Blatche a Chooks obstacle
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 27, 2017 - 4:00pm

Gilas naturalized import Andray Blatche finally reported for work at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Chenzhou, China, the other night but didn’t wear a Philippine jersey. Instead, Blatche saw action for his Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) club Xinjiang Flying Tiger, also known as Kashgar, after missing the first three games of the 10-team competition.

Blatche, 31, led Xinjiang to the CBA championship last season and hadn’t played in an organized tournament since suiting up for the Philippines in the SEABA Cup in Manila last May. His Xinjiang contract has a year to go. He flew into Chenzhou last Tuesday and played against Al Riyadi of Lebanon the next day with the FIBA website reporting that “he has yet to attend a single practice session of China Kashgar and does not yet look to be in prime game shape.”

Not surprisingly, Blatche was a bust in his first appearance as he went scoreless with two rebounds and six assists in 9:30 minutes. He missed two field goals. The result was catastrophic for the home team which was crushed by Lebanon, 103-73. The defeat brought down China to No. 2 in Group B, arranging a knockout quarterfinal showdown with Philippine entry Chooks To Go which finished No. 3 in Group A. The highly-anticipated duel is set at 7:30 tonight.

Blatche has a history of showing up late for work. At the recent SEABA Cup, he postponed his flight to Manila at least four times, causing havoc in Gilas’ practice schedule. Worse, he didn’t even play for Gilas at the recent FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon, citing security issues even as Americans Kevin Galloway (Iraq) and Ira Brown (Japan) showed up. Other naturalized players in the competition were Lebanon’s Norvel Pelle, born in the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda, and Syria’s Ivan Todorovic who was born in Montenegro. With Blatche unavailable for unclear reasons, Gilas activated Fil-German Christian Standhardinger as the team’s naturalized import for the FIBA Asia Cup.

How will Blatche react to playing against Chooks coach Chot Reyes who recruited him for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain? Surely, Reyes knows Blatche inside out, his strengths and weaknesses, where he’s soft defensively, where he’s vulnerable, where his sweet spot is. Chooks’ 7-1 center Isaiah Austin may be matched up with Blatche and that should be an interesting duel, considering Zeke could be a naturalization candidate for Gilas. However, Reyes recently said it’ll be too soon for Austin to play for Gilas at least in the early windows of the FIBA home-and-away qualifying series for the 2019 FIBA World Cup so the choice of a naturalized import will boil down to either Blatche or Standhardinger. Blatche would be the easy pick because of his experience and credentials but will he agree to meet Gilas’ practice deadlines?

Aside from Blatche, Chooks will focus on defending 6-1 guard Darius Adams who played for a Division II school and has gained valuable confidence battling as an import in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Spain and China. Other Kashgar standouts are 6-5 Kelambaike Makan, 6-10 Tonglin Sun, 6-3 Zirui Wang and 6-5 national player Li Gen. Only seven Chinese players performed in all four games of the group eliminations, meaning the team has held back. Li Gen, for instance, played in only two games and Sun, only one. But the Flying Tigers are expected to unleash their full force against Chooks particularly after the lopsided defeat to Al Riyadi. The winner will advance to the semifinals against the winner of the quarterfinal game between Astana of Kazakhstan and Shabab Al Ahli of Dubai.

Reyes has done wonders in whipping up a competitive team under trying circumstances. What’s driving Chooks is heart. And Austin is inspiring his teammates to give it their all. Austin, 23, is blind in the right eye, wears goggles to protect his left eye while playing and was once diagnosed with Marfan syndrome and an enlarged artery in the heart. His dream of playing in the NBA turned into a nightmare because of his health condition and NBA commissioner Adam Silver paid tribute to his passion and courage by making him an honorary first round draft pick in 2014. After a two-year layoff, Austin was cleared by doctors to resume playing last November and is back on the court working every game like it’s his last.

This is the 26th staging of the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, a regional club competition that started in 1981. The tournament allows every team to enlist two imports, whether naturalized or not. The Philippines hosted the event in 1996, 2005 and 2011 and won the title in 1984 with Northern Cement, 1988 with Swift, 1995 with Andok’s and 1996 with Hapee Toothpaste.

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