Long before he showed his value for Gilas PIlipinas, Paul Lee was already on the national team’s radar.
Lee bared to 2OT presented by SMART Saturday that he was supposed to be part of the pioneering Gilas batch mentored by Rajko Toroman.
“I was one of the few players na nabigyan ng invitation kaagad ni Coach Rajko,” he told the podcast supported by Team Phenom Sportswear.
At that time, Lee was one of the best scorers in the amateur ranks, something he proved both with UE and with Cobra in the now-defunct PBL.
So that invitation was a big deal for him. He later attended practices together with fellow Red Warrior James Martinez.
“Me and James Martinez, nag-attend kami ng practice,” recalled Lee. “Akala namin magiging isang malaking try-out na siya or team practice.
“Pero pagdating namin, dalawa lang kami ni James Martinez, tapos dalawang Fil-Am. Then si Coach Rajko, tapos ‘yung staff nila sa Gilas.”
While showing up for the national team, Lee came to a point where he was going to three practices in a day. Yes, three.
He practices with UE in the morning, followed by a session with his PBL team, and then Gilas workouts in the evening.
“Dumating na doon sa point na parang nagta-thrice-a-day practice ako,” recalled the UAAP Season 72 Most Improved Player.
“So, meron akong school sa umaga sa UE, tapos may PBL ako, tapos 8-to-10 ng gabi ‘yung practice ng Gilas.”
That was exhausting for a student-athlete like him. He knew he had to make a choice, so he ultimately chose school first.
For the cager from Tondo, he believed that the right time would come for him to play for the national team.
“Mas pinili ko ‘yung sa UE then sa PBL ko,” said Lee, who was recruited by coach Dindo Pumaren to play for UE.
“Kasi sabi ko, kung national team naman ‘yan, kung magtutuloy-tuloy ‘yung pag-progress ng laro ko, makarating ako ng PBA, for sure magkakaroon naman ng invite ulit. So siguro, ‘yun ‘yung right time para maglaro sa national team.”
Lee went on to play in the PBA, and was drafted second overall by the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the 2011 Draft.
Then in his second season in the pros, Gilas knocked on his door again when it was gearing up for the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship here in Manila.
“‘Yun ‘yung dinedevelop na nila ‘yung 2013, ‘yung Gilas natin,” he recalled, “kaso ‘yun ‘yung na-injure ‘yung shoulder ko.”
That all-pro Gilas squad went on to make history in that tilt, but Lee has not regretted his absence from the team.
“Hindi naman hinayang. Kumbaga bumalik lang ako doon sa unang story ko, which is hindi pa siguro time,” he said.
“Kasi darating pa naman siguro ulit ‘yung right opportunity para doon sa national team, which is nangyari rin naman.”
That right time eventually arrived. Lee finally made his debut for Gilas in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China.
And it was a debut to remember. Lee helped the Philippines defeat the hosts through his three freebies with no time remaining, giving Gilas the bronze.
Things kept going from there. According to him, he later already received the heads-up from coach Chot Reyes that he would be part of the team for the Asian Games.
To further integrate him into the scheme, Reyes then brought him along during Gilas’ preparations for the World Cup in Spain.
“Sinabihan niya na ako na ‘Paul, kukunin kita para maglaro sa Asian Games’. Kasi right after ng World Cup, Asian Games ‘yung kasunod,” he said.
“Pero isasama na kita sa buong trip para makuha na ‘yung sistema, makuha yung timing sa mga kakampi, makilala mo ‘yung mga kakampi mo.”
But Lee eventually became part of the team that played in the global tilt when Larry Fonacier pulled out from the pool due to injuries.
“Ayun, dumating ‘yung time na ganon ‘yung nangyari, kaya sobrang blessed,” said Lee of that World Cup experience.
Since then, Lee has gone on to represent the country numerous times. As planned, he played for Gilas in the Asiad in Incheon, South Korea.
It took some time, though, before Lee saw himself donning the national colors anew in the FIBA World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers.
He then helped Gilas take down Kazakhstan in the sixth window of the WCQ to punch the country’s ticket to the Worlds in China.
Eventually, Lee would play in his second straight World Cup as part of the Yeng Guiao-coached crew for the prestigious meet.
“‘Yun ‘yung sinasabi ko na right timing talaga,” said the 31-year-old.
“In God’s perfect time talaga ‘yung nangyari.”
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