One Monday night I walk into a Gilas Pilipinas practice session and think, “These guys are not a team.”
I’m at the PhilSports Complex, a white-lit, aging arena in Pasig City. The bleachers are rows of pastel-colored plastic chairs, one of which I secure for myself as I survey my surroundings. I spot Gabe Norwood on the court taking turns with Larry Fonacier in tossing up a rock from the line. Sonny Thoss and L.A. Tenorio sit on one bench in their civvies, chatting up a storm. At the opposite bench, Jeff Chan laces up while Ranidel de Ocampo, Jayson Castro, Marc Pingris, and June Mar Fajardo hang around and just…well, chill.
I don’t blame them. It’s dinnertime. We’re also smack in the middle of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup, which means most of these guys spent the day practicing with their “real” teammates. More training is probably not how they hoped their day would end, national team or not.
For my part, I’m struck with a sense of weirdness. Minimum six hours a week, I watch these players go at one another on the court, elbowing, pushing, yanking, and dunking in each other’s faces at high intensity. Now suddenly they’re all sporting the same blue and white practice jerseys, passing a ball around, chuckling at jokes. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, almost languid. It makes me feel a bit like the world went crooked under my feet.
A little before eight, head coach Chot Reyes gathers everyone at center court. He gives instructions I can’t hear, but a few minutes later the guys disperse to form two lines. Assistant coach Josh Reyes takes the lead. He points out where he wants each player to go, to whom to pass the ball, when to take a shot.
They begin, and the exercise is awkward. Their hearts aren’t in it. Jeff Chan cracks a sheepish grin when he forgets to make the fake before passing out to the next guy in line. It’s almost like watching college ballers on a playground.
They’re literally playing, just fooling around.
But as they get the hang of it—and it doesn’t take long—flashes of brilliance begin to emerge. The play runs smoother, faster. Jayson Castro takes the ball to the edge of the arc where he hands off to Gary David, who in turn passes to Ranidel. The latter pivots once, twice, then sends it back out to Gary, who by this time is on the far side of the three-point line. The ball then travels into the lane, under the basket, where Japeth Aguilar is waiting to bring it up for the reverse slam. The hoop shudders from the impact. A low oooh materializes from the arena’s small crowd of spectators.
I knock myself on the head for my playground analogy. These guys are no amateurs. Their demeanor might be casual instead of focused, and their energy steady instead of intense. But I am humbly reminded that some of these players have been dribbling longer than I’ve been alive.
This insight makes me look at the lineup—I mean really look at the guys on the court before me—and I realize something else: These are guys with heart. Gabe, Larry, Ping. Jayson, who told me himself that playing for his country is a longtime dream. Gary, L.A., Sonny, Greg Slaughter. Japeth Aguilar, whose drive is now unquestionable. Ranidel, Kelly Williams, Ryan Reyes. Marcus Douthit, who became a Filipino citizen to be able to play for this team. Jared Dillinger, June Mar, Jeff. All are guys who’d play to their last breath for a win.
Right now they might be distracted by the ongoing conference. Right now they might not be willing to use up all their energy training for a tournament that’s close to half a year away. Right now they might not have chemistry. Right now this isn’t even the final lineup. And yes, there’s a lot at stake, with the Philippines hosting this year’s FIBA Asia for the first time since 1973.
But when the time comes for them to step it up for pride and country, anybody on this wish list of Coach Chot’s can bring it.
It’s another hour of the same before practice ends. Just as they huddle up again for some final reminders, Jimmy Alapag walks in. The other players hoot and cheer at his tardiness, but I’m thinking, there’s a dude with heart.
I edit my first thought from earlier that evening. It’s not that these players don’t form a team. It’s that they don’t yet.
It’s time to go home. Everyone gathers up his gear, chattering, laughing. I walk back to my car telling myself, "They’re not yet ready, but that’s okay."
I can wait.