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What now Gilas Pilipinas?

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We are all familiar with the story of David and Goliath, the Biblical account of a shepherd boy beating with a mere sling shot a giant warrior. How did a boy not trained for armed combat defeat in battle a giant of a veteran warrior?

Students of ancient wars say that opposing warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They went to battle armed with a javelin and a sword. To protect themselves from the blows of the enemies, they wore armor, a helmet, and shin guards, all made of metal.

That was how Goliath of the Philistine forces readied himself for hand-to-hand combat with whoever the Israelites sent to engage him. But no such Israelite warrior came to do battle with him. Instead a shepherd boy, with a sling in one hand and stones in the other, showed up to confront him.

But David provoked him from a distance, rendering Goliath’s weapons, designed for in-fighting, useless. The shepherd boy, David, adept at slinging stones at the predators of his sheep, then slung a sharp stone at the exposed part of Goliath’s head. Dazed by the sharp blow to his head, the giant fell. David rushed to him, and with the fallen warrior’s own sword, cut off Goliath’s head.

Yeng Guiao, head coach of the national basketball team Gilas Pilipinas that competed in the just concluded FIBA World Cup in China, should have read the story of David and Goliath when he was in grade school and learned a few lessons from it. Obvious from his own life story, Yeng drew from the David and Goliath legend these lessons: 1. Believe in yourself; 2. know your opponent; 3. might or size does not matter; 4. there is always a novel way of beating the mighty.

Short he may be but Yeng played varsity basketball when he was in the University of the Philippines. He coached a team made up of aging veterans, second-round draft picks, and undrafted players to Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) championships. He accepted his appointment as coach of Gilas Pilipinas even if he knew the team would go up against the best in the world.

Upon learning that the Philippines was grouped with Italy, Serbia, and Angola in the qualifying round and that Gilas Pilipinas’ first encounter would be against Italy, Yeng remarked: “They are big. We will try to beat them with three-point shooting and speed.” He had planned to beat the lumbering Goliaths of Italy with the agility and sling shots (three-point shots) of Gilas Pilipinas Davids.

While the final lineup had not been chosen, Yeng was decided on including three-point shooters Paul Lee, Matthew Wright, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, Mark Barroca, and Keifer Ravena in the national team. He had hoped that Marcio Lassiter’s injury would heal before the start of the qualifying round so that Super Marcio could join the team. As for speed, the same guys and Gabe Norwood can run the breaks.

But then Wright got injured and Lassiter’s injury had not healed by the time the tournament was to start. So, CJ Perez and Robert Bolick, both outside shooters and run-and-gun players, replaced Wright and Lassiter.

Gilas assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga went to China ahead of the team to scout the Italian team. Sandy reported: “They have a lot of post-up plays, not for their center, but for their point guard, small forward, and power forward. They also like to make the extra pass. So, our defense has to be very solid against them. They have a lot of weapons that we have to stop.” Coach Yeng went to China hoping Italy underestimated Gilas Pilipinas and that his coaching staff had prepared for the game better than the Italians did.

It turned out it was Coach Yeng who underestimated the Italians. They were giants as Yeng knew, but they were not slow and lumbering Goliaths as Yeng thought they were. They had the agility of David. They played with precision. As Assistant Coach Sandy had reported, they passed the ball around crisply, the ball always ending up in the hands of an open man. As a result, they had 30 assists, making 48% or 15 out of 31 attempts.

The Italians also took care of the ball very well. In contrast, our dribblers turned the ball over 23 times leading to 34 points off turnovers for the Italians. Our giant, Andray Blatche, was more like the Goliath of Biblical times — lumbering, maybe because he was at least 20 pounds overweight, and fumbling. He turned the ball over nine times.

Not only did Italy have superior “gilas” (elegance) than Gilas Pilipinas, its defense was as solid as Goliath’s metal armor. Yeng had counted on outside shooting to beat Italy. But Italy’s solid defense disabled Gilas Pilipinas’ main weapon. The national team shot only 13% from beyond the arc (three out of 23) and those treys came only after Italy loosened its defense towards the end of the game when the win was in the bag. Italy beat Gilas Pilipinas by 46 points, 108-62.

Coach Yeng noted that Italy’s guards were so tall that they could defend the Gilas Pilipinas big men, and that they were so athletic that they could stay in front of Gilas Pilipinas’ shorter guards.

The next game was against Serbia, regarded by many as the team that could give the USA a run for its money. Four members of the team play in America’s premier basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA). Nikola Jokic, the 24-year-old who plays for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA, was a contender for the Most Valuable Player award in NBA’s 2019 season.

Gilas Pilipinas went down in defeat in a more humiliating way, losing to Serbia by 59 points, 126-67. The ridiculous outcome led Serbia’s coach to ask if the Philippines had the material to compete in the World Cup. “Obviously, you’re missing quality. But two European top teams who know how to play tough, physical basketball (give you) results to think about (for the future),” Serbia’s Coach Sasha Djordjevic said.

As Coach Yeng lamented, “There’s no way we could beat them inside the paint, they’re just too big and too good. Even their bigs were shooting the outside shot really well. Even if we tried to put our hands in their face, it was not enough for us to disrupt their shots. We’re playing Asian-level basketball but of course, the world level is different, several notches different.”

But Serbia was eliminated from the Semi Finals. The team whose coach asked why the Philippines was in the World Cup ended up only No. 5 in the world ranking.

So, where does Gilas Pilipinas go from here?

There is lots of talk about the formation of a national team made up of the PBA’s outstanding players long before the next World Cup to achieve chemistry among the team members. But the early formation of a national team does not necessarily mean the players will grow taller and heftier.

Pulling out players from their PBA mother teams would also mean players giving up fat paychecks, big bonuses, and endorsement opportunities. It is very likely the chosen players would decline inclusion in the national team. We will send to the next World Cup a weaker team.

The national team failed to win a game in the consolation round of the just concluded World Cup, making relevant Sasha Djordjevic’s question why the Philippines is in the World Cup. The Philippines will host the next World Cup — in 2023. Will coaches of the participating teams be asking why the Philippines was chosen as host?


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.

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