A new initiative: The Gilas program's formative years

Editor's note: To mark 10 years of the Gilas Pilipinas program, ESPN5.com will publishing a "Gilas series" with one article a day for the next 11 days. Here we examine the program's formative years under Rajko Toroman.

After the formation of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), FIBA finally lifted the long suspension it gave the country due to the warring factions, the Basketball Association of the Philippines and the Basketball Association of the Philippines, Inc., that tried to lay claim to control of the sport were dissolved.

Picking up the pieces, its original Executive Director Patrick Gregorio, began collating programs to resuscitate basketball in the archipelago and during the term of Executive Director Noli Eala, the "Gilas" initiative was born.

The concept was akin to the one spearheaded by American mentor Ron Jacobs under the "Gintong Alay" program of former Philippine president Ferdinand E. Marcos bridging the tail-end of the 1970s into the 1980s. The basketball portion of the program was bankrolled by the Northern Consolidated Cement (NCC) company under the auspices of Ambassador Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco. The plan was to identify and secure the best amateur cage talent in the land and have them commit to a developmental program for a certain number of years with a mission to either qualify for or capture a major international competition. In NCC's case, it was the 1986 FIBA World Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup of Basketball).

Jacobs' efforts began in the early 1980s with the idea of merging the best collegiate cagers and several Filipino-Americans as well as candidates for naturalization. Billed as the "RP Training Team", the first incarnation had local college aces Frankie Lim, JB Yango, Itoy Esguerra and Ricky Relosa team up with Fil-Ams Ricardo Brown and Eddie Joe Chavez, along with American youngsters like Dennis Still, Jeff Moore and Steve Scholl, among others.

The evolution later on brought in Philippine youth team mainstays Hector Calma, Alfie Almario, Elmer Reyes and Jong Uichico, and budding collegians in Allan Caidic, Samboy Lim and Yves Dignadice helped form the core of the NCC quintet.

The NCC squad managed to win the 1985 FIBA Asia Championship, then known as the Asian Basketball Confederation Championship, to qualify for the 1986 Worlds, but following the EDSA Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime, NCC was dissolved and the Philippines never competed in the tournament.

Fast forward to 2008 when the SBP began tinkering with the idea of reviving Jacobs' program by first enlisting the services of Serbian coach Rajko Toroman who had helped Iran emerge as a powerhouse in the continent.

Not yet an official program by the SBP at the time, experiments were put in place to utilize college cagers to join several international tournaments to see if the program would be worthwhile under the new mentor.

"During the very first tryouts, a temporary team was formed to join the 2008 Pinggou Invitational Tournament in Guangxi, China in December of 2008. This was the very first competition that Toroman coached," recalled Jude Roque, one of the assistant coaches tapped by the SBP for the original program.

"The temporary team had Greg Slaughter (University of the Visayas), Dylan Ababou (University of Santo Tomas), JR Cawaling, Mac Baracael (and) Mark Barroca (Far Eastern University), Marcy Arellano (University of the East), Ogie Menor (San Beda College), Martin Reyes and Magi Sison (University of the Philippines) with two Fil-Ams (in) Joey Deas (Rockhurst University) and 6'7" Terrell Teophile (St. Gregory's University). We won the tournament versus the home team of Guangxi province. Barroca became the crowd darling in Pinggou. He was the MVP."

Roque, who at the time was dabbling as the head coach of Taguig in the then fledgling Liga PIlipinas and as an assistant coach for the Red Lions, remembers the initial stages of the undertaking.

"We conducted tryouts nationally, so all the notable amateur players were invited," he said. "We also held tryouts in the US and that's when Japeth Aguilar (who was still playing for the University of Western Kentucky) and Chris Lutz came in."

The program was then revealed to the public and was named "Smart Gilas Pilipinas" in 2009. Since the program was still in its formative stages, the SBP went to the PBA to form the team that would represent the country in the 2009 FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin, China. It would crash in eighth place, and after that the duty to compete in all the international basketball tilts for next three years fell solely on Toroman and the newly formed Smart Gilas.

"Smart Gilas was formed with the objective of qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics," Roque shared. "We had three solid years of training in competing in international tourneys. Even with that very young crew and without some of the best players in the land, we managed to be force to be reckoned with."

The US phase of the tryouts and training unveiled not only Lutz and Aguilar, who had previously played for the Ateneo de Manila University, but also future PBA impact players such as Marcio Lassiter, Chris Banchero and Sean Anthony. However, only Lutz and Lassiter eventually made the team.

