The news came out literally like a thief in the night.
On Thursday morning, the Samahan Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) announced that the country will participate in the 18th Asian Games (Jakarta, Indonesia, from August 18 to September 2), with the core of PBA team Rain or Shine Elasto Painters forming the nucleus, and its former mentor, Yeng Guiao, taking over the coaching mantle. A list of players was initially released to form the pool of players from where Guiao will select from, led by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson.
Later that night, SBP President Al Panlilio shocked everyone when he announced that the country won't be participating in the quadrennial games' basketball competition. This came after the officials agreed that "the time and chance to participate in the Games would not be optimal" during the PBA Board meeting held in the afternoon.
The SBP cited the need to "regroup, prepare for the process of appealing the FIBA Disciplinary Panel's recent Decision, and aim for sustainable success in future tournaments—including the upcoming FIBA World Cup Qualifiers and the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup." That's all well and good, but these reasons don't make sense.
It's not like the SBP's basis for pullout came out of the blue. These issues have been there since we won the hosting rights to the 2023 World Cup and in the aftermath of the Gilas Pilipinas-Australia brawl. If these are legitimate reasons, why make an announcement a few hours earlier that we'll be participating?
The path to the Asian Games campaign didn't seem bumpy. RoS bosses Terry Que and Raymond Yu have willingly allowed their team to play. Guiao has already accepted the coaching job with current Elasto Painters tactician Caloy Garcia as assistant. More than 12 players were ready to suit up, including Stanley Pringle of the Global Port Batang Pier (vouched by team owner Mikee Romero). The only unsettled issue was Guiao's request to have guys like June Mar Fajardo, Christian Standhardinger, and Marcio Lassiter of the San Miguel Beermeen, Greg Slaughter and Jeff Chan of the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, and Paul Lee of the Magnolia Hotshots. Since SMB and Ginebra would be playing in the 2018 Commissioner's Cup Finals that may extend until August 10, it was a remote possibility.
Obviously, something happened during the board meeting that triggered this decision. Guiao, in an interview, asked SBP officials Manny Pangilinan and Panlilio what the expectations were: "Are we there to seriously compete or trying to participate?" While he didn't reveal the SBP's reply, the answer was obviously the former. Guiao also intimated that some of the PBA teams denied his request for reinforcements, which made him realize that he wouldn't be able to whip up a competitive squad that will meet the SBP's expectations.
In the end, it's not because the SBP wants to "regroup and prepare for the process of appealing the FIBA's decision to suspend the core of Gilas," nor its "aim for sustainable success in future tournament like the WC Qualifiers and the 2023 World Cup," as indicated in their statement. It can only mean one thing—the inability of the SBP to gain the support of the PBA to strengthen the national team.
PBA Commissioner Willy Marcial declared that the SBP has access to all its players for the national team. But this statement was for Gilas and the FIBA Qualifiers, not the Asiad. Marcial can easily justify that the Jakarta Games wasn't penciled in the PBA schedule, and it was only through the generosity of the RoS owners that paved the way for pros to still play. Note that prior to the Elasto Painters' entry, it was MVP's TNT KaTropa that was originally slated to represent our country, but didn't come to fruition after the game against the Boomers.
The question is: why can't the SBP come up with a team outside of the PBA to play in Indonesia? There's supposed to be the Gilas Cadets selection made up of Kobe Paras, Abu Tratter, and Ricci Rivero, among others, put up to represent the country in other relevant international tournaments to prepare for 2023. Wasn't that part of the blueprint—the elite Gilas team made up of the PBA stars to play in the qualifiers, while the youngsters joining other tournaments like the Asian Games, SEA Games, Jones Cup, etc.? What happened?
Except in 2006, when the country was suspended by the FIBA, the Philippines has been participating in the basketball competition of the Asian Games since 1951. We won the first four tournaments up to 1962, while our worst performance was during the last tournament (2014) in Incheon, South Korea, where we wound up seventh. Was the SBP worried that a hastily-formed team is doomed to fail from the get-go, resulting to an even worse finish this year and further brickbats from the public? While fans would have given this team the latitude and mitigate their expectations, there's no denying that a poor outcome would only create a PR backlash that could erode the SBP's credibility even more.
In hindsight, what could have been done? For one, the SBP could have pursued its original plan of fielding in the cadets and a naturalized player. But that direction got shelved when a proposal was made to have the TNT core wear the flag's colors instead. And after the Gilas-Boomers brawl, the effect turned out to be more chilling than expected. The SBP has become too wary of its credibility, overly cautious of the negative impact any failure our basketball team experiences internationally. They have also conveniently used their appeal to the FIBA as a maneuver to "avoid" responsibility of representing our country in the Asian Games, a mandate of every national sports association.
In the end, one can only wonder if this "pick-up" system of getting PBA players to represent in international competitions with only a few weeks to prepare is still relevant. The NCC program of the early '80s authored by then-Basketball Project Director Danding Cojuangco and coach Ron Jacobs has remained the benchmark of our international success.
Instead, the SBP may want to revisit the Gilas 1.0 program of Noli Eala, patterned after the NCC blueprint, in preparation for 2023. A lineup of Kai Sotto, AJ Edu, a naturalized player, Paras, Rivero, and Thirdy Ravena, among others, would be formidable if they were allowed to play together for the next five years under an able international coach like Tab Baldwin. They can suit up as a guest team in the PBA to build cohesion and chemistry, while playing against quality competition, and partaking in all international tournaments available to gain familiarity and confidence against our regional rivals—all these while staying in the amateur ranks.
If they relied less on the PBA, they'd better the chances of our country in replicating the feat achieved by the NCC national team in the 1985 FIBA-Asia tournament.