For love of the game: Gilas coaches' passion fuels drive to teach young pool

Ange Kouame as Gilas naturalized player (2:22)

Ange Kouame is counting the days until he can finally suit up as a naturalized player for the Philippines. (2:22)

CALAMBA, Laguna - With the youth of the pool that will compete in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers and the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers next month, Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) Gilas Pilipinas Men Program Director Tab Baldwin has had to do a lot of teaching in their training camp in Calamba, Laguna.

The good thing is that he's surrounded himself with dedicated individuals who lighten the load drastically. While the players have two training sessions and gym workouts on most days, the coaches put in even longer hours because they also meet twice a day as a group outside of their time on the court.

"I can't talk enough about this group of coaches. You can't do this level of work without passion and I think that's what we're blessed with. To be perfectly honest, I think most coaches around the world are also cursed with that same passion," Baldwin said.

"We find a lot of joy in the time we spend together. We love to look at basketball. We love helping our players. But the time commitment is significant and the drain can be pretty daunting at times. I'm sure there were a lot of nights when the other coaches go to bed really tired, I know I do."

The coaching staff is led by Baldwin as the Program Director with Jong Uichico, Sandy Arespacochaga, Alton Lister, Boyet Fernandez, Sandro Soriano, and Caloy Garcia.

The group has seen its fair share of changes as Meralco head coach Norman Black was part of the staff in their preparation for canceled Doha, Qatar bubble.

"Here in the training bubble we're looking for a quick turnaround to 7 in the morning to get up for practice after finishing a meeting at 12 or 12:30 in the morning but this is the job right now. Fortunately, we have a passion for it and we don't feel like anybody is imposing it on us," the Program Director shared.

"That's how the coaching profession really blesses its participants: with a love of the game. If you don't have that, you'll struggle to do what we're doing."

Baldwin has formed many groups of coaches before but, due to the pandemic, it's highly unlikely that he has spent as much time with a coaching staff as much as he does with the current crop.

From the resumption of FIBA competitions in late 2020, they've been a part of so many training bubbles that demanded hundreds if not thousands of hours. All this time has led to a special appreciation from Baldwin directed towards the entire crew.

"Coach Alton is a 17-year NBA veteran and he has worked with NBA coaching staffs and worked with big men for almost 30 years now and we get the benefit from that. With Ange (Kouame), he's not your typical naturalized player. He's a very young player. We're not bringing in an NBA player or a super experienced guy so his relationship with coach Alton is invaluable," Baldwin started.

"Coach Sandro is our video guy. He breaks down hours and hours of video. If you think the rest of the coaching staff puts in a lot of hours, coach Sandro probably doubles that. And in doing that, as a very young coach, he's gaining invaluable experience for his coaching career. It's a great opportunity for him but he does a really good job with the videos which makes it really easy for the rest of the coaches," he continued.

Gilas Pilipinas Men has three former PBA head coaches on the staff, which is crucial in molding the young athletes on how to become professionals.

"Coach Jong is the leader of the group. He directs a lot of the information we're giving to the players. He's a great instinctive guy. He reads players very well because he has great relationships with them," Baldwin continued.

"With Coach Boyet, we get all the advantage of his coaching experience and all the practices that he's run, but he almost serves as our administrative assistant. He keeps the rest of the coaching staff organized, he keeps us in place, he keeps us on time, he keeps us focused on the next job that'll have to be done and that's a vital role in a coaching staff," he said.

"We brought coach Caloy into the mix as well. He brings all of his PBA coaching experience and he has acted as a provocateur in our camp because he's constantly saying 'There could be another way to do this.' Without that, we tend do become 'Yes Men' to one another. We submit to the system and he's the guy kind of outside the system poking holes into it all the time. This is immeasurably invaluable to us because it forces us to question ourselves. He's been a great addition and he's a fun guy to be around and as many hours as we spend together it's really important to have that."

Staying by Baldwin's side is Arespacochaga who has been his lieutenant with the Ateneo Blue Eagles in their current championship run.

"I think a lot of people already know the relationship that coach Sandy and I have. It's a very special relationship because, in my 40 years, I've never really had coaches that I leaned on. And he makes leaning on him the definition of my job. He's so intelligent and ever-present at my side, keeping me focused and keeping me aligned. I make way too many mistakes with my coaching and I have Sandy there to identify them because he's just so sharp and so tuned in all the time. One misstep from me and he's on me right away. I never give him enough appreciation. I'm diminished significantly if I don't have Sandy at my side," Baldwin explained.

As far as his role as Program Director, Baldwin says the content of what they'll teach the athletes will generally come from him.

"It's up to me to integrate what the players are learning with what the direction of the program is. I work with (SBP Special Assistant to the President) coach Ryan Gregorio on all the outside issues and make sure we diminish those with our managers Gabby Cui and Yvette Ruiz. We all make sure that everything's in place and I also have a lot to do with the content of what we're coaching."

For Baldwin, what's important is that although they're looking at forming a competitive team for the upcoming games, they're keeping their eyes on the real prize, which is to develop young players to become true professionals with the country's hosting of the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup fast approaching.

"I want to make this special for the country, for these players, and especially for MVP (SBP Chairman Emeritus Manny V. Pangilinan), who has invested so much into Gilas and into this particular program and it's the second time he's done it," Baldwin said in reference to the Smart Gilas program that was started in 2009.

"I hope we can take this to even greater heights than the last one and learn from some of the things that coach Rajko Toroman was not able to complete and learn from the things he did well and emulate those things," Baldwin closed. "We want to do well because we appreciate boss MVP so very much. Quite simply, we don't exist without him."