CALAMBA - Javi Gomez de Liaño knows a thing or two about fighting for his spot. Throughout his young career, he has repeatedly experienced what it was like to be told he wasn't good enough.
Every step back he took, however, he just used as fuel to push forward.
While he has now been part of Gilas Pilipinas for over a year, he's also had his ups and downs with the national team program.
Long before the Men's pool, Gomez de Liaño had hoped to wear the flag for Batang Gilas.
"Going way back in high school, the first time I tried out for the Under-16 national team, I always felt like I could make it to the team but I was cut," he shared.
"But every time I get cut, I make it a point to learn something from it so I could do better next time. If you fall short, don't blame anyone else. Blame yourself and tell yourself to get better. Ever since then, I've used that mentality wherever I go because I know there will be more challenges."
It's not difficult to understand why the now-22-year-old is so passionate about basketball. From his youth, ball was life for him and his brothers.
"We lived in front of the village court so we learned basketball from our community. Back then, we didn't have PlayStations and other technology so that was our playground. Morning to night, me and my brothers were there playing," he narrated.
Dad Bert had urged his children to try out his sport, swimming, but quickly learned that Joe, Javi, and Juan - and later on, Jordi as well - had fallen in love with basketball instead.
The young Gomez de Liaños were varsity players for Ateneo Grade School, but transferred to PAREF Northfield, not necessarily known for its basketball program. Then, Javi assumed that basketball would have to take a backseat.
"Luckily for me, I got an opportunity with UPIS under coach Dong Vergeire and coach Allan Gregorio. They helped me and my brothers get scholarships," he shared. "I played two years in high school and, in my first year, I finished top seven in the Mythical Five race. That's what surprised me because I came from zero."
"When I made the Mythical Five during my second year, that was when I started telling myself that I could make this into a career. From then on, that's when I started to work harder," he added.
Javi and younger brother Juan opened eyes when they played for the Jr. Maroons and that paved their path to move up to UP's seniors squad.
As Fighting Maroons, they were also key to the program's rise from cellar-dwellers to contenders. That then opened a door for them to join the national team pool as the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas focused on identifying and developing younger talents with the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup in mind.
Two of those younger talents were Javi and Juan and in early 2020, they and the rest of Gilas were preparing for the first window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers. When the final 12 was named, however, Juan was the lone Gomez de Liaño.
"That was an eye-opener for me. I was the final cut under coach Mark Dickel. What I liked about it is he talked to me and told me what I needed to work on," recalled the older brother. "He really said I'm too overweight because I have to transition into playing as a two-guard now. Look at guys like Carl [Tamayo] and Balti [Justin Baltazar], they are the guys playing three in the future and they are 6-8, 6-9 and I'm just 6-5. So I had to adjust my game."
Although he admits to having felt bad about the cut, Gomez de Liaño said that didn't last long and he motivated himself to bounce back.
"Coach Mark told me to see a nutritionist so that's what I did," he shared, mentioning that all the free time he had during the lockdown was used to work on his body. "It's difficult as someone who loves to eat, but I had to be open to change because it's for my own good. I did that not knowing if I was going to be called up or not."
"Imagine I lost 30 pounds in a six-month diet. I was eating 3,000 calories a day and I had to shed down to 1,700, but it was worth it. Life became easier for me in terms of playing basketball," he continued.
Even though there were no guarantees of getting called up to join the national team pool again, Gomez de Liaño continued to put in the work. Fortunately, he got another shot and in his first time in the final lineup, gave Philippine basketball fans a glimpse of exactly what he can do.
The sweet-shooting guard scored nine points in 18 minutes in the first game against Thailand and then caught fire in the rematch with 19 points, anchored on 4-of-4 shooting from three. Both games wound up as wins.
In a span of 10 months, Javi Gomez de Liaño went from being the last cut to the top performer of Gilas Pilipinas.
Even with his solid showing in the last FIBA Asia Cup window, though, Gomez de Liaño knows that there are no guarantees for a spot in the next one.
It takes hard work and dedication to play for Gilas. It takes fighting for his spot - something he knows a thing or two about.