Final word on the World Cup
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - September 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Despite the reams of written words on the disappointing finish of the Philippine national team in the FIBA World Cup, there always seems to be more to say. However, many people have instead taken the opposite route, taking to social media and pointing fingers, calling for boycotts, and so on. Instead, let’s look at what changes Philippine basketball can make to put the country in a more favorable position, so we may see the day when these bad memories will be in the light of the larger picture. That’s the more constructive approach.

Firstly, let’s look at the prevailing attitude many fans have. Filipinos are good at basketball. The country has been playing it for over a century, well ahead of almost all other countries in the world. Initially, Filipinos were among the most brilliant players, too, as proven by the Far Eastern Games and the first Olympic basketball competitions in Berlin in 1936. So there has never been a question of the passion for the game. However, passion is not logical. It sees its potential, and cannot reconcile when that potential remains unfulfilled.

Secondly, Philippine basketball has always been influenced by American basketball. And why not? The US has, for much of the sport’s history, been the world leader in hoops. Save for two watershed Olympics (1976 and 1988), Americans beat the field. So why not be like them? That is where passion overtook logic. To avoid any further controversy, let’s just say that Filipinos are not Americans and leave it at that. What I mean is that physically, emotionally and culturally, our two peoples are different. Therefore, so should our basketball.

There are many ways to form a basketball team for international competition. Back in the day, there were open tryouts which, in the Philippines, ended in the early to mid-1980’s. There are tryouts by invitation, which became the norm during the 1990’s. Occasionally, the country sent entire teams to club competitions like the Jones Cup. Lately, the national team has been cobbled together from the available talent in the PBA and one regular naturalized center.

This writer has mentioned that having a full-time national team is no longer a financially viable option, since most players would inevitably be poached by PBA teams. This is precisely what happened to the RP-Cebuana Lhuillier team of the early 2000’s. Their starting center Ricky Calimag and starting point guard Egay Echavez were both hired by pro teams right before a meaningless one-week tournament. That and key injuries left the team without veteran leadership. Their subsequent runner-up finish caused backlash that resulted in years-long debacle that caused the padlocking of the BAP office, a suspension from FIBA, and no basketball in the 2005 Philippine SEA Games.

If financiers were willing to sponsor a traveling pool of players who would agree to not play in the PBA for four years or so, that group would get better results. One point that has not been discussed enough is that our national teams are limited in their exposure against specific countries and players we will face internationally. The nationals can play in tournaments abroad, specifically in Europe. This will be an intermediary remedy, since only that group of players will benefit from the experience.

As this column has stated before, to succeed, the grooming of a national team will inevitably delay those players’ entry into the PBA, like the successful Northern Cement experiment which became the post-EDSA San Miguel Beer team (minus Allan Caidic). But the bigger picture will entail a change of culture in Philippine basketball from the grassroots level. The World Cup has proven that you can succeed without NBA players. Other countries like Angola have proven that you can go far without seven-footers. But it has to start changing with how we teach our children the game. Size is not as critical as skill and teamwork. Let’s rewind to the screen or the pass that leads to the highlight shot or dunk. This is what the NBA is missing, too. They’re bringing in more Europeans who are finished products, not analyzing what makes them competitive.

We need to let go of our fixation with American basketball and find a brand that is more suited to smaller, less athletic players. We need to teach our children to be more unselfish, and drill them in guard skills that will be valuable no matter how tall or short they grow. And we need to stop saying we’re not tall enough to play basketball. That’s nonsense. A team only needs twelve players who are tall enough, strong enough and skilled enough to compete globally, and the country has plenty of them. But we need to train them in the type of game they need to play abroad, and keep them together long enough for it to sink. To be the best, you have to learn from the best. 

And that, we must accept, is no longer America.

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