MANILA, Philippines - Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said the other day the Philippine national basketball team has the potential to play like the San Antonio Spurs but Gilas must work extra hard to even come close to the standards of the NBA champions at the FIBA World Cup in Spain on Aug. 30-Sept. 14.
Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard arrived in Manila last Monday to participate in a charity event with Gilas. The three were recently named to the 19-man US training pool for the World Cup. Harden’s first visit to Manila was in 2011 when he joined eight other NBA cagers to play a game against a PBA Selection, coached by Chot Reyes and Gilas, coached by Rajko Toroman. He was back for another visit last year.
“I’ve seen what the national team can do,” said Harden. “They’re a well-rounded team. Players play the right way, get to the right spot and they can shoot the ball. They play somewhat like the Spurs or try to. Height doesn’t mean anything. What’s important is heart, will and effort. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”
Harden, 24, said he came here for his third visit to teach kids the fundamentals of the game and help out Gilas. “It’s all about the correct way to pass, shoot and dribble,” he said. “Every Philippine trip I make is amazing. I love it in the Philippines. To me, this is all like a dream, being able to travel to the Philippines, Beijing and other places. It’s like I’m living a dream every day of my life.”
Harden said he’s looking forward to playing for the US at the World Cup. Training camp begins Monday. As for the Rockets’ future, Harden said he’s not worried that Jeremy Lin has left for the Los Angeles Lakers and Chandler Parsons for the Dallas Mavericks. “Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,” said Harden. “The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.”
Lillard, 24, said FIBA won’t allow him to wear his No. 0 jersey if he makes it to the World Cup. “I wear No. 0 for the letter O, not the number,” he said. “That’s because I was born in Oakland, played college ball (for Weber State) at Ogden, Utah and I now play in Oregon (the Portland Trail Blazers). When I was named to the US training pool, I was assigned the No. 22. The number doesn’t make a difference really.”
Lillard said if he’s named to the final US squad, he’ll look out for the Philippines in Spain. “My thing is to have a strong work ethic,” he said. “Coming out of high school, I wasn’t highly recruited. I didn’t have a bunch of scholarship offers. Nobody really knew who I was. But I just kept working hard, continuing to get better and making strides every year. It’s the result of my hard work and faith that I’m here.”
Off the court, Lillard said he uses the platform of being an NBA player to reach out to touch the lives of less fortunate kids in the inner cities and the physically and mentally challenged. “My goal is to impact the lives of the less privileged,” he said. “I look out for kids in the inner cities. As a role model, I try to set a good example. I’m particularly excited about being an ambassador for the Special Olympics.”
At the FIBA World Cup in Spain, the US is bracketed in Group C and will play the Dominican Republic, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey and Ukraine in Bilbao.
Another Manila visitor Tyson Chandler said it’s a blessing to represent one’s country at the FIBA World Cup. He played on the US squad that took gold at the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey and the 2012 London Olympics. Chandler also has the distinction of playing on the Dallas Mavericks team that won the NBA title in 2011. “Playing for your country is a matter of national pride,” he said. “It’s for your family and countrymen to be proud of. Winning the NBA title is the fulfillment of a dream that you have even as a kid. They’re both equally important and gratifying.”
Chandler said he’s aware that Gilas has a promising center in 6-10 JunMar Fajardo. “My advice to the big guy is it’s all about anchoring the team with defense,” he said. “It’s about making teammates comfortable and being a vocal leader out there. It’s my first time to visit the Philippines but I’ve heard so much about the Filipino fans’ passion for the game. I came over to give the national team a few tips as they get ready for the World Cup.”
Former NBA player and coach John Lucas, who accompanied the players to Manila, said Gilas is on the right track in preparing for the World Cup. “I watched the film of the Philippines’ win over China at the recent FIBA Asia Cup,” he said. “I saw those three free throws in the end to beat China. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I like what coach Chot (Reyes) has done. The international game is becoming more and more popular even in the NBA. And Gilas plays it well. The dribble-drive is something Gilas does very well. It’s about quickness, spacing and finding the spots to take your shots.”
Lucas, 60, recalling playing against the Philippines at the 1974 FIBA World Cup in Puerto Rico. It was the first game of the group stage for both countries and the US won, 135-85 after leading, 57-38, at the half. Lucas scored 30 points. “I’ll never forget that game,” said Lucas who played 14 years in the NBA. “The Philippines shot the ball really well and had a lot of quick players. One guy shot over 20 points and man, could he shoot that ball.” Lucas referred to Robert Jaworski who paced the Philippines with 21 points.
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, 23, said he planed in for the chance to show support for Gilas and share his basketball knowledge with kids in clinics. He’s heard a lot about the Philippines from Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland who lived in Manila for three years up to 1985. Asked about his enormous hands, Leonard said he uses them to control the ball in mid-air and make acrobatic layups.
As for newly-recruited Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina of Italy, Leonard said he knows of his impressive credentials. “I haven’t met him yet but from what he’s done, I think he’ll be a big help to us,” said Leonard who was voted MVP in the recent NBA Finals. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich employed the “international” style of ball movement, crisp passing, spacing to create good looks for shooters and dribble-penetration to win the NBA title this past season. His coaching staff includes Engelland who is familiar with the international game, former New Zealand national player Sean Marks and former Nigerian national player Ime Udoka.