“Jimmy [Alapag] said it best in the final prayer: ‘Dear Lord, even with this loss, we thank you for allowing us to lay the foundation for our country and Philippine basketball.’”
– Chot Reyes on Twitter
The SMART-Gilas Pilipinas national team may have failed to land a medal in the FIBA Asia Championships in Wuhan, China, or more importantly, land a spot either in the London Games or the FIBA World Qualifying Tournament next year, but they did achieve one thing.
SMART-Gilas laid the foundation for the return of the Philippines to relevance in international basketball.
Even at its inception, the program was meant to be much more than just the next incarnation of Team Pilipinas. It represented a significant paradigm shift in the thinking of the sport’s leadership.
Where once, the country had been content in sending PBA all-star teams slapped together at the last minute with little preparation and even less direction, SMART-Gilas wanted a team of players that would commit to the program full-time, attending practices, tune-up games and FIBA tournaments with no obligation to mother teams in the professional leagues.
Where once, talent had been the prevalent quality required to represent the nation, SMART-Gilas asked for committed, hard-working individuals who were willing to set aside personal ambition for the good of flag and country.
Where once, Team Pilipinas jumped into international competition looking to simply be better than their opponents, SMART-Gilas formulated a plan to win.
The plan began with the hiring of Serbian coach Rajko Toroman, who transformed the Iran national team from a middling contender to the premier basketball powerhouse in the region. Toroman, a demanding taskmaster with a tough, no-nonsense act, led his former team to a gold medal in the FIBA Asia Championships in 2007 and a berth to the Beijing Olympic Games a year later. Toroman, quite simply, knew what it took to win on that level.
And now, three years later, so do we.
Lessons we have learned from the SMART-Gilas program abound. We know how valuable a naturalized player can be, thanks to the excellent performance by Marcus Douthit in the FIBA Asia Championships. Douthit turned our weakest position, the center spot where we were often undersized, into a position of strength. Douthit averaged tournament-best numbers with 21.9 points and 12.2 rebounds and finished tied for second best with 1.7 blocks per game.
We know how important a long-term program could be. The development of collegiate standouts like JVee Casio, Mac Baracael and Chris Tiu and foreign-bred talents Marcio Lassiter and Chris Lutz from solid players to international basketball stalwarts is nothing short of admirable. They play with such familiarity with the international game, such great chemistry and such intensive knowledge of Toroman’s system that it’s hard not to feel confident when these guys are on the floor.
And, thanks to last-minute adjustments by the program in bringing in top-flight PBA stars in Asi Taulava, Kelly Williams, Ranidel De Ocampo and Alapag, we know it takes nothing less than sending the country’s finest ballplayers to advance to the FIBA World level. We know that the PBA’s commitment to the national program will be a foremost concern if we ever want to reclaim our place atop the regional standings.
The question that remains now is whether the Philippines will be bringing any of these lessons moving forward. At this point, there is uncertainty about what the next incarnation of Team Pilipinas will look like. For the next Southeast Asian Games, at least, the national squad will likely be bannered by Douthit and UAAP standouts Greg Slaughter, Kiefer Ravena, and Bobby Ray Parks.
But the SEA Games are basically a formality, and it’s the Asian level that’s the main concern.
SMART-Gilas has earned so much momentum in giving the country its best finish in the FIBA Asia tourney in 24 years, but that all can be easily lost if we forget everything we learned from the past three years.
For the first time in a long time, we know what it takes to win it all.
Thanks to SMART-Gilas, it’s now just a matter of time.
Mikkel Bolante is a staff writer for InterAKTV. He runs the basketball blog Patay ang Butiki.