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Why Beau Belga continues to stick around for Gilas Pilipinas

Beau Belga knows he may not be making the trip to China but has embraced his role as Gilas' 13th man. KC Cruz/ESPN5

"Patient" isn't exactly the trait that comes to mind when one thinks about Beau Belga, but the Gilas Pilipinas big man aptly provided that image 45 minutes after a Monday practice wrapped up at the Meralco Gym.

Aside from a couple of minor injuries sustained by teammates Poy Erram and Matthew Wright, he and the rest of the team breezed through another uneventful session with less than two weeks until the FIBA World Cup begins. Belga stayed a little bit longer after the end of practice and sat alone on an orange plastic chair beneath the basket, patiently waiting to answer questions while most of his teammates stepped out into the night.

Firmly gripping the handle on a yellow-green suitcase that contained his gear, Belga unflinchingly caught a fastball immediately thrown his way: "How do you feel about your chances of making the final 12?"

Beau chuckled before providing a resigned answer: "I'm giving the group a good fight for a spot, but I'm not expecting to be in the lineup. I'm just here to help, I'm just here to compete with them and make them better players. Getting lined up is a bonus, but I'm already OK with being just part of the pool."

Why?

"I'm that kind of person. I'm always expecting the worst. I'm not even expecting to be lined up. Whatever God has planned for me, I'll accept it."

For someone who has been left off of final rosters multiple times, one could imagine Belga has grown weary of the process. The center was part of the 2013 training pool for the FIBA Asia Championship in Manila and the 2014 pool for the World Cup team that made its way to Spain. In both instances, he was cut from the final 12-man lineup.

He also failed to make the 2014 team for the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea before finding redemption four years later by being called up for the 2018 edition of the continental meet. Belga suited up for Gilas in the fourth and fifth windows of the World Cup qualifiers, where the Philippines struggled to a 1-3 record against Iran, Qatar and Kazakhstan.

Despite his recent productivity, it's hard to make the case for his inclusion in the Philippine lineup for China, where Gilas will go up against all kinds of challenges against Serbia, Italy and Angola in Group D. Even Coach Yeng Guiao, who has shared success with Belga for five years with Rain or Shine in the PBA, admitted that the chances of his former ward surviving the final cuts are pretty small.

"Beau knows his role here is just to pitch in for June Mar [Fajardo], especially when June Mar could not make Spain, and be an extra body in practice so we can practice in a way where everyone is able to benefit. I think Beau knows his chances are slim, to be straightforward about it. But he's still here because he likes to help the team, he has a commitment to help the team, not necessarily being part of the 12-man lineup," Guiao told ESPN5.com.

"We needed him because the time when June Mar and the rest of the other guys are not yet available -- and sometimes when they were available, we still needed [a] substitute coming off the bench and relieve the tired players ... He knew his chances were slim but he's still here, he's helping out," he added.

This doesn't faze Belga one bit. In fact, he's actually learned to embrace this role.

"I stick to that. I'm happy with that. I'm happy with being the 13th man. There's nothing to be ashamed of. I was in the pool and a lot of guys wanted to be in that spot, but I was one of the lucky guys who were able to join," he said.

His continued resilience in the face of a tough reality is admirable -- but one reason he continues to stick around is because he is held in such high regard by his colleagues.

On the court

At 6-foot-5, Beau is undersized for the pace and length of the international game.

"I was just joking with somebody earlier that if Beau's two inches taller, he's probably on the team. No question," longtime teammate Gabe Norwood said, smiling.

His height hasn't presented a lot of problems for Belga, who carved his own niche by seeing the action from a different plane than everyone else. It doesn't immediately reflect on box scores, but Beau's mental advantage shows in his affinity for repeatedly firing an assist to an open man in the right spot and leveraging his threat of an outside shot, both adding wrinkles to his team's offense.

"I think Beau's IQ makes up for a lot of his height shortcomings or anything like that because he's just a very smart player, a great teammate in terms of talking to the other bigs in terms of kinda seeing things on the court," Norwood raved. "Beau's basketball IQ is so high. Being able to pass the ball, score it, shoot it from distance and stretch the floor, he brings a lot of positives."

"They're very rare, actually, guys who have that natural intelligence," Guiao gushed. "Some guys are average and they will get better and they will mature. But Beau, when he came in, he already had that innate intelligence and he still got better. Some people say he's slow, some people say he's short, but that has never been a problem because he's able to compensate for it mentally."

Belga is aware of his limitations, although he's completely in touch with how much he can affect by being ahead of the processes.

"What I lack two inches in height, I make up for in IQ," Belga said. "The lack of height is compensated by the IQ level. But I don't regret it. Even if I'm small, even if I'm not the type of big man who's not tall or athletic, there are no regrets. I've lasted in this league, I've played in international games as the player that I am, and I help with my smarts in the game. I'm alright with that."

His IQ helps him take advantage of his heft, which he then pairs with his grit and deceptive athleticism in order to absorb all kinds of contact from the post. This is why he's earned a lot of trust on the hardwood despite giving up a couple of inches defensively against his foes.

"It's his toughness," Guiao added. "He's an intelligent player. He knows how it is to mix it up inside. He's actually, in terms of height, he's undersized. But because he has bulk, he's strong, he knows how to use that to compensate for the lack of height playing the four or five positions ... that's what makes him valuable."

"I'm happy with being the 13th man. There's nothing to be ashamed of. I was in the pool and a lot of guys wanted to be in that spot, but I was one of the lucky guys who were able to join." Beau Belga, on his role with Gilas

"Jokingly I'll say he put weight on to where he can hold his own down there in the post, whether it's the import conference or all-Filipino. He's just really grinded. I think that's the story of Beau: He's just grinded his way to [being] one of the top big men in the league," said Norwood.

