Journey counts most

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2021 - 12:00am

From out of the blue came the good news that the Philippines would replace New Zealand in the six-team Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Belgrade on June 29-July 4. It’s a long shot for world No. 31 Philippines to win the sole Olympic ticket out of this OQT but the opportunity of playing in a high-level competition with No. 5 Serbia, No. 12 Italy, No. 18 Puerto Rico, No. 19 Dominican Republic and No. 35 Senegal is an amazing turn of events.

“This is truly a welcome development and we are very happy that Gilas Pilipinas men will be given a chance to compete for a slot in the Olympics,” said SBP president Al Panlilio. “So when New Zealand withdrew, we were the next highest ranking country in the world that earned the spot. Very fresh news so we will have to discuss how we prepare for this opportunity. But this is great for Philippine basketball.”

So far, eight countries have qualified to play 5x5 basketball in the coming Olympics – host Japan, Nigeria, Argentina, US, Iran, France, Spain and Australia. The seven best teams from five continents out of the 2019 FIBA World Cup gained automatic berths. The breakdown is one each from Africa, Asia and Oceania and two each from Europe and the Americas. Iran made it as the highest-ranked Asian team at No. 23 in the World Cup. The winners of four OQTs will claim the remaining slots. There are 24 countries playing in the OQTs, including the 16 best from the World Cup not directly qualified to the Olympics. The eight others are the next two best teams from Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia/Oceania. No. 19 New Zealand was one of the 16 best teams from the World Cup not directly qualified to the Olympics so that paved the way for its invitation to the OQT. With New Zealand’s withdrawal, the next eligible contender from Asia/Oceania was the Philippines since No. 28 China and No. 30 South Korea had already booked tickets to play in separate OQTs.

The Philippines is bracketed with Serbia and Dominican Republic in the group stage. If Serbia is unbeaten and Gilas beats Dominican, the Philippines will advance to the KO semifinals against the other group’s No. 1, likely to be Italy. If Gilas upends Italy, it will play the other semifinal winner, likely to be Serbia, for an Olympic ticket. Excluding the Philippines, every country in this OQT has active NBA players. Maurice Harkless is from Puerto Rico; Karl Anthony Towns and Al Horford from Dominican Republic; Danilo Gallinari, Nico Mannion, Nicolo Melli and Reggie Jackson from Italy; Gorgui Dieng and Tacko Fall from Senegal and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic, Alen Smailagic, Aleksej Pokusevski and Nemanja Bjelica from Serbia. But it’s unlikely the NBA players will see action in the OQT. The NBA regular season ends May 16, the play-in period is on May 18-21, the playoffs begin May 22 and a possible Game 7 of the Finals will be on July 22.

There are several issues to resolve in preparing Gilas for the OQT. Will PBA players be lined up? How will the PBA adjust its schedule to avoid a conflict with the Philippine Cup slated to start April 9? Will Ange Kouame and Kai Sotto be available? If Utah crashes out of NBA title contention early, will Jordan Clarkson join Gilas? Which players in the current Gilas pool will be in the roster? When can practice start and will there be tune-ups abroad? Will the players, coaches and staff be vaccinated before leaving Manila? Who will coach Gilas? It may be a mission impossible to clinch the Olympic ticket but as the saying goes, the ball is round and the journey is what counts the most.

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