my mom over soon.”

Regarding reports that several NBA teams called Blatche to try out this summer, he said his focus at the moment is Gilas, nothing else. “I don’t want to name any teams,” he said. “I got the opportunit­y to meet some people with some teams. There will be time for that after the Olympics. Right now, my focus is just one thing, to make it happen in Manila. I’ve had the opportunit­y to play in the NBA right after high school for nine years. Let’s see how things work out.”

Asked to single out Gilas teammates he’s excited to work with, Blatche said it’s hard to pinpoint any one player. “I love all the guys,” he said. “Of all the teams I’ve played for, Gilas is one of those that I really cherish. There’s no bickering, no jealousy. Everyone’s on the same page. My teammates got my back and I’ve got theirs. I’m absolutely looking forward and excited to be in Manila. Oh, there’s one guy on the team I really miss, that’s (utility handyman) Bong Tulabot. I can’t wait to see him again. He’s my guy.”

Clearly, Blatche’s commitment to play for Gilas isn’t about money. In his nine-year playing career in the NBA, he bankrolled $39.7 Million. He averaged 10.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists, hitting 46.7 percent from the field, in 564 games with the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets. From the NBA, Blatche went to suit up for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the Chinese league, first on a five-month $2.5 Million contract then on a three-year $7.5 Million deal. He averaged 31.1 points and 14.6 rebounds in his first year with Xinjiang and this past season, took the Flying Tigers to the Chinese league semifinals, averaging 23.3 points and 10.4 rebounds. Whatever he’s receiving to play for Gilas is nowhere near what he earned in the NBA and what he’s getting in China. Blatche said he’s playing for Gilas because it’s a commitment from the heart.

At the FIBA World Cup in Spain two years ago, Blatche was dominant as he topped the efficiency rankings with 22.4 points over stars like Pau Gasol and Jonas Valanciuna­s. He was No. 2 in scoring (21.2 points), No. 1 in rebounding (13.8) and No. 1 in double-doubles (5). Blatche also grabbed a tournament- high 14 defensive boards against Greece. Even as the Philippine­s failed to make it to the second round, Gilas ranked No. 1 in free throw percentage (.796) and scored its first World Cup victory, at Senegal’s expense, in 44 years.

 ?? photo courtersy of FIBA ?? Andray Blatche
photo courtersy of FIBA Andray Blatche

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