With the thrilling performance of the young Gilas squad in last week’s FIBA qualifiers, our basketball-crazy nation finally had something to cheer for and hope for as this young team with an average age of 22 still looks like it has barely scratched the surface of its potential and can bring us more pride in international competition in the next few years. Bravo Gilas!
There was, however, one clear loser last week.
The once-celebrated Philippine Basketball Association.
The days when the whole nation would stop whenever Ginebra would go up against SMB are long gone and forgotten. Young fans have long migrated to watching charismatic college players play their hearts out in the UAAP or the NCAA. More hardcore basketball junkies get their fill of jaw-dropping highlights and the best players in the world with the NBA being easily available online through the NBA’s live streaming might. Those looking for more fast-paced and physical basketball action have found their fix in the different 3×3 leagues both locally and internationally. Provincial fans have also found more relatable teams to cheer for in the MPBL.
So where does that leave the old guards of the old boys’ club that is the PBA? Struggling for relevance and a true connection with fans.
The fact that a young high school and college-aged Gilas all-cadet basketball team vanquished Korea on their first try (something that decades of teams bannered by PBA all-stars have rarely managed to do) has dealt a major blow to the PBA’s claim of having the best players in the country. This is the same PBA that banished Tab Baldwin last year from his consultant’s gig for speaking candidly about the way PBA teams play. This is the same PBA that makes it difficult for players to report for national team duty. This is the same PBA that responded to the decisions of Rayray Parks and Thirdy Ravena to not play for the PBA with threats. Already, Gilas fans are clamoring for the Gilas cadets to skip the PBA altogether and hone their skills for the national team by playing in the Korean or Japanese professional leagues which ironically may be more open to letting them play for the Philippine national team.
The PBA seems to be intent on playing the kontrabida role in this hero’s tale and in the end this Gilas team will have more authentic fans than most PBA teams can ever hope for.
But let’s get back to talking about the heroes now, shall we?
Dwight Ramos has come to his own as the leader of this team in the absence of the injured Matt Nieto. Except for the first few minutes of the first match against Korea, he has been a picture of calmness and consistency – making the right plays be it a perfect pass or a sweet outside shot. Hard to believe he has never played a UAAP game. The sky is the limit for him and he will have a great career ahead of him. He reminds me of another Filipino-American guard out of California – dare I say it? Ricardo Brown.
RJ Abarrientos looks and plays like a taller version of his uncle Johnny. His aggressiveness, handles, and shot-making made him a virtual doppelganger for the legendary point guard. While his decision-making still leaves a lot to be desired, he played a crucial role in the comeback against Korea with his refusal to be cowed in the face of a 17 point deficit. It was telling that this young guard who is fresh out of high school was on the floor in the closing minutes of the game when Gilas desperately needed a shot.
SJ Belangel arguably is the best point guard in college basketball today. While others may be more atheistic or are better scorers, what sets SJ apart is his poise when the game is on the line and his knack for knocking down the big shot. Ateneo fans have long been familiar with his heroics. I’m glad he proudly wears Gilas colors now. Between him, Matt and RJ, the point guard rotation will be very good for years to come.
The 6’7” forward Carl Tamayo played with spunk, poise, and focus. Hard to believe he is just out of high school. He will be the premier big man for years to come in the UAAP. The UP Maroons are very lucky to have signed him up for the next five years.
Ange Kouame proved that he was the right choice for naturalization. Despite a shaky start in the game and a stat line that hardly reflected his impact on the game, Koame unveiled a surprisingly reliable shot from three-point range with all three of his makes coming at crucial times in the game. His last offensive rebound put back seemed to ice the game before the terrific twin triples that capped the game – all while doing an admirable job on Korea’s own naturalized player, Ra Gun-ah.
The last time Philippine basketball saw a big man who could score, dribble and read a game so well was Mon Fernandez who many still consider the best all-around player the PBA ever produced. Now get this – Kai Sotto at 19 years old is almost a foot taller than Mon Fernandez was during his playing days. Kai was breathtaking to watch as he scored with ease, rebounded with authority, and handled the ball like a guard. The potential is there and it is exciting to think of how much more his game will grow as he prepares to suit up in a few months for a stint in the Australian professional basketball league.
The future is very bright for our Gilas boys.
Thank you for giving the whole country a little hope and happiness – something we’ve sorely missed over the past year.