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What Gilas Pilipinas Can Learn From The FIBA World Cup

Gilas Pilipinas
James Francisco

Gilas Pilipinas may have had a less-than-stellar campaign in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, but every story, bad or good, is a “learning experience”. It won’t be long before the Nationals embark on the Asian Games, and Paris 2024 is still up for grabs via the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. There are plenty of games to be had post-FIBA, and here are takeaways to build on for the future.

We can be the best – at least in Asia

It’s tough to ask fans of a basketball-crazed country to be patient, especially when the sport has rarely returned the love. But asking for patience is valid when there’s something to look forward to.

The way Gilas Pilipinas manhandled China proved that we at least have a shot at being the best in Asia. We have Jordan Clarkson, a legitimate NBA player leading the way. No, I don’t want to hear debates on picking Justin Brownlee over Clarkson. As patriotic as JB has been, choosing a Sixth Man of the Year awardee from the greatest hoops league on Earth is a no-brainer.

We also have the size on paper. I’ll chalk up Kai Sotto’s rawness to him being 21 years old. AJ Edu became the defensive presence everyone thought Kai would be. Add in Dwight Ramos’ fearlessness and Rhenz Abando’s hustle, that’s a starting five that could give our neighbors some trouble. Save for Clarkson, none of them are older than 25.

We placed 24th in the last FIBA World Cup, with only Lebanon (23rd) and Japan (19th)  as the Asian countries ahead of us. We’re at least two generations away from making a dent against the likes of Serbia (2nd) or the US (4th), but with close defeats against Dominican Republic (14th) and Italy (8th), Gilas Pilipinas has a shot at being a tier above their Asian counterparts.

But the system and culture have to change

Fiba Chot

The average fan would pin Gilas Pilipinas’ faults on coach Chot Reyes – and they would be right. In all of the Gilas games I covered, Reyes’ system is glaringly archaic, the kind of hero ball that captured the hearts and minds of Filipinos during the Bulls dynasty in the 90s and the Lakers’ in the early 2000s.

But as Coach Stever Kerr said, “This isn’t 1992 anymore”. The ball movement and shooting from the top-tier teams, mostly Europeans, are a beauty to watch. Conversely, Gilas Pilipinas plays the highly predictable strategy of “pass the ball to Clarkson.” Once the play is denied, Gilas often looks like they’re trying to squeeze blood out of stone. 

But do I solely blame Chot for Gilas’ misfires? Not at all. If anything, I pity him. From the rumblings I’ve heard throughout the entire run, three things are constant: No one wanted the national coaching job, Chot was picked from retirement as a result, and he only had a week before the World Cup to assemble and practice with the team.

If there would be anything I’d pin on Chot, it’s that he didn’t put his foot down earlier, knowing the odds. It was only after Gilas Pilipinas’ drubbing of China, when all the slanders and insults had been hurled, did he have the courage to say enough is enough.

Coaching, while the most obvious, is only the tip of the iceberg. The prioritization of the PBA schedule, the lack of continuity with the national roster, and the increasing unavailability of premiere talent due to more enticing overseas leagues are also glaring issues.

The mindset of fans

Watching Serbia’s finish for silver was a pleasure. Apart from the gritty team, their fans are the good kind of rabid. They chanted “Auf Wiedersehen” [goodbye] with every German free throw. They paraded on the streets. They cheered when they won, and still did when they lost. They were with their team from the beginning til the end.

Serbians remind me of us, the Filipinos who live and breathe basketball. We’re just as crazy and hungry for the sport. Only I wish that we Filipinos would be more – and not to get political – “united”. 

Clarkson said it best: It was “weird and confusing” for those on the outside to see the national coach getting boo’d on the international stage. We mock certain players when Gilas loses while showing unwavering loyalty to others. We each have our version of what the team should look like, and we are more than happy to publicly ridicule and insult when it doesn’t go our way.

Maybe it’s different when your country is in the Finals compared to being relegated to the classification games. Maybe there’s less discord when your country’s population is less than that of Metro Manila, or when a promising national coach turned college mentor is booted unceremoniously in favor of a tired system.

But for all our talks of “puso”, our emotions could be more kept in check. FIBA is the world. The Philippines is barely the best in Asia. That will equate to more losses than wins. I’ve seen and talked to these players up close, and trust me, they want to win more than you and I.

There will be no world championships for us in our lifetime, no matter how much we scream “Never say die.” But there is progress and the occasional insane 34-point outing. Happiness is a function of expectations, and the expectation from Gilas Pilipinas should be that of growth and not instant gratification.

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