When FIBA announced the restructuring of the qualifiers for the Basketball World Cup, combining Asia and Oceania into one basketball region, the move was generally perceived to be in favor of the Philippines. The field may have gotten tougher with the addition of Australia and New Zealand but in exchange, seven teams would get a ticket (along with China) to the World Cup instead of the usual three.
But then all hell literally broke loose inside Philippine Arena in that fateful evening of July 2, 2018.
Ten players and two coaches from Gilas Pilipinas were suspended after the ugly bench-clearing brawl in the game against Australia. The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas got fined and had to apologize for the incident, which made international headlines.
Suddenly, qualifying for the World Cup no longer seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
The national team was in disarray. A new roster had to be formed to play in the stead of the players serving suspension, which included naturalized center Andray Blatche. A new coach had to fill in for Chot Reyes, the man who brought Gilas Pilipinas to the promised land in 2014. They had three more windows left to play.
It was the lowest of the lows for the Gilas program in recent memory. But just when the situation could not turn any bleaker, things started falling into place.
Over the past few years, unity in the basketball community seemed to be a holy grail. The MVP group and the SMC group were two opposing factions in the Philippine Basketball Association, controlling three teams each. The former is running the Gilas program; the latter is perceived to be stingy in lending its players to the national cause.
But in the aftermath of the disastrous game against the Australians, the two groups finally began working together. SMC supported Gilas "without any condition" and offered multiple players to suit up for the national team.
In 2015, Marc Pingris was the only player from the San Miguel camp to wear the country's colors. This time, Christian Standhardinger, Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter, Scottie Thompson, Greg Slaughter, LA Tenorio, Mark Barroca, Paul Lee, and Ian Sangalang all saw action for Gilas Pilipinas.
Reyes also stepped down as the head coach and Yeng Guiao officially took over the team. This may have been another key. Guiao is currently head coach of the NLEX Road Warriors, the MVP group's third PBA franchise. But for the longest time, he has served as the head coach of an unaffiliated team — from Red Bull, to Burger King/Air 21, and most recently, to Rain or Shine.
Perhaps Guiao was the diplomat that Gilas Pilipinas needed. With him at the helm, the Philippine basketball community rallied with teamwork and came up clutch. Despite hiccups along the way, the national team took care of business in the final window, and with an assist from South Korea, punched their ticket to China in August.
"Now we’re looking forward to a new challenge which is the World Cup itself. And we are all united, 'yun ang importante. Hindi tayo watak-watak papunta run. Buo tayo papunta dun," Guiao said. "To me that's the most important thing. It's not our emotions, it's not our pride."
It was no longer just about puso, Gilas Pilipinas' battle cry in 2014. Now, it is about pagkakaisa.
Manuel V. Pangilinan, chairman emeritus of the SBP, also said he is pleased that Gilas succcess has united the country and the basketball community.
"Let it be that way. We would like to make it an inclusive participation. I'm glad San Miguel is here supporting the effort, the PBA board, and other members of the basketball community," said the long-time Gilas patron.
"It's not an effort of one individual. At the end of the day it rests on so many shoulders to make this successful," he added.
Guiao and SBP President Al Panlilio also made sure to thank PBA officials who have agreed to adjust the schedule of the league to give way to the competition windows of Gilas.
PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial said the league also made improvements to the officiating so it would be more aligned with FIBA rules to the benefit of Gilas.
"I’ve learned that the quality of the national team depends on the quality of the professional league of the country," Guiao said. "This is a testament to the quality of the PBA that we are able to reach the World Cup."
Pangilinan, for his part, said that the PBA and teams representing the country internationally have a symbiotic relationship. Just as improving the league helps the national team, the national team also helps in improving the league.
"Namumulat ang mata natin na, wait a minute, there are better players out there, there are better teams out there, there are better techniques out there that we ought to learn," MVP said about sending teams to play abroad.
"Kasi kung tayo-tayo lang naglalaro sa sari't sarili natin, after a while, alam na natin kung anong laro nito, anong ugali nito 'di ba?" he added. "We have to break out of that monotony. And the best way to compare yourself with what the world has to offer."
With the basketball community now fighting as a whole, Gilas Pilipinas can dream of more World Cup and international success.
"Wag tayong matakot, wag tayong maging insecure," Pangilinan said. "At this point in time we’re no. 31 so there are 30 other countries ahead of us. Does that mean that we are stuck at no. 31? We shouldn't think that way."
MVP said even if Gilas fails to put together a strong showing in China, the basketball community should keep pushing the envelope in the next World Cups to come.
"If we fail, it is never fatal. It's not the end of Philippine basketball," he said. "What counts is the courage to continue." —JST, GMA News