"Pag-uwi natin, lahat ng balang masasalo ko para sa inyo, sasaluhin ko." (When we get home, I'll try to shield you from as many bullets as I can.)
These were the words Yeng Guiao uttered during their last lunch in China after their stint in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. After Gilas Pilipinas toured the Great Wall, Guiao took the opportunity to thank each and every member of the team for their sacrifices and for joining him throughout the journey.
In the PBA, Guiao is known as a player's coach: a guy who can squeeze every inch of potential from any player as long as he buys into his system. His signature tactics, such as using a different starting unit every game, have been emulated by other coaches.
There have been a handful of players late in their careers who wanted one last opportunity to play for him. Right now with the NLEX Road Warriors, he has Cyrus Baguio, JR Quinahan, and Larry Fonacier as testaments to that.
Guiao knows how to inspire his players and knows how to get them to play at their best. That's why they keep circling back to him.
The situation that Guiao fell into was by no means ideal. His start as head coach for the national team was rocky at best.
He needed to rebuild a team decimated by suspensions. More importantly, he needed to rebuild Philippine basketball's reputation after it was thrown into the mud after the brawl against Australia.
Guiao could not get a running start when it became unclear if the Philippines would send a team to the 2018 Asian Games a few weeks before the competition started. But as usual, Guiao found a way to make it work. With NBA player Jordan Clarkson in his lineup, he led the Philippines to a debut win against Kazakhstan and gave eventual gold medalist China all they could handle. The Philippines was a basket away from sealing the deal, but China found a way to steal the game, 82-80.
The loss proved to be costly as it paired the Philippines up against South Korea in the quarterfinals. The lack of familiarity between the Filipino players became apparent against the well-oiled and cohesive Korean squad, but the Philippines bounced back with wins against Japan and Syria in the classification phase to finish fifth -- the country's highest ranking since 2002.
Because of the impressive showing, Guiao was named as the Gilas Pilipinas Men coach, but with that came another conundrum. He liked the camaraderie built by his Asian Games squad, but he knew he also needed to start involving the usual Philippine team players who had ended their suspensions.
As a result, there were highs and lows for the team because the chemistry was not completely there. Losses to Iran and Kazakhstan in the Asian qualifiers, especially the ones at home, were painful but Guiao led his team to important victories when it mattered as they booked their ticket to the World Cup.
Everyone was aware of the problems he faced next. The team had limited time to prepare. Some players invited to join the pool begged off. The limitations in manpower were further complicated with injuries to key figures in JP Erram, Matthew Wright, and Marcio Lassiter -- the last two as the team's best shooters.
Guiao kept moving forward. Heading into the pinnacle of his coaching career, he knew the odds were against him, but that did not stop him from having a positive outlook.
"This feels like heaven," he said during Gilas' first practice in Foshan. "For a basketball fan, this is heaven."
The war-hardened mentor approached the task at hand with an almost boyish disposition. He found joy in the work, like that video of him dunking on a lowered rim during an earlier Gilas practice.
Although they were not able to pick up a win in China, it should not diminish what Guiao accomplished during his short stint. He earned the respect of his players, with many of them openly stating that they wanted to win for him more than for themselves.
For Guiao's former players, it was an opportunity to rekindle fond memories. Paul Lee and Gabe Norwood often talked about their beloved coach's classic moments with Rain or Shine.
For those who did not really know him, it was a chance to understand that the adulation for him is well deserved. Roger Pogoy, who admitted he knows what it's like to be on the wrong end of one of Guiao's tirades, finally understood that it was never personal. Being on the same side made him realize how much fun it actually was to play for him.
"It's okay to feel bad now," Guiao reminded his players during their last talk as a team. "But you'll have to find a way to turn this experience into a positive. I'll be a better coach because of this."
Guiao was a man of his word. Because of his resignation, the naysayers of the program have stopped talking about the mistakes that were made or the players they felt didn't deserve to be included in the lineup. Guiao took full responsibility even if the burden was not his to bear alone.
But at the end of the day, aside from helping put the Australia debacle behind, the most important contribution that Guiao made was an investment for the future. When the chips were down, instead of going to veteran players he was familiar with, he chose two PBA rookies who were largely unproven on the international stage. He invited Robert Bolick and CJ Perez into the pool and gave them the opportunity to shine.
When 2023 comes around and Bolick and Perez end up being vital cogs to the Philippine national team, may it be remembered that it was Guiao who gave them their first shot and that the losses they suffered together made the two hungrier for success.
Guiao planted roots and now he steps aside to give someone else the opportunity to grow the Gilas Pilipinas program and help it reach heights it has not seen before.