Gilas Pilipinas had a triumphant campaign in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers’ Manama bubble.
But the work needed to even field not just a competitive team, but a ready one, was double — and even triple — due to the ongoing pandemic.
Gilas only had 11 days to prepare the team and fly it out to Bahrain.
Why the short amount of time? First off, the International Basketball Federation had to decide on the fly whether Asia was ready for continental basketball to return just last October.
“I think early on, we started communicating with them because as early as June, there was a FIBA Asia board meeting which I am a member of, and there was a meeting of discussion at that time. There were two options,” bared Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president Al Panlilio.
“One option was to push on with the November window as planned. And the next option is to move that to February, and then the February window will be moved to June, if not July. And the recommendation of FIBA Asia at that time was to actually move the window to February.
“But I said because the final decision would be coming in on November 6, the central board meeting I was talking about earlier. We were planning already just in case the November window is gonna happen. At the same time, we were also working with the government on whether they will allow us. There were a lot of meetings and discussions that were happening. I was also talking to FIBA, a couple of times to Sec-Gen Andreas [Zagklis], because I am also part of the advisory committee for FIBA Esports. So I had the opportunity to talk to him and I asked for additional five minutes with him, and I had to explain the position of the government at that time. But we were planning this for a long time,” he continued.
Planning was one thing. Execution was another.
The federation had to draft its own health protocols for approval by the Inter-Agency Task Force; find a host for a training camp; then seek clearance from the Department of Foreign Affairs if they had permission to fly out of the country.
“When we asked our government if we are allowed, ang unang sinabi sa atin is meron kasing dalawang directives ‘yan,” SBP Special Assistant to the President Ryan Gregorio recounted.
“Number one, of course, is from the DFA kung papayagan tayong bumyahe. And [the] other one is ‘yung IATF as our agency, who is involved doon sa ating COVID fight. So nung unang nag-request tayo, we were waiting for a positive response. But we truly understand where our government is coming from. Wala rin silang ibang concern kung hindi mapangalagaan ‘yung kalusugan ng ating mga manlalaro, pati ng mga coaches natin,” he continued, since the entire team had to be in Bahrain by November 23.
“Now na medyo gumanda na rin kahit papaano, encouraging na ‘yung numbers natin, the number of spikes, nabigyan na tayo ng pagkakataon na mag-represent ulit ng Pilipinas in an international competition.”
The federation was also able to secure the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna to host its training camp.
But who would compose the team that would enter the Calambubble?
Early October, Gilas Men’s Program Director Tab Baldwin was already forming a team of coaches. Top of the list was Jong Uichico, a veteran internationalist and also the head of the SBP’s Coaching Academy.
The rest of the coaching staff were members of the MVP Group outside of the PBA Bubble in Clark, Pampanga — namely Boyet Fernandez, Alton Lister, Sandro Soriano, and Andrei Tolentino.
For the players, the PBA pros were out of the question, since the pro league was in the midst of its 45th season.
Though they decided that using collegiate standouts was the best route to go, there were many moving parts from their list. With classes held online, players like Dwight Ramos and Chris Koon were in California; Rey Suerte and Allyn Bulanadi were in Davao; Calvin Oftana was in Dumaguete; and Justine Baltazar was in Pampanga, among others.
“I actually decided to go to Ateneo… Probably mid-September, I’d say. And I was waiting to get news about coming for the bubble for Ateneo to work out, but ’till then, I just kinda wanna stay home,” shared Koon.
“I was ready to fly ou,t and then a few weeks later I got a call from Coach Tab. And he’s telling me he actually wants me to fly out for the Gilas bubble, which I was pretty surprised up to this day, to be honest.”
Fortunately, all of the players arrived in Manila by October 31.
“We made sure that these young men would continue to be in shape during this lockdown, and I think some of them were… I’m sure iba ‘yung fitness and playing basketball are very different. A lot of conversations and… I think in terms of getting their commitment, wala namang naging problema,” said Panlilio.
“I think everybody wanted to be part of the pool, they want to represent the country. And hats off to these young men who are really committed to playing for the country.”
Composing the pool were Isaac Go, the Nieto twins, Bulanadi, Suerte, Jaydee Tungcab, the Gomez de Liaño brothers, Ramos, Koon, Baltazar, Dave Ildefonso, Kobe Paras, William Navarro, Kemark Carino, and Angelo Kouame.
Pressed for time, the members of the team headed to the Inspire Sports Academy after their RT-PCR tests on November 9. With everyone testing negative, the team — sans Paras, who had an emergency dental procedure — arrived in Calamba on the 11th.
The team only had the chance to begin practices on the 13th, after finally receiving clearance from the IATF. Paras arrived on the 14th.
The sessions themselves were intense, with the young players trying to prove to the coaching staff that they deserved to be on the team.
“We had practices like twice a day. We had to get back into shape,” said Kouame.
“When you’re getting between the lines, it’s competitive. But outside, honestly probably some of the best guys I’ve ever been around, just kind people,” said Koon. “On the court, they’re just competitive and go after it. But when off the court, it felt like chemistry is great. That’s why I wasn’t really surprised about the performances as well. I mean, they felt like a well-oiled machine out there.
“All these guys got along really well.”
The intensity of the games had one casualty, though.
During either the second or third practice, Bulanadi suffered a right shoulder injury that ruled him out of the window.
“Na-dislocate talaga,” said Bulanadi.
Gilas had to push on, however. After all, they did not know whom they would face.
In the original schedule, the Philippines should have faced Thailand on the 27th, and the 30th and South Korea on the 28th. A draft from FIBA Asia then arrived that saw a game versus Indonesia also listed on the 29th. This was for practical reasons, since Indonesia only had one game in Bahrain.
Then on the 20th, South Korea formally withdrew from the bubble, while the Indonesia game was written off.
“We were able to focus on Thailand’s tendencies then. They did a lot of zones which becomes man-to-man in the end. We were ready for that,” said Kouame.
On the 22nd, Gilas flew to Bahrain, bringing Bulanadi with them. Koon and Kouame would watch the games from their dorm in Katipunan.
For them, they could not help but feel elated that all their hard work bore fruit. Gilas wiped out Thailand in both games, and by an average margin of 28.0 points per game.
“It definitely was a surprise, because I think when I got the invite we were talking about having three or four weeks to prepare. But it got pushed back because of something about getting passes from the government,” shared Koon.
“I think everybody really bought into their roles and to [do] what we needed to do, and just that one common goal when you’re playing for your country. The goal is to win, and you gotta play as a team no matter what your roles were in college. This is a different ballgame, so I think everybody bought into their role. That’s why it worked out the way it did.”
“As Coach Jong said, ‘Trust the system and we will win’,” added Kouame.
The process of just getting a team ready to compete at a FIBA-level tournament was a victory in itself. The two wins the team achieved were just a bonus.
And here’s to hoping that history also remembers the hard-working men and women who made it possible.
Photos from Inspire Sports Academy