Editor's note: To mark 10 years of the Gilas Pilipinas program, ESPN5.com will be publishing a "Gilas series" with one article a day for the next 11 days. The following is the author's recollection of some of the events that surrounded Gilas Pilipinas during the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.
Filipino basketball fans have continually followed the travails of the Philippine national basketball team, Gilas Pilipinas, in the past decade or so. What a ride it has been! A wild roller coaster attraction, with multiple twists, turns, loops, and corkscrews may pale in comparison.
In 2014, the saga of Gilas Pilipinas may have reached both its apex and nadir in a span of just one month. Having qualified for the FIBA World Cup for the first time in decades, Gilas Pilipinas was in Seville, Spain in early September to play. The team competed well, but lost several close games before finally winning against Senegal to end its tournament on a winning note. Thus, expectations were extremely high as the team, just days after the victory, traveled to Incheon, South Korea, to compete in the Asian Games, which were to begin on 20 September. A medal there was almost certain; a gold one was highly possible. At least that's what everyone felt.
Prior to the World Cup, the team traveled to Miami, Florida in the US. With training camp set up there, it was all business during the day. Andray Blatche, the team's newly naturalized player for the World Cup, made sure his teammates got their share of the sights and sounds. The players went to South Beach and soaked in the culture. Blatche took them to clubs at night, the whole team, and they got the best tables. It was quite a treat for them because within arms' length were famous personalities. There were squads of NBA players in the house as well. Needless to say, the team had their bit of fun amidst all the serious preparations for the task at hand.
Then, when the team arrived in Spain, it played several tune-up games against Spanish selections and club teams before the World Cup. The schedule was hectic, to put it mildly, and with the Asian Games to follow just after this tournament, some wondered how the team would buck the guaranteed fatigue along the way.
The World Cup experience was considered successful, so on the plane heading to Incheon, South Korea, the atmosphere around the team was amazing. Everyone was on a high. It was an impressive performance on the world stage and the entire Philippines regarded the players as rock stars. In fact, at the Incheon airport, there was a throng of Filipino fans awaiting the arrival of Gilas Pilipinas, including this writer, who had been assigned to cover the team throughout the Asian Games. As the players and officials exited into the arrival area, they were met with shouts of "Laban Pilipinas! Puso!", which had become the main cheer for them since the year before. There was a lot of swagger, an air of confidence exuded by the Philippine side. The bus ride to the Athletes' Village and the checking-in process was a pleasant one. Nobody, except perhaps the players and coaches, could have predicted what would happen in the days to come.
No Blatche in Incheon
Indeed, a big part of the Gilas Pilipinas tale in the Asian Games of 2014 was not about how well anybody played (although that was surely important), but rather, how the team and some of those on and around it, struggled. Mightily.
Then-coach Chot Reyes recalled on a recent episode of Coaches Unfiltered that the composition of the team that should have played in the Asian Games was supposed to be very different from the one that had already played in the World Cup. "This was not supposed to be the group of players that was supposed to play in the Asian Games because we knew that gulping-gulpi na sila from the Worlds. The kind of preparation we went through going into the World Cup was brutal," said Reyes. "Dami naming pinuntahan even before getting to the World Cup in Seville."
Plus, in the days leading up to the Asian Games, the Philippines had a dilemma when the Asian Games Organizing Committee decided to disallow Blatche and some other potential Philippine players from playing, including Jordan Clarkson, at that time a Los Angeles Laker. Then-Gilas Pilipinas manager Aboy Castro arrived ahead of the team in order to attend a meeting where the matter of allowing Blatche, in particular, to play was on the agenda. Certainly, the most telling prohibition was that of Blatche, since he was in tip-top shape and ready to go. Instead, team officials had to tap former reinforcement Marcus Douthit, who had not been in action for some time, to fill the slot. "They said no, hindi pwede si Andray. We appealed all the way. The IOC already said yes, FIBA said yes, pero ayaw talaga pumayag [ng AGOC]," rued Reyes.
The Philippines went to battle with ten of the men who had played in Spain: Jimmy Alapag, LA Tenorio, Jeff Chan, Gary David, Ranidel de Ocampo, Gabe Norwood, June Mar Fajardo, Paul Lee, Japeth Aguilar, and Marc Pingris. Douthit and Jared Dillinger (in place of Jayson Castro) rounded out the twelve-man roster.
