Year in Review 2018: The wild ride of Gilas Pilipinas (Part 1)

(Clockwise from left): Players from Gilas and Australia moments before the brawl, Kiefer Ravena, and Andray Blatche. ESPN5

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

It's hard to put into words the kind of year that Gilas Pilipinas has had. 2018 was the year that FIBA's plan of year-round basketball to qualify for the 2019 World Cup was truly felt, as teams from all over the world had to play and prepare for international basketball from the start of the year until the end.

For Gilas, the team's first-round home and away games in February matched them up against Australia and Japan. It would be the team's first time to get a glimpse of competition against the Boomers, while they were looking to sweep Japan in the Mall of Asia Arena.

Gilas was in firm control of second place at that point in Group F, trailing only Australia in the standings. Thus, it was a good opportunity to test themselves against the powerhouse squad.

In the end, it wasn't pretty. Gilas lost an 84-68 decision to the Boomers in Melbourne, as the home team broke open a tight contest in the third quarter, outscoring the visiting team 26-17. The sheer size and length of Australia bothered the Philippines, as did the overwhelming depth of the squad.

Gilas was led by June Mar Fajardo, the lone player in double digits in scoring with 15 points. However, the story of the game was the subpar play of naturalized player Andray Blatche. Many expected the NBA veteran and mainstay to provide solid production, but he was only able to chip in 8 points and 7 rebounds.

However, Blatche would redeem himself in the second game of the window against Japan, as he led his squad to an 89-84 win against Japan. This time Blatche was able to have his way against the Japanese frontcourt with solid numbers of 18 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists. PBA rookie Kiefer Ravena was also a revelation for the team, as he put up his best performance in a Gilas uniform with 13 points, 2 rebounds and 5 assists.

With the victory, Gilas had all but sewn up their spot in the next round. However the upcoming window in June-July would still be critical, because of the group that they would join depending on their finish.

The positive showing of Ravena was just part of an amazing run for the Phenom. In only his first year in the PBA, he was able to lead his team, the NLEX Road Warriors, to its first ever semis appearance in franchise history. He was a shoo-in for the Rookie of the Year award, and was even named as an all-star for the Visayas team.

And just as quickly as he ascended to the summit, it all came crashing down on him.

On the 28th of May, a press conference by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas revealed shocking news: Ravena tested positive for taking prohibitive substances, and violated the anti-doping rule policy. Several WADA-banned substances were found in his test samples, namely 1.3 dimethylhexan-2-amine (methylhexaneamine), 1.3-dimethylbutylamine (DMBA), and higenamine.

According to Ravena, those substances were all part of a replacement pre-workout drink that he took after practice, after his go-to drink was unavailable. The decision would have long-term ramifications not just for Ravena, but even for the entire PBA and Gilas Program.

The penalty was a hefty one: Ravena was banned from all competition from February 25, 2018 to August 24, 2019. If Gilas can qualify for the World Cup, he will be made available to the team.

However, another major consequence was that FIBA decreed the ban on Ravena on all basketball leagues - including the PBA. Thus, Ravena's spectacular rookie season ended just as quickly as it started. Without Ravena and an injured Kevin Alas now rehabbing from an ACL injury, the Road Warriors quickly flamed out in the Commissioner's Cup.

While Ravena waits for his time to return to the game, he has been active as an advocate of anti-doping awareness programs, as he tries to help fellow athletes avoid the consequences of mistakes he made.

Gilas would have to soldier on even without Ravena in the lineup, and their next match was a big one against Chinese Taipei in June 2019. The team embarked for Taiwan a week before the match to prepare, and it showed in the results.

Gilas blasted Chinese Taipei, 93-71 to sew up second place in the standings. The Philippine outclassed the home squad in the second and fourth quarters, outscoring Chinese Taipei by 24 points combined. Leading the way was a dominant Fajardo with 22 points, while Blatche had a double-double of 13 points and 12 rebounds.

Almost every player fielded in by Coach Chot Reyes had a positive contribution, and the team left Taiwan with a ton of confidence in themselves and their future. Their final match was against Australia, this time in their home floor in the Philippine Arena. Even though Gilas was already advancing to the next round, they still wanted to finish their campaign strong and put on a show in front of their fellow Filipinos.

But no one could have expected what transpired on that fateful day on July 2. What started out as a dominant performance by Australia ended in an all-out brawl on the court that spilled into the stands as well. It began with an exchange of elbows from Roger Pogoy and Chris Gouling, before getting blindsided by an elbow from Daniel Kickert.

That led to utter chaos, as all but a handful of players from Gilas rushed the Aussies. Punches, kicks, elbows, and even chairs were thrown by the Philippines, while the Boomers were more than willing to reciprocate and battle back.

In the aftermath of the game, Gilas only had three players who were not ejected - Baser Amer, Gabe Norwood and June Mar Fajardo. In one of the most bizarre sights in FIBA basketball ever, the three had to finish the game against Australia. It only ended when Gabe Norwood intentionally fouled out and left the Philippines without enough players to continue. The game ended with an 89-53 decision for the visiting Australia.

But the final score was secondary to the ugly sight that transpired on the court. After that brawl, many Filipinos and players were divided as to how to view what happened. On one side, some fans were proud of Gilas for sticking up for themselves, and defending their home floor especially with how Kickert was perceived to have given Pogoy a cheap shot. However, on the opposite spectrum were fans who wished that the Philippines had not retaliated that way to avoid international controversy.

Regardless of the public opinion, what was most important were the consequences of the brawl. And once FIBA released the series of fines and suspensions, it was a crushing blow. Ten players were suspended for their actions in the match, with Calvin Abueva getting the longest suspension at six games. The total list of players suspended, namely Abueva, Terrence Romeo, Jayson Castro, Andray Blatche, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, Japeth Aguilar, Carl Bryan Cruz, Matthew Wright and Jio Jalalon was long. Even the coaching staff was not spared from the FIBA hammer- Chot Reyes was suspended one game, and assistant coach Jong Uichico three games for their roles in the fracas.

In a year full of trials and tribulations for Gilas Pilipinas, this would prove to be one of the biggest blows. It would lead to wholesale changes in the team from top to bottom. And there wasn't a lot of time as well. The Asian Games were on the horizon, as were the first window of the second round. The journey for Gilas would continue, but it would look radically different in the second half of the year.

(To be continued)