Jong Uichico has been in Philippine basketball for almost four decades now.
Besides winning nine PBA championships and two Coach of the Year plums, the 58-year-old tactician has handled numerous national teams.
Well, he even started his basketball career as part of the Northern Consolidated Cement program — the predecessor of the current Gilas cadets program.
Uichico thought that he has seen it all. But in the current iteration of Gilas Pilipinas that will compete in both the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers’ Clark window and the Belgrade Olympic Qualifying Tournament later this month, he will have a chance to coach a team that will possess something rare — a team that has two giants in 7-foot-3 Kai Sotto and 6-foot-11 Angelo Kouame.
And Uichico is in awe of the possibility of having both studs in Gilas Pilipinas.
“Bihira nangyayari sa Philippine basketball na may dalawang seven-footer in one team,” Uichico told Bull by the Horn.
“Hindi palagi nangyayari ‘yun.”
Just how rare is it? Well, the last two naturalized players Gilas had were 6-foot-10 Marcus Douthit and 6-foot-11 Andray Blatche. Joining them in the frontline were the likes of 6-foot-10 June Mar Fajardo, 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar, 6-foot-8 Raymond Almazan, 6-foot-6 Ranidel De Ocampo, and 6-foot-4 Marc Pingris.
That is why just like everyone else, Uichico hopes that Sotto, who is already vaccinated, clears quarantine protocols as soon as possible to join his teammates.
Gilas program director Tab Baldwin had always emphasized that any player in Gilas should have at least three to four weeks of practice with the team so that the player won’t get lost in the system they are implementing.
“Kai is serving his quarantine protocols. Siyempre, inaasam natin na makakalaro siya, but it is not under our control. Having two seven-footers is a luxury and sometimes a necessity, especially tayo. Maliliit tayo,” he said.
“But we have to consider the adjustment because he just arrived. ‘Yung adaptation niya sa system will always be a question. But I do not doubt ‘yung comprehension ng mind niya. Last time he was here, he was able to pick up quickly. But another question is ‘yung chemistry. We can only know first-hand ‘pag physically present na siya sa practices.”
Gilas is slated to face South Korea and Indonesia in Clark and Serbia and the Dominican Republic in Belgrade.
Yes, the schedule is really tough and the opponents much more experienced than the current Gilas team.
And all Uichico can hope for is that Sotto can easily adapt to the team so that he can be fielded immediately.
“Even if they do not play together, magiging maganda yung palitan nila. It will be a luxury if we have two seven-footers in our lineup whether if it’s for the Asia Cup Qualifiers or the OQT.”