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Boo to basketball bashers

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 09, 2023 5:00 am

It’s the usual problem with social media. It gives everyone and his brother, as our legendary sportscaster Joe Cantada used to quip, the courage of ignorance in hastily joining the bandwagon of mob histrionics, and condemning scapegoats too precipitately. Hair-trigger denunciations usually come from jeprox fans with a surface understanding of basketball’s complex matrix, as well as the inveterate critics of our undiminished passion for the game.

I think Pinoys who actually understand basketball would agree with my observation that while the losses were stinging, Gilas Pilipinas actually shone with its commendable fighting spirit besides improved team defense, tactics and skills. It’s just that many other countries have improved faster, especially the African teams. Natural athleticism equips them well for basketball.

Jordan Clarkson’s masterful performance in Gilas’ last game, against China, will long be remembered.

But despite our continuing disadvantage in size, strength, and long-range accuracy (a seasonal occurrence, given the exit of the likes of Allan Caidic, and recently, Jimmy Alapag, Jason Castro, Paul Lee and Terence Romeo), we put up a good fight against the first three teams in our FIBA group, and actually led them all at some point—before running out of steam.

Bad breaks and questionable calls, particularly the consecutive offensive fouls that abbreviated Jordan Clarkson’s first-game stint, prevented what might have been a stirring finish against the Dominican Republic. We had a chance against Angola, too.

Italy used to beat Philippine teams by around 30 points or so. I recall our nationals of decades ago relying on long-range corner jumpers by Jimmy Mariano (when they were still not counted as 3s) to keep Italy at bay, until the Azzurri turned it around for the usual rout. The last time out in China, it was by over 40. This time, Gilas lost by only 7 points—to the same Italy that pipped powerhouse Serbia by two points in Phase 2, before getting clobbered by the USA. 

Coach Chot Reyes, with assistant coach Tim Cone, did not deserve the boos as Gilas put up its strongest performance for a FIBA World Cup.

I’m not defending coach Chot Reyes. Like all coaches, he can be tagged for certain lapses by know-it-all armchair theorists like me. His lowest point was handling the nationals that lost the SEA Games title to Indonesia a couple of years ago. But he’s had his wins with Gilas, most memorably till late when we broke the South Korean curse a decade ago. Now with assistant coach Tim Cone, he managed to assemble a tough team with some ceiling and Jordan Clarkson for FIBA World Cup 2023.

Why, Gilas came away with the distinction of sporting the least average in loss margins with 7.7 points after the first three games. It was only against South Sudan that we got routed by 19 points—something I expected, after doing proper research on a team that added a selection of last-minute mercenaries, which the Angolan coach drew attention to. But before they broke away for the rout, Gilas actually mounted a fiery rally that reduced the deficit from 22 to 4 points. So I’ll still buy that battle-cry claim on Puso!

Thankfully, we got more than a consuelo de bobo by pulling off that surprise rout of bullyboy China, thanks to Clarkson’s third-quarter explosion that saw him outscoring the erstwhile Great Wall by 24 to 11 all by himself, with four consecutive treys. Helping him create that situation was stingy Pinoy defense and spirited blocking, rebounding and shooting by the tireless newcomer Rhenz Abando. Our best national player, Dwight Ramos, also contributed to that sterling win together with Sotto, Edu, Pogoy, Fajardo and Thompson.

Gilas finally got to celebrate with a birthday cake for Dwight Ramos.

It was more than enough to send us all to euphoria (yes, including the early naysayers), seeing our national team avenge those water cannons with a margin of victory that was much more than 9-dash-line points (or even 10). It also ended Gilas’ string of nine FIBA World Cup losses, and helped us emerge at 24th place out of 32.

So it wasn’t all that dismal for Gilas’ participation as host country. Establishing record crowd attendance on opening day at the Philippine Arena was just the start. Gaining the foreign participants’ accolades for the entire staging of FIBA 2023 was the partner bookend. Now, too, comes the tardy stat that Gilas placed 5th in blocks among the 32 teams. That’s us.

Those boos directed at Gilas’ head coach were certainly out of place. I can understand how peripheral observers could quickly pick up on the notion that coach Chot has been a polarizing figure. Indeed, he has been a victim of his own confidence in his ability to articulate, perhaps even too much. He has clapped back at his detractors, which has enraged them more. But, of course, a dignified silence may have been too tough to fall back on when the verbal abuse affected his loved ones.

