When JV Casio missed the supposedly game-winning heave on the bronze medal game against Korea, Mico Halili was silent. I switched off the TV, and I didn't know if Halili ever spoke again on that telecast.
That should've been the collective expression of the Gilas hopefuls when Casio missed. Or when the other players missed free throws. They missed free throws as if George Muresan was guarding them.
So the question is: did Smart Gilas achieve their purpose? What is their purpose? To qualify for the Olympics. In that case, they didn't qualify for the Olympics.
Furthermore, aside from their purpose of qualifying for the Olympics, there was a supposedly way for them to reach that goal. Get the best college players (at least those who are willing), naturalize a "rebounding monster", mold them into a team, and make that team qualify for the Olympics.
Were they able to do it that way? The short answer is no -- when the time the team was being formed in 2007, there was no way they'd be able to achieve anything on the international stage, despite all of the coaching, training and tuneup tournaments unless they'd get PBA backups. Rajko Toroman knew this all too well, hence he asked for PBA reinforcements in the Asian Games. For the first time, the Philippines played in the Asian Games not to win, but the gauge the competition. We finished 6th, the worst since the PBA sent in a team, although in this case, not all players were from the PBA.
Toroman, as all coaches know, that the primary success for a team to succeed is talent. You can instill discipline, design the most effective plays, play endlessly in tuneup tournaments, but it'll all boil down to talent. Franz Pumaren, in an interview at Hardball a few years ago, said it bluntly: the DLSU system worked not primarily because of the system, but due to the talent that is in the system.
Toroman hence asked for PBA reinforcements. While they did help in the tournaments, ultimately succeeding where the 2 all-PBA teams before them failed, qualify for the semifinals, the supposedly two wins to the Olympics became two losses that led to the team not qualify for the Olympics altogether. The PBA reinforcements, it turned out, still weren't able to play to Toroman's system, at least into the final 2 games.
So does it turn out that talent is not that necessary? No. But once you get in the talent, then you should mold them. The Smart Gilas boys, it turned out, still needed PBA reinforcements. Basketball is played by 5 players per team on the court. Generally, the lesser the number of players playing, the more chemistry it takes for them to be effective. Smart Gilas, with their two PBA stints, should have had the chemistry already. But with several players leaving and new ones joining, the chemistry was back to zero.
What we saw but had not realized immediately was that the talent disparity between the professional and collegiate ranks is as wide as Commonwealth Avenue. Unlike in the U.S. where one phenomenal high school player can jump to the NBA and lead his team to the playoffs, the same is not true in the Philippines. Only drunk Ateneans smoking weed will tell you that Kiefer Ravena will lead the Shopinas.com Clickers at least to the semifinals the same way Carmelo Anthony led the Denver Nuggets into the NBA Playoffs.
Which leads me to Kiefer Ravena. That guy has to be the single most-hyped player to come out of the high school ranks in this country since... BJ Manalo? And we all know how BJ Manalo turned out to be. Which shows us another problem: the current generation of basketball players would've probably not lead the national team to Olympics after all.
Every generation of basketball players produced a 7-footer or at least a big man above 6-6. The Centennial Team had 7-0 EJ Feihl, 6-9 Marlou Aquino and the 6-9 Andy Seigle. The tallest Smart Gilas player is naturalized Marcus Douthit and Asi Taulava. The current generation has failed to produce a big man, we'd even have to go to Tonga and the U.S. to find one. While height is not necessarily might, you can contend for a title with a pair of centers at least taller than 6-9. Talent and chemistry can only lead you to... fourth place, although admittedly, it was not the lack of height that caused the last 2 losses. It was chemistry.
So what does a team need? Talent, chemistry and a pair of really tall centers. Marcus Douthit was a stop-gap measure, but fortunately, the next generation looks promising, if you're into tall guys. Greg Slaughter, a legit 7-footer, dominated the UAAP. Let's face it, if it not for him, Ateneo would not have won, whatever Kiefer Ravena or Nico Salva did. Mapua's 6-9 center Yousif Taha still has to dominate the NCAA but if he can put his head on the game, he can post 20-10 numbers. In our case, we don't need to naturalize scorers, as we produce guards and wingmen by the droves. Our only problem is the big man.
While Slaughter and Taha look promising, they might fall into the trap of playing in the collegiate ranks forever. Most star players in the collegiate ranks enter the pros when they're 25. Yep, 25. Arwind Santos is 30 years old and he's on his 5th year in the pros. Kobe Bryant is 33 years old and was in the league since 1996. In the collegiate and in the amateur ranks, your peak form is wasted by not playing in top form for most of the year. Like seriously, who'd injure themselves in the PBL? You'd kill yourself playing in the UAAP but that's for three-and-a-half months for a maximum of 20 games. Slaughter played college ball in Cebu before going to Ateneo, so we can expect him to max out his collegiate eligibility before he elevates his game to the pros.
So why is that a bad thing? FIBA tournaments are conducted at a breakneck pace. In a span of a fortnight, a team has played 9 games. That's not the pace a 30-year-old athlete can realistically play. In the UAAP, a team reaches 9 wins after a month of action.
So while the PBA players may have the talent, they might burn out in these tournaments since they're (1) old, (2) not accustomed to back-to-back games. The only time PBA teams play back-to-back games is... never. They have games every-other-day for the playoffs but realistically the most number of games a team plays per month is 6-7. Compare that to NBA teams who play several back-to-back games per month, with an average of 14 games every month. Ergo, if you're a PBA player playing in a FIBA tournament, you'll burn out, no matter how good your conditioning is.
So, what are the solutions? It's easier to say that the PBA should play more games per week, hence players would get accustomed to the international grind. This will also shorten the season so there'll be more time for national team members to develop chemistry. An alternative is to let a group of teams play an entire week by themselves, then another group for the next week.
The only reason to prevent this from happening is TV coverage. More games per week means more airtime on TV. It's not as if the PBA is worth two channels to air, or two channels would allow themselves to air games. If an extra gameday is added (such as a regular doubleheader on Saturday, not including the provincial game), or another game is added on the existing S-W-F schedule (such as an early afternoon or a late night game), that means another day to reserve for the PBA: no channel will allot four days per week for the PBA unless they have nothing else to air aside from Bundesliga matches and badminton; or another couple of hours for basketball. Would you expect PBA junkies to watch a game held either at 2PM or 10PM?
As for the collegiate leagues, it's time to ditch the 5-for-7(?) rule and replace it with a rule that limits a player to 21 years old or 5 years in college, whichever comes first. This also means high school (junior) tournaments' age limits should be lowered to 16 from 18. In a sporting perspective, it may be a good idea to make these leagues also play more games in a week, but with the "student comes first in 'student-athlete' so they should study first" reasoning I don't see this happening. So the best solution is to move the basketball tournaments to the second semester.
Looking at Lebanon, the best generation of hoops players have gone and they had failed to contend. Interestingly, the Philippines, with whatever generation, or with whatever "A" team it fields -- always contends. Let's not kid ourselves, those 2 PBA teams contended. Even the 2007 team that finished 9th place. The Middle Eastern teams, and even the likes of Japan don't have the luxury of continuity. The Philippines, whether we like or not, has a stable basketball program no matter who runs things. The only duty for the one who'll "run things" is to find talent, find a pair of tall centers, and mold them together.