Problems with Douthit
Then the games began. The team started with an unimpressive win against India, which fans brushed off as some sort of a warm-up game. Then came a close loss to powerful Iran. It was the third game of the team when the cracks opened up and it was clear for one and all that something was amiss. It was not just that Qatar won by nine points, but it was the fashion in which the Philippines crumbled in the second half, lost its composure, and lost Douthit, who refused to come out of the locker room after the break.
Reyes recalled: "When we were playing Qatar, he wanted to get his game shape back, but after the first five or six minutes, I took him out because I really wanted to already give June Mar a lot of minutes, a lot of playing time, and I wanted to preserve Marcus because I knew that the coming games, sunod-sunod. We were going to play Korea, we were going to play all the tough teams, so I wanted to make sure Marcus was very fresh," Reyes explained on the podcast. "Apparently, he didn't like it, so he took exception to it. Nagalit siya sa'kin. He didn't come out for the game in the second half. Jimmy was so upset at him, pinagalitan talaga siya ng halftime." All eyes were on Douthit after the game as fans struggled to understand what had happened. Reyes issued a statement explaining that Douthit had flat out quit on the team and that he had decided to suspend the naturalized player for their next match due to his poor conduct.
Unfortunately, the next opponent was the host team. Curiously, after Gilas Pilipinas had played three games at the Hwaseong Sports Complex, its game against South Korea was set at the Samsan World Gymnasium. Despite the new atmosphere and the absence of Douthit, the team played inspired basketball, Alapag had his best game of the tournament, and they even led in the closing minutes before the hosts made crucial baskets to grab back the edge and go on to win, 97-95.
The team went back to Hwaseong for its next game against Kazakhstan. From day one, the Korean youth volunteers at the venue idolized the Filipinos because they loved their style of play. They would approach us, the coverage team, and ask us about the players of Gilas Pilipinas and try their luck requesting us if we could get signed jerseys or shorts from the Filipino players for them. Some even said they were cheering for Gilas Pilipinas even if in their hearts, they wanted their own team to win the day before.
After Douthit, who had returned versus the Kazakhs, tried to shoot in the opponents' basket near the endgame upon instructions of Reyes, the very same Korean youth volunteers ran to us, asking us why the Philippines had done that. They were perplexed and disappointed. One of them, the fellow in charge of post-game press conferences, said he felt the Philippines had disrespected the game. We really did not know what to say.
When Reyes was asked about that on the podcast, he said, "Of course, I get all the heat for that. Like I said, love me or hate me, hindi talaga ako magpapatalo eh. I'm going to do whatever it takes. You'd have to drag me out of the coliseum. If there's any chance, if there's anything I can do to win...," Reyes trailed off, before continuing. "We asked the referee if we can shoot from the other court, sinabi ng isang referee yes eh. In-overrule siya ng crew chief. Bawal pala 'yon, so technical foul." That happening pretty much summarized the tournament that Gilas Pilipinas had had till then - confusing and in disarray.
Gilas Pilipinas finished with just three wins in seven games, to end up in seventh place, its worst position ever in the tournament. There were just too many things going on behind the scenes. The team's focus and timing were off, and, coupled with the issues that everyone found out afterwards (including the Douthit suspension and the wrong-basket shot), things just went awry. After yet another loss, this time to China, and a hard-earned win against Mongolia, the experience in Incheon mercifully came to an end.
The team did not dilly-dally to return to Manila and, while there was rejoicing due to the World Cup performance, there were also murmurs of all kinds related to the debacle in Incheon. When the delegation left for Miami two months prior, none of its members imagined that the trip would be double-edged and that they would all experience both ends of the spectrum as far as their success, or lack thereof, was concerned. Same thing for the fans. This 2014 phase in the Gilas Pilipinas journey only emphasizes that we are oftentimes not privy to many of the goings-on, particularly with matters that the team, its officials, and individuals may be dealing with. Fans are quick to celebrate the victories in the spotlight and start pointing fingers when the defeats come around. Perhaps it's human nature. Yet, the Gilas Pilipinas journey has continued since then. But that is another chapter in the team's story to tell.
ESPN5.com's Eros Villanueva contributed to this article.