They were branded as the Philippines’ own redeem team, whose mission was to reclaim relevance in a sport the country once dominated. After almost two decades of national teams backed by the Philippine Basketball Association failing to regain hoops supremacy in Asia, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas formed a young squad composed of amateur standouts to represent the country in Asian competitions.
The program took a page from the playbook of the Northern Consolidated Cement national team, a squad made up of young amateurs and naturalized players that won the last Asian championship for the country in 1986.
SMART-Gilas immediately paid dividends when, in 2009, only months after the team’s formation, it stunned its predecessor, the all-pro Powerade Team Pilipinas, in an exhibition game that served as its debut in front of the Filipino public that they were to represent.
After that win, the expectations skyrocketed. SMART-Gilas, with its disciplined execution, crisp defensive rotations, and total trust in the system of Serbian coach Rajko Toroman, looked every bit the savior of Philippine basketball that they were touted to be. Behind the hype machine of then-SBP executive director Noli Eala, the SMART-Gilas bandwagon was stuffed to capacity by raucous, exuberant fans that celebrated the new team’s every move.
Led by the charismatic Chris Tiu and an athletic frontcourt tandem in naturalization candidate CJ Giles, and top PBA pick Japeth Aguilar, the program looked set to develop college basketball’s finest into a new generation of Allan Caidics, Samboy Lims, and Hector Calmas.
The honeymoon didn’t last long, however. In a guest stint in the PBA, the team struggled heavily in its debut against the Burger King Whoppers, in a game that was marred by a fight between BK point guard Wynne Arboleda and a SMART-Gilas fan at courtside, who had been throwing taunts at the player all game long.
When everyone got over the shock of Arboleda attacking a spectator, observers were concerned by how easily the Burger King players were able to bully the SMART-Gilas boys, who looked unable or unwilling to hit back – whether in terms of playing well or in becoming just as physical. The rest of SMART-Gilas’ stint in the 2009-10 PBA Philippine Cup was forgettable. Expectations crumbled, some harsh critics emerged, and whatever goodwill the team had built up seemed to evaporate overnight.
The national team experienced moderate successes and failures since then – mostly away from the spotlight. They finished third in the Dubai International Championship in 2010, and fourth in both the Jones Cup and FIBA-Asia Stankovic Cup later that year. But the team also struggled with selecting a naturalization candidate, jumping from Giles to Jamal Sampson to Milan Vucicevic, before settling on Marcus Douthit in June 2010.
Earlier this year, the team completed its second stint in the PBA, participating in the Commissioner’s Cup. They began the campaign impressively, winning their first five games and finishing the elimination round with a 7-2 card, with both losses coming in overtime games.
But against crowd favorite Ginebra in the best-of-five semifinal round, SMART-Gilas eventually crumbled, because of a Douthit hand injury and inconsistent play from the young locals. Their performance reinforced the idea that while the national squad was obviously a well-prepared, capable and talented team, it was also one that could use some veteran help.
Nowadays, SMART-Gilas barely resembles the NCC team to which it was so often compared.
Joining the team were Asi Taulava, who has juggled national team duties with his commitment to mother club Meralco since the beginning of the PBA season, and recently, pure shooter Dondon Hontiveros, on loan from the Air21 Express. Also scheduled to reinforce the team are Jimmy Alapag and Kelly Williams, who will be activated once the third conference of the pro league wraps up.
Armed with new reinforcements, SMART-Gilas placed fourth in the recently-concluded FIBA-Asia Champions Cup. Despite losing its last two games – a heartbreaker against two-time defending champion Mahram of Iran and a letdown game against Al-Rayyan of Qatar – the team showed plenty of encouraging signs.
First, the team developed a strong identity in the tournament. Early in its conception, SMART-Gilas could be described by any of these adjectives: soft, raw, inexperienced. In this tournament, the team wore its identity proudly on its sleeve. This was a team that played together, one that was not afraid to get grimy, and one that was going to run.
After the opener against Al-Ittihad of Saud Arabia, the opposing coach said that the fact that SMART-Gilas had been together for more than three years was the difference in the game. In the tournament, the players tipped loose balls and long rebounds to each other with such regularity that it looked as if they knew exactly where their teammates were going to be at all times.
Defensively, this was a team that embraced the physicality of international basketball. At times, the players seemed like they wanted to test the limits of the rules. In the semifinal match against Mahram, star forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami was often seen complaining to referees about the physical play of SMART-Gilas defenders Marcio Lassiter and Chris Lutz. Westport Kuala Lumpur Dragons import Marcus Morrison put it best after a particularly hard foul when he shouted for the rest of the arena: “You Filipinos are rough!”
The opposing teams also went into games against SMART-Gilas knowing that they were going to be outrun. “We were playing a team of this style and speed for the first time in a long while, said Mahram head coach Mehran Shahintab. “It took time for us to get our bearings.”
Second, SMART-Gilas displayed some pretty reliable depth – a team that was truly ten-deep, with essentially interchangeable pieces at every position except at point guard, where JVee Casio emerged as the clear-cut option. Casio scored in double-digits in all but one game, and finished second in the tournament in assists with a 6.6 average.
The impending entry of Alapag and Williams will make the team even more dangerous, especially in international tournaments that require teams to play everyday, where rest is sparse and depth comes in very handy.
Alapag, whom Lebanon’s prolific Fadi El-Khatib once called the best point guard in Asia, will alternate with Casio to make the point guard spot a consistent position of strength.
Williams, meanwhile, is a seamless fit in what Toroman believes is the squad’s weakest spot: the power forward position currently being shared by Aguilar and the undersized Mac Baracael. While Aguilar has looked much better in this tournament than in the past, he still shows signs of inexperience too often for Toroman to fully trust him with heavy minutes. Baracael, meanwhile, contributes greatly by stretching the defense with his shooting. But his size, or lack of it, makes him a non-factor as a help side defender especially against tall, athletic bigs.
And while Smart Gilas will only improve with the addition of players, the other teams will either stay the same or get weaker before the 2011 FIBA-Asia Championships in September in Wuhan, China, which serves as a qualifier to the 2012 London Olympics.
Unlike the Champions Cup, the FIBA-Asia tourney would not allow foreign imports to play for the national team. That means that Lebanon will not be able to field Al Riyadi imports Loren Woods and Ismail Ahmed to complement El-Khatib, nor can Syria rely on Al-Jala’a mainstay Samaki Walker.
While Iran will likely get NBA center Hamed Haddadi and Rice University star Arsalan Kazemi back for the the FIBA-Asia tilt, they will have to play without imports Cheikh Samb and Chris Williams, both of whom played major roles for the Mahram squad.
So while SMART-Gilas won’t come into the tournament as favorites, they could have a respectable shot at winning it. At the very least, it’s probably safe to say they’ll be competitive.
For now, the hype has simmered down. The critics are no longer as loud, and neither are the apologists. And with less hype, we can now see SMART-Gilas for what the squad really is.
It’s not a perfect team, by any means. With the addition of PBA talent this close to the qualifying tournament, it’s beginning to resemble some of the recent pro-laden national teams that were undeniably talented, but lacking the preparation to truly be a relevant force in the Asian basketball scene. And while the team has performed well in some of the international tournaments they’ve competed in, they’ve never actually beaten any of the Asian powerhouse teams for a title.
But SMART-Gilas Pilipinas is a talented team, with well-prepared coaches, disciplined players and a strong, reliable system. They might not be the best team in Asia, but they don’t have to be. They just need to be the best team in Wuhan for a 10-day stretch in September.