August 18, 2013

Gilas 2.0 postmortem: The Philippines is going to the World Cup!

Nope, not that World Cup. The FIBA Basketball World Cup. It's been a long time coming, and the Gilas boys have finally broke through. In 2009, I've written about things the Gilas program can improve on. While not everything I wanted to see transpired, we got the silver that glistened like gold.

Well, it appeared that way. What went right?

First, basketball is a game of rhythms. Action is continuous and every break in momentum, either via time outs, unintentional stoppages and even free-throws, screws up the game.As Pinoys would say, the "breaks of the game" is as important as scoring hoops. Aside from playing the game per se, there's this momentum, or breaks even in events such as training, tune-ups and even the draws. Finally, a phenomenon Filipino athletes rarely experience, the hometown advantage, is upon us.

First, the breaks. The crazy political situation in Lebanon, where political parties reportedly own (or control) sports teams exploded like a Hezbollah-fired RPG. The league can't control the teams, teams sued each other and the league, and FIBA got pissed and suspended the Lebanese federation until they can sort out the mess. Even before this, FIBA Asia has already stripped Lebanon of its hosting duties since the people at nearby Syria are killing each other.

While all of this is happening, FIBA Asia mandated a "pure draw", which means there won't be any separate pots. While I may not know the reasons why FIBA Asia did this, the results of the draw became obviously favorable for Gilas. Iran, China and Korea in one preliminary round group; Gilas could only meet them at the quarterfinals at the most. Which even got better with Lebanon's suspension. Right even before the tournament started, Gilas caught a break!

Second the hometown advantage. The last time the senior men's basketball team played competitively in the Philippines was in 1973, the penultimate time the Philippines won the gold in the FIBA Asia (then ABC) Championship. The structure of international basketball is that qualifying to world and continental championships is as if it is a championship in itself.  These championships are hosted by one country, with all games hosted by the host.

This is unlike for example, in football. The Azkals has had more competitive home games in three years than Gilas in 40 years. In football, the each country gets to host half of its qualifying games in the qualifying tournaments, unless you're country is utterly screwed like Iraq. Therefore, one can argue that Azkals (and the their fans) have more experience in playing at home. Of course, the best home field advantage the Azkals can get is at the Rizal Memorial; game outside the Metro would turn out to be an "away" game as players would still have to stay in places other than their houses.

With that said, Gilas (and their fans), are in an unfamiliar position: playing in front of a crowd that is 100% egging them to win. In every local basketball league, the arena is theoretically split into two camps, unless you're Ginebra. Even Ginebra players have to contend with hecklers from the opponents, despite their small numbers. In this tournament, Gilas are in a world of unknowns. Not to mention that the Mall of Asia Arena is a new arena: not many PBA games were played there, and the Gilas boys haven't played a competitive game there ever. although they've practiced there every night for weeks before the championship.

However, the breaks Gilas got, got better, even them having no participation. China had a terrible tournament, and finished third in their prelim round behind Iran and Korea. Qatar defeated Chinese Taipei which almost surely locked Gilas into winning the group and set up a quarterfinal clash with Kazakhstan which later saw Gilas win by 30 points. Chinese Taipei defeated China in the quarterfinals. And in the semifinals, the Philippines had an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1994, 1998, 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011 on home floor. The Philippines did vanquish the monkey of its back, and qualified for the World Cup.

In my aforementioned 2009 review of Gilas' 4th place finish, I pinpointed three things Gilas has to work on to succeed: talent, chemistry, fatigue, and 2 tall centers. Gilas 2.0 did recruit everyone except Douthit from their roster from the PBA. They toured Lithuania and New Zealand for chemistry. Japeth Aguilar blossomed on his third NT stint, becoming an able backup of Big Daddy Marcus. Junemar Fajardo will only get better; Greg Slaughter should get better. The only problem was fatigue.

Gilas had remarkable letdowns in their third consecutive game: a loss against Chinese Taipei, a scary win vs. Hong Kong, and a blowout from Iran. This tells me their physical conditioning still has some way to go before they (and PBA players) can go accustomed to the FIBA grind of consecutive games. It also didn't help that the Taiwanese "uninvited" Gilas to the Jones Cup. That would've been 10 consecutive games of hell. It seems that the PBA and the local leagues won't have any reasons on adding gamedates, or any other option that will increase the number of games in a shorter amount of time.

Another reason on this fatigue is that the players are old. While there had been noticeable declines in performance on every third day in 2013, the same was noticed in 2011. Bahrain was thrashed  113-71,  Syria was blown away 75-52, and Gilas was competitive against Korea in the third place game. It's probably time for the younger players to be integrated earlier into the big leagues.

Which brings me to the young guns. If Kiefer Ravena is super duper uber awesome, why is he wasting his talents at Ateneo and not jumping ship to the PBA? Well, the PBA has a blame for the most part: its minimum draft age is 23. Would you believe that? It is time for the PBA to reduce the minimum age to the 20-21 range. The PBA is impliedly giving its consent for college stars to waste their talent at the college game for "free".

What the Philippine basketball is a strong feeder league to the PBA. The old PBL and the current PBA D-League have virtually zero fan support. Even screaming Kiefer fanboys won't waste their time (tickets are reportedly free) to watch him score hoops for NLEX. What needs to be done is more money at this level. Currently, money is split between the PBA and the college game. What's the solution? The PBA has done 50% of the solution: make all players go through the D-League (even ABL players who are already pros) before getting drafted.

The next 50% is that the D-League should not allow players to play for a team other than their own during the D-League off-season. In other words, if you're Kiefer Ravena and you want to play in the PBA, you'd have to quit playing for Ateneo and play for the D-League for a year. It would be a crying shame if an amateur like Kiefer is not being compensated to play for Ateneo, which he gives 100% of his efforts to, as compared to a fraction of the efforts he is giving to NLEX.

With college stars like Kiefer playing exclusively for the D-League, money will go in. This is a good solution to bridge the game between college and PBA games. Once the young guns are integrated into the PBA, they will be able to almost seamlessly transition from one level of competition to another.

Gilas is in the Basketball World Cup. In the desolate land that is Southeast Asian sports, the Philippine national basketball team is the only men's national team in a team sport in either football, rugby, cricket, basketball, baseball or volleyball that barged into their sport's world cup (or most prestigious championship for men's national teams) in the 21st century.

Amongst football, basketball, baseball and volleyball, only the Philippine basketball team has qualified to the knockout stages of the Asian championships for three consecutive tournaments. Southeast Asian teams have poured all of their money to football, and they can't even qualify for the AFC Asian Cup (that's why the AFF Suzuki Cup is so big: it is the only international tournament that they can win).

That means we are doing something right.

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