The glorious memory of Jordan Clarkson’s magical four minutes against bullyboy China will stay fresh in our minds for decades.

The prevalent perception that he’s lasted this long as Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas or SBP’s choice because of his closeness to sports patron MVP has also weighed unfairly against him. Comparisons with other coaches, notably Tab Baldwin, remain odious, as the latter hasn’t been tested for as long as coach Chot.

Then there have been that other kind of amateur critics, who keep angrily contending that we should just give up on basketball in favor of other sports. Tell that to the millions of Pinoy kids who can’t take a pole vault home even if it had high ceilings, but would love nothing more than to sleep with a basketball. As I’ve said time and again, it’s simplicity of equipment that has favored b-ball. Especially in our islands. Anyone can hang a circular strip of metal on a coconut tree, and he’s already a baller.

Sports patrons like Manny V. Pangilinan can also take credit for all the support that made FIBA World Cup 2003 a successful one, despite precipitate criticism.

Sure, we’re smaller and lighter than foreign hardcourt heroes. But there’s a litheness to the Filipino that continues to make him dream of making it as an agile baller. And there’s the tradition and historical memory of vintage idols like Charles Borck, Caloy Loyzaga, Lauro Mumar and Robert Jaworski, along with their contemporaries, that will keep feeding the Pinoy baller’s dream to never say die.

As for reducing financial support, again in favor of other sports, that’s up to the patrons like Manny V. Pangilinan and Ramon Ang, who know what still clicks with all the budding athletes and fans for whom basketball remains a religion. Sure, they can give better support for football, but it just won’t catch on fast enough, even for a span of generations. Teams need large fields and all those uniforms. Should I even mention tall goalkeepers and set-piece jumpers to score or defend against headers? The same need for comparative altitude goes for volleyball. So, what else may sports patrons support? Weightlifting? Gymnastics? Can swimming and diving make for popular TV entertainment? What happens to all the town and village hardcourt landmarks that compete with Rizal monuments? Just leave ’em be for beauty contests and drying rice and other grains?

As for having to compete internationally, nothing wrong with continuing support for basketball, as long as we realize we can only fare favorably against Asian rivals. No need to dream that we can ever crack the Top 10 or 20 in international basketball. If all other countries told themselves they didn’t have a chance anyway against USA’s NBA selections, it would only leave a few Euro countries plus Canada and Australia to compete in FIBA tourneys. 

Competition is never just for the gold. During my boyhood, Jose Rizal College kept competing in the NCAA despite continued losses, as National University did in the UAAP. They kept honoring their commitment to varsity leagues.

This latest iteration of the Gilas Pilipinas team has probably been the strongest ever put together, especially in terms of ceiling, albeit it still lacked depth and balance. As I’ve said, phenom shooters are seasonal, as are the relative strengths of a national team’s composition. China has fallen dramatically from the days of Yao Ming. For their part, Japan had always been a pushover, until recent years gave it two NBA stars and a professional league that has honed their locals. So, it’s likely that we can’t beat them now. It’s all about cycles.

Gilas’ next participation, at the Asian Games later this month, will be problematic due to its downgraded composition and sudden change of coaching staff. Even with Brownlee and Kuoame, our new team may not have enough to contend for a podium finish. For one, host China will be out to get back at us.

As for Gilas’ inclusion in the wild-card party for a slot at the Paris Olympics next year, again, hoops non-wonks better get back to reality. We have no chance against the other contenders. It shouldn’t mean abdication of the privilege, however. As a resigned coach has said, all opportunities for international competition can be a learning experience. And I’m not being satirical.

As for the remaining playdates for FIBA 2023, that should be a humdinger between Serbia and Canada in the semis, while the USA may be expected to vault past Germany. But who knows? The tourney has been rife with upsets. It could be a North American finals between NBA selections. Or a more ideal one pitting NBA ball against a Balkan challenge.

The only sure thing is now that with Pinoy hoopsters and hoops fans having seen Luka Doncic, Austin Reeves and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play in the flesh in our very own arenas, or even just live on TV, how do you expect us to do away with basketball? No, not with the glorious memory of Jordan Clarkson’s magical four minutes that will stay fresh in our minds for decades. Yes, basketball is here to stay.