It also helps Belga's case that he's familiar with the system, having played with Guiao for five years before the coach moved on from the Elasto Painters.

"He knows Coach Yeng's system," said former teammate Paul Lee. "He knows how to play there and he helps hasten how other players can pick up the system."

"His comfort level, it's really just playing in his system for so long and just really earning that trust on the court, to our team offensively and defensively," Norwood added.

Belga's grasp of Guiao's vision is a boon on the national stage, where the coach needs a conduit on the floor to help build better chemistry.

"He always reminds the players that there's no superstar, and the only superstar is the system," Belga said. "That's what I have to help the new ones understand about Coach Yeng's system. Of course, I also need to guide them around Coach Yeng's attitude and approach. I give them tips, and those tips make them better players under the system."

Outside the action

Speaking of chemistry, everyone who has worked with Belga agreed that he helps unite a locker room. The big man is a textbook nice guy, a fact belied by a seemingly unfriendly face that is often marked by a scowl on the court.

"He's a nice guy, a nice teammate," Lee said. "He's also one of what any team needs to improve chemistry. It's his attitude, and he knows how to get along with every player. That's what's important."

"He's naturally a nice guy. You can ask him for favors and he helps, he helps other guys with their games, and he helps his friends who might need help even off the court," Guiao said. "He's not just a good player, he's a good person."

He's also as funny as they come, providing a light reprieve in a no-nonsense environment that the national team usually fosters in camps.

"I think his sense of humor also helps," Guiao said. "These are guys who also like to have fun, as long as having fun is within the bounds and the rules of the team."

"I'm not the type of veteran who's a stickler for the rules," Belga said. "As long as we're enjoying, we're having fun, I'm OK with that."

Those factors certainly eased the transition for everyone, especially during August when Gilas spent a week in Spain.

"When we went to that Spain trip, we improved," said Belga. "The system was really there and the chemistry was built there because it's just us guys there spending time together. We jelled a lot. We joked a lot.

"I'm just talkative. That's what I bring. I'm talkative, I joke even if it's practice time. That way, you can see the team enjoying. And Coach Yeng thinks that as long as we're doing the right things, even if we joke around it's OK with him. That's what I liked about his system: It's OK to laugh. Laughing is such a big part of playing, you enjoy it."

But when it's time to get the job done, the 11-year veteran is usually the first person to hold everyone, including himself, accountable for their roles.

"He's very vocal," Norwood said. "Myself and Beau have been the captain and co-captain of Rain or Shine for the last few conferences now and usually he's the first one to speak up. ... He's quick to call people out if you're doing something wrong, but he's also quick to try to make his own adjustments and get better. He's just a pro, really, at the end of the day."

There's weight in every word that Belga says, and that weight is valued by everyone who understands what he brings to the table.

"I'm not the type of veteran who shows how I should be respected, how strict I am," Belga said. "I'm the type of veteran who wants you to enjoy as long as you know your limitations. That's what I impart to the new ones. And they're really enjoying it, and I'm glad that they do because they accept it."

"He likes the guys and the guys like him. It does not matter who his teammates are. He knows how to deal with them, he knows how to blend with them, he develops chemistry with the rest of the guys," said Guiao.

"Whether it's with Rain or Shine or here with Gilas, I think a lot of guys respect his game, respect his IQ. I think it's no fluke that he's part of the pool," Norwood said.

The final cut

For all his qualities, the odds that Belga make the World Cup lineup are still stacked against him because of Fajardo, Raymond Almazan, Poy Erram, Japeth Aguilar, and Troy Rosario -- players whose games might be more suited to what Gilas needs in its bid for success in China.

"From the very beginning, we were up front with him and he was up front with us," Guiao said. "He knows what his role is here. I don't even consider it a problem when we say 'These are the 12 guys and you're not in it.' I don't consider that a problem. He knows that already."

"We're only down to 13 or 14 players, so his chances are right there probably with anyone else's," said Norwood. "We have five or six big guys who are out here really competing: Dray, Raymond, Poy, Beau, and you still have June Mar coming in and Troy, depending on how he plays. It should be interesting and I'm happy I'm not the coach to be making the decision."

Belga, though, doesn't appear to be deterred, focusing on speeding up the preparations while taking in as many lessons as he can from everyone.

"He comes in and works hard, doesn't complain, whether he's a reserve or whether he's on the brink of being on the team," said Norwood. "He's just professional about it all the time."

"You will learn from these guys, even from the new ones," said Belga. "Everyone has a different attitude, different approach to the game, different styles so you'll know how they play, how they react, how they move. That's where one really learns."

As expected, the World Cup will be a game of advantages. Serbia and Italy have size, shooting, experience and talent working their way to possibly overwhelm the national team, while Angola could surprise Gilas with its physicality and length in what is viewed as an even matchup in the group. Amid all the uncertainties, Belga thinks that it's going to be the team's effort that will be the difference at the end of the day.

"We just need to play hard," Belga said. "We need to prepare really, really well and really hard. We lack height, but I don't think we lack speed. We'll take advantage of that.

"Nothing's impossible if you really play hard. If you play hard, if you give all your best, you won't say 'Too bad, we didn't do more' at the end of it all. No. Coach Yeng also told us that we just need to give our hundred percent in-game, and that's OK with him. That's the only thing you can request from this group, and I can see it. Nothing more to ask for."

For his part, Belga's just going to put his head down, get back to work and hope that luck swings Gilas' way -- whether that means he's on the court helping or watching intently and patiently from afar.

"One game at a time," said Belga, who then prepared to follow his teammates out of the gym. "I'm very positive that we'll make history."