Developing the new age Gilas Pilipinas into its full potential is the main objective of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, with its sights set on fielding the best team possible for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Thus far, the latest iteration of the national team features some of the best and brightest young stars of today – and of the future, for sure. And it’s been showing that the program is on the right track towards its goal.
Simply take a look at how Gilas has been faring in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers. It is currently sitting atop Group A with a clean 3-0 slate, following huge victories over regional rivals Indonesia and Thailand.
It could further solidify its hold of the top spot should it take care of business in the third window. There, it will take on long-time rivals South Korea and another ASEAN foe in Indonesia.
That, however, appears to be a small sample size to assess how much Gilas has grown. But there are still many more games ahead for the squad, as they continue treading the road towards 2023.
That run of matches includes the Asia Cup proper in August, taking place in Jakarta. And the PBA itself will help the young group prepare and speed up their maturation process.
Last Feb. 9, PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial announced that the league wants the national team to take part in the first conference of next season – potentially starting on its 46th anniversary on April 9 – as a guest team.
“Para makapaglaro sa atin at magkaroon ng experience,” he said. He also noted that Gilas, should the SBP accept their invitation, is eligible to win a title – just like the famed Northern Cement when it won the 1985 Reinforced Conference.
The team will be led by the five selected in the Gilas draft in 2019: Isaac Go, Nieto twins Matt and Mike, Allyn Bulanadi, and Rey Suerte. Meanwhile, William Navarro, Jaydee Tungcab, Jordan Heading, and Tzaddy Rangel will come from another special draft in March.
Additional reinforcements include amateur players from the Cadets program – including naturalization candidate Angelo Kouame – and most likely Kai Sotto. They will all receive special guest licenses from the Games and Amusements Board.
The invitation was, indeed, music to the federation’s ears. “This invitation only reasserts the league’s commitment to helping our Gilas Pilipinas program in whatever way they can,” said SBP president Al Panlilio.
This isn’t the first time that the PBA opened its doors for Gilas, though.
The first was in 2009, when the newly-formed SMART Gilas participated in the 09-10 Philippine Cup. Former college stars Chris Tiu, Mark Barroca, and JVee Casio spearheaded the team.
That campaign became unforgettable – but for the wrong reasons.
Then-league commissioner Sonny Barrios decided to reduce Gilas’ games to tune-up matches. He reportedly heard complaints from governors over the inconsistent playing time of naturalization bet CJ Giles.
Coach Rajko Toroman only used Giles for five minutes versus Talk N Text, a move that left the governors wondering. At one time, he received a one-week leave to visit his ailing son and his mother in the US.
The board then gave Barrios two choices: Bar Giles from playing or alter the arrangement of the national team’s participation. He chose the latter, as he noted Giles’s importance for his side at that time.
Another reason why the league converted Gilas’ outings to mere exhibitions was the level of intensity whenever PBA ball clubs played the youth-laden group. Matches then often led to physically-charged meetings.
It was strongly evident when the Nationals faced Burger King in their debut. Referees whistled the Whoppers of fiery coach Yeng Guiao for four flagrant fouls – yes, four – in the first half alone.
BK won the game, 115-105, but saw it marred by the incident between Wynne Arboleda and a fan. Reportedly, the latter cursed at the former, thus the reaction that led to his suspension for the rest of the season.
With their games turned non-bearing, the wins of Burger King, Talk N Text, and Barangay Ginebra over them turned null. In the end, Gilas collected three victories in nine outings.
It was virtually the same squad from 2009 that suited up in the mid-season conference. But it also had a few international stints under its belt already – plus the stability provided by naturalized center Marcus Douthit.
Gilas went on to finish the elimination round as the second seed with a 7-2 win-loss card. They went straight into the semifinals – the top two teams, at that time, automatically qualified for that round.
Gilas, though, showed some signs of life by taking Game Three, 100-88. It could not send the series to a decider, though. Eventual Best Import Nate Brumfield and the Kings ended it in Game Four, 92-85.
It wasn’t the finish the Nationals wanted, but it was nonetheless beneficial. The stint helped them in their 2011 FIBA Asia Championship campaign in Wuhan, China a few months later, where they finished fourth.
And those from the pioneering Gilas batch who entered the league later that year – like Barroca, Casio, Marcio Lassiter, and Chris Lutz – quickly made a mark on their teams, having been exposed to the PBA’s style of play.
The SBP very much welcomed the idea of playing in the PBA. But Panlilio said that they have yet to sit down with the league to discuss such. Right now, their focus is on the Qualifiers’ Clark window, whose dates have yet to be finalized.
“We’re definitely open to the idea of playing in the PBA,” he said.