Former PBA commissioners say full-time Gilas team the 'gold standard'

Although the PBA's union with the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) has produced its fair share of victories on the international stage over the last decade, former league commissioner Chito Salud thinks the Philippines could have been a little more successful had he acted on that partnership earlier.

Salud, who guested on former PBA commissioner Noli Eala's Power & Play radio show along with current league honcho Willie Marcial and former chiefs Sonny Barrios and Chito Narvasa on Saturday, even suggested that a more enterprising approach could have even helped Gilas Pilipinas win more during the team's historic appearance in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

"I wish I could have pushed for more players para mas maganda pa 'yung performance natin sa international [stage]. We reached the World Cup, we won a game there in Spain. But I thought siguro kung mas marami tayong players na napahiram, baka nanalo pa tayo ng one more game, making it two out of the five games we played," Salud said.

Gilas 1.0, reinforced by naturalized center Marcus Douthit, originally started out with an all-amateur core composed of the likes of Japeth Aguilar, Chris Tiu, Jvee Casio, Marcio Lassiter and Mark Barroca before adding pros after approaching the PBA, who in return lent Jimmy Alapag, Asi Taulava, Kelly Williams and Ranidel de Ocampo for the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship.

After finishing fourth during that tournament, the SBP started fielding all-PBA rosters that went on to win silver in the next two Asia Championships, a landmark game in the 2014 World Cup, and numerous medals in Southeast Asia before notching another Worlds appearance in 2019.

But the process of building those teams has not always been smooth, with the matter of loaning PBA players and asking them to balance club and national team duties being a recurring issue before every international tournament.

"Ang nagiging issue parati naman when it comes to the involvement of the PBA players -- and this is the dilemma of the coach -- ay kailan ire-release sa coach 'yung PBA player?" said Barrios, now serving as SBP's executive director. "Every time na naghahanda tayo sa tournament, 'yun parati. Oo may PBA, pero kailan? Kung ire-release lamang ng 10 days or two weeks before the start [of the tournament], sapat ba 'yun para maging handa ang ating teams?"

That's why moving forward, Salud said the most ideal method for building a national team is having a dedicated developmental team reinforced by PBA players -- a process that SBP has actually already undertaken in hopes of being less reliant on the league's help in the future.

"It's really a fine balance. We have to support the national team, we have to allow it to form the best team possible from the rookies, from the new players that we have, and then support it at the tail end of its development with two or three or maybe four PBA players, but not majority PBA players," he said.

Salud, commissioner from 2010 to 2015, said this long-term plan by the SBP will improve chemistry and continuity while lessening the disruption caused to the PBA and its teams throughout the season.

"Nung time natin, there was only one (FIBA) window a year in August, kaya nakakapag-pahiram tayo ng players," he said. "But right now, starting during the term of Chito Narvasa, I think tatlo o apat na competition a year. With Willie, apat na competition per year. So 'yung national team will need the entire team to play year-round, and the more disruption you have for the PBA if the PBA's contribution is more than the majority of the players."

SBP program director Tab Baldwin first shared the federation's vision of "trying to develop a professional national team" last February after forming Gilas' pool for the first window for the Asia Cup Qualifiers by saying he hopes to have teams that are less dependent on -- but not completely devoid of -- PBA reinforcements.

The PBA and SBP took the first step in a long process of a shift to this mandate back in the 2019 Rookie Draft, when the league instituted a "special Gilas draft" that loans select players to the national team until they are released back to their mother ball clubs holding their rights.

Named to the training pool were Isaac Go, Rey Suerte, Matt and Mike Nieto, and Allyn Bulanadi, and later added on by Gilas were Thirdy Ravena, Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano, Jaydee Tungcab, and Dwight Ramos.

"We'll be looking for PBA players that will complement what we're trying to do with the young players that we're bringing in to be basically full-time Gilas players," Baldwin said in an appearance on the Coaches Unfiltered podcast in June.

Salud said this approach of having "eight to 10 players [that are] independent, Gilas-formed, Gilas-selected" is "the gold standard".

"The PBA's cooperation is to let them choose the finest players in the land from the young ranks, not the PBA because in five years, as we have seen from the program of Noli (Eala with Gilas 1.0) and the program of ambassador Danding (Cojuangco) back in the day (with Northern Cement), in five years time, star players na lahat 'yan eh. That way, you avoid the disruption in the PBA. The PBA gets to lend them three, four players if their desire, and then you have a team that continues to have chemistry year-long," said Salud.

But Narvasa, who said SBP is "on the right track already", proposed an idea that would take SBP's plan further by saying the federation should start from the college ranks and form an employment program with the help of "the biggest 12 companies."

"Ang maganda niyan if they start from the college ranks, they'd already program an employment program for the deserving players up to the PBA and up to retirement. So tulong-tulong 'yan. Can you imagine if you have the biggest 12 companies in the Philippines doing that program for them? It's very hard for them to fail. They just have to come up with that program," he said.

Narvasa also provided a lengthy suggestion where PBA rosters would have an additional player drafted from the collegiate ranks committed to playing for both the club and the national team for a certain number of years. The said player would be available for an SBP call-up at any point and when a veteran retires, the player will step in his place to eventually be a full-time Gilas player.

"So ang SBP now can select from the 12 teams kung sino 'yung gagamitin nila for the whole tournament. And then, maliwanag din sa coaches at sa teams kung sino ang pwedeng gamitin for a duration of the tournament for the three conferences," Narvasa explained.

"Alam na ng PBA na gagamitin siya, on-call siya at any time by the SBP. So ngayon, the (PBA) coach will realize that. Alam niya from the very start kung papaano ang paggamit [sa player] for the whole year. Meron siyang first five, second five. [The player] will come only as a substitute to those [lineups] when he's available. But ang priority will be assigned sa SBP. But that only has, let's say, a term of three years. Kapag alam nilang three years, [the player] now will become full-time doon sa team. May mags-substitute naman na another one. So umiikot 'yan kasi may magre-retire naman eh. Kapag may nag-retire, full-time na si [player]. That's when the full-time concentration with the Philippine team will come through."

Though all these are merely hypotheticals, Marcial said the PBA will willingly back the federation all the way, no matter what path it may choose to take in building a professional national team in the future.

"Sa PBA, ang mga governors fully support ang SBP at ang Gilas. Kung ano sasabihin sa'min ng SBP, gano'n pa rin kami. Kung kailangan nila ng players, kung ilan, gano'n ka-suporta ang governors at mga team owners ngayon," said Marcial. "Solid na 'yung governors. Hindi na mahirap para sa kung anong gusto ng SBP. One hundred percent pa ring suporta ang PBA sa Gilas at SBP."