Vision for 2023
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 26, 2019 - 12:00am

The consensus is the next Gilas head coach must be exclusively dedicated to taking the national team to the next level. That means two things. First, he can’t do work with any other team so a PBA coach is out of the question for this position. And second, he has to work with a core of players on a year-round basis.

Whether the next Gilas head coach is a foreigner or a Filipino or a Fil-foreigner or whatever is beside the point. Ethnicity is not a consideration. What is of critical importance are the candidate’s knowledge of the lofty standards of the international game, experience in using the knowledge for application on the court and the ability to harness the resources of players, staff and executive management in achieving the goals of the national program. He must be an effective communicator, motivator, teacher and friend.

Looking at the results of the recent FIBA World Cup, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that European-style basketball is now the flavor of the modern game. Seven of the top 10 finishers were from Europe, including champion Spain. Of course, it may be argued that if the US brought in NBA superstars like LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden, the view at the top would’ve been different.

In the Philippine context, it is apparent that the European style suits the Filipino mode of play more than the American. The American game is more power than finesse, more one-on-one to bring out individual talent than ball movement, more spectacular than subdued, more traditional than creative. Even the NBA game is evolving with the influx of European talent. It’s no wonder that more and more teams are hiring European coaches. Spain’s national coach Sergio Scariolo, an Italian, is in Nick Nurse’s staff with the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. Ettore Messina, another Italian, was in Gregg Popovich’s staff with the San Antonio Spurs from 2014 to this year. Serbia’s Igor Kokoskov was the Phoenix Suns head coach and is now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. Spain’s Jordi Fernandez is an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets. Serbia’s Ognjen Stojakovic is in charge of player development with the Nuggets. Serbia’s Darko Rajakovic is an assistant coach with the Suns. Lithuania’s Darius Songaila is a player development assistant with the Spurs. Italy’s Ricardo Fois is involved in player development with the Suns. Greece’s Fotios Katsikaris was an assistant coach with Utah last season. Croatia’s Neven Spahija is an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies.

In the PBA, the American game is prevalent, mainly because of the influence of imports. For two of the league’s three conferences, imports are recruited on short-term contracts so teams work their systems to suit the high-priced reinforcements. Because the nature of their contracts is short-term, it’s difficult and impractical for imports to adjust to a team system. So the action involving imports is typically one-on-one. It’s the style that PBA players have been used to since the league’s inception. 

It’s no wonder that when PBA players are exposed to international competition with limited preparation time, their level of play suffers by comparison. It takes more preparation time to rework a team system. Besides, PBA players mainly perform to league standards so they restrict themselves to the way the game is played locally. Obviously, it’s a different game out there.

The next Gilas head coach can’t be a PBA coach because he has to be attuned to the international game and his attention must be strictly focused on the national program, nothing else. Ginebra coach Tim Cone was tapped to pilot the Philippine team for the coming Southeast Asian Games and agreed to do the job because it’s his patriotic duty as a Filipino resident married to a Filipina. Cone will never turn his back on the country’s call. But it’s a stop-gap assignment because the need is immediate and searching for the next Gilas head coach will likely take several months as the direction is towards the 2023 FIBA World Cup that the Philippines is co-hosting with Japan and Indonesia.

Working with a core of players on a year-round basis entails investing in a pool of amateur standouts. Before the PBA draft unfolds on Dec. 8, there must be a firm decision made by the SBP on who the amateur standouts are so their rights are restricted. They may join the draft but if they’re picked, they won’t be able to play in the PBA until they’re released from the Gilas pool. Initially, the pool may be limited to 12. In next year’s draft, another 12 may be added to the pool and every year thereafter. As the pool expands, players may be dropped and if they were drafted, they’ll be released to their PBA teams.

The pool will be exposed to international competitions on a regular basis. It may also compete in the PBA as a guest entry like the Northern Cement team in 1985. The concept is to build an exclusive national team. If the Gilas head coach has a PBA player or players in mind to reinforce the team for a specific international competition, this may be arranged. Bringing in a separate pool of prospective naturalized players to train with the national team is another action point. Negotiating with FIBA in recruiting Fil-foreigners to play as locals regardless of when they obtained their Filipino passports for as long as they are confirmed to be of Filipino lineage is still another action point.

A lot of work has to be done in forming an internationally-competitive Gilas team looking forward to the 2023 FIBA World Cup. The road map must be crafted now because it’s never too soon to plan for the future.

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