With those who competed in Guangxi and the new recruits from the US forming the nucleus of the new program, it wasn't long before more collegians joined the fray in FEU's Aldrech Ramos, Jason Ballesteros of San Sebastian, Letran's backcourt duo of Rey Guevara and RJ Jazul, as well as UAAP stars JVee Casio of De La Salle University and Ateneo ace Chris Tiu, who would go on to be the de facto skipper of the unit.

"We initially also eyed June Mar Fajardo (University of Cebu) and Paul Lee (University of the East), but Fajardo begged off and Lee had already applied for the PBA Draft."

The search was then on for a naturalized pivot who would help solidify the interior alongside Slaughter and Aguilar.

The initial candidate was CJ Giles, a 6'11" hybrid out of Oregon State who had been active in the NBA D-League. Giles suited up for Smart Gilas in the 2009 FIBA Champions Cup in Indonesia and helped the team to a respectable fifth place finish. But it didn't take long before Giles began having off-court issues that irked Toroman. He was dropped from the roster after just two games into Smart Gilas' participation in the 2009 PBA Philippine Cup.

The program then tried to enlist another 6'11" center in Jamal Sampson, cousin of former NBA great Ralph, but never got to see eye to eye with the team and was eventually released following the team's sortie in the Dubai International Basketball Championship.

The search continued until Toroman brought in one of the youngsters from his home country of Serbia, but Milan Vucicevic, despite being a wide 6'10" space-eater in the paint, was a true center whose lack of agility forced the team to slow its pace. The squad was easily dominated in the 2010 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Qatar.

Right after the debacle in Doha, the SBP announced that it was giving former NBA D-League campaigner Marcus Douthit a tryout with the team. The 6'11" Douthit was an instant sensation and gave an impressive showing for Smart Gilas in the 2010 MVP Invitational Championship where Smart Gilas defeated the Jordanian national team for the title.

After several tournaments with steadily improving results, including the 2011 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Manila wherein Smart Gilas almost toppled defending titlists Mahram-Iram, the squad was primed for the climax of its mission: the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, which was an Olympic qualifier.

The winner gets an outright berth to the London Olympiad while the silver and bronze medallists get to invited to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) which will award three wildcard slots.

The SBP decided to reinforce the team heading to Wuhan, China with several PBA players in Asi Taulava, Jimmy Alapag, Kelly Williams and Ranidel de Ocampo and Smart Gilas went on to finish second in Group D, which also had the host nation, and sweep its second round assignments.

Advancing to the knockout stages, and on a natural path to avoid the dreaded Koreans until perhaps the gold medal match, Smart Gilas made quick work of Chinese Taipei, 95-78, with Douthit going off for a 37-10 double-double. The team was brimming with confidence to learn that Jordan had eliminated reigning champion Iran.

Since Smart Gilas had handily triumphed over Jordan in its previous two meetings, including in the second round of this competition, it should was deemed to be a formality to many aficionados to advance to the gold medal match.

Jordan's Rasheim Wright picked the right moment to become a factor as he torched the Philippines for 24 points and the Jordanians executed the perfect game plan to limit Douthit's support crew en route to a shocking 75-61 conquest of Smart Gilas.

The Jordanian national coach at the time was New Zealander Tab Baldwin.

"Baldwin read our defenses well and Wright was the prime beneficiary," said Roque, who was not with the team in Wuhan due to an illness. "He adjusted well and pulled off several surprise moves during the game."

The Filipinos still had one shot to at least advance to the OQT but they now had to face the Koreans-which were held in check by China in their semifinals tiff 56-43, one of the lowest outputs by the Koreans in recent memory.

Toroman had a great game plan to minimize the Korean attacks but during the dying seconds of the match, Smart Gilas missed several key free throws which allowed the Koreans to escape with a 70-68 decision and once again break the hearts of the Filipinos. Smart Gilas' fourth place finish, however, was its highest finish in the tournament since 1987, but the mission of advancing to the Olympics was not accomplished.

Not long after, Toroman and his staff was sacked and the key players of the squad all applied for the PBA Draft leaving the program to restart anew under a new head coach and a new system.

But history will always remember Smart Gilas (now known as Gilas 1.0) for jumpstarting a long dormant national team program and laying the groundwork for its future incarnations to put the Philippines back on the proverbial Asian basketball map.