What I learned from Clark: Zoned-in Gilas, Korea's strong warrior leader

In the 18 days that the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) centralized its operations here, many lessons were learned from this unprecedented "bubble" for the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers as it was the first time the Philippines hosted an international sporting event since the pandemic began.

Bringing in six contingents from abroad, providing world class accommodations, and having a competition venue at par with global standards was not an easy task, but the Local Organizing Committee passed with flying colors.

The officiousness, the trademark Filipino hospitality, the sense of genuine camaraderie, and the will to comply with all safety protocols all point to the Clark qualifiers serving as a blueprint for future stagings in these very different times.

Compared to my past involvement as competition announcer for FIBA-sanctioned undertakings starting in the 2010 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Doha, Qatar, my immersion here was, put simply, different.

The lack of "homecourt" was something I wasn't used to - even if I had functioned in the same capacity during the closed-door affair between Gilas and Qatar at the Big Dome in 2018. There were still celebrations on-court by the team and hidden fist pumps by locals in the workforce, but it didn't even come close to what MOA had been like in 2013.

This was our national team performing on its home turf and the emotional value lacked, well, emotion.

Nonetheless, there were moments that added to learnings I always strive to attain in every international sortie. I've narrowed it down to a mere three bits of new information I can divulge in my unique position right in front of the action.

1. The etymology of Ra GunA

Ricardo Ratliffe will always be one of the beloved PBA imports of the last decade. His two stints with Magnolia (then known as the Star Hotshots) in 2016, replacing Denzel Bowles, and 2017 will always resonate with local hoops fans.

What many didn't know was that in 2018, Ratliffe had his name legally changed in his adopted nation to Ra GunA. That is what is printed on his Korean passport, although his American one still has his birthname.

During warmups in Korea's first assignment against Gilas, my curiosity couldn't be contained. Why Ra GunA?

"'Ra' was taken from my surname 'Ratliffe,'" he explained. "While 'GunA' is supposed to mean 'strong warrior leader.'"

According to Korean media, though, "GunA" translates to "strong kid." Whatever it is, Ricardo Ratliffe is now the "strong" naturalized player for Korea.

After our conversation, when I saw his name as it appeared at the back of his jersey - Ra G A - I immediately took a photo and sent it to billiards pro Anton Raga and explained how he had just been immortalized by perhaps the Koreans' biggest basketball commodity today.

2. The Du Feng way

All seven head coaches were unique. Former Smart Gilas head coach and now-Indonesia mentor Rajko Toroman was animated with his players and erring officials alike. Chinese Taipei's Charlie Parker was the quiet type. Chris Daleo from Thailand used colorful language that his interpreter struggled to keep up with. Korea's Cho Sang Hyun appeared, at times, more like a big brother than coach. Julio Lamas of Japan, who had meaningful stints as Argentina's shot-caller, rode different waves of emotion. Of course, Tab Baldwin, he of Gilas Pilipinas, always brought out his field general persona.

However, the most intriguing for me was China's Du Feng.

The 6-foot-9 Du played his entire Chinese Basketball Association career with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. From 1997 to 2011, he won seven league titles, all while serving in the Chinese national team, and was part of teams that went to two Olympiads as well as the 2002 Busan Asiad where they finished runner-up to Lee Sang Minh and Korea.

He began coaching right after his retirement in 2012 and, together with legendary Li Nan, was tasked to form two China squads which would merge for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, with Li Nan eventually handling that team.

In 2020, Du was handed the reins for the national team, with the specific task of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.

He carries with him a militaristic style and is often seen scolding his players - including the likes of Zhou Qi and Zhou Peng - when they miss even one screen or one defensive assignment. He even had several run-ins with his coaching staff when a play went awry.

One incident that stood out the most was when his prized 7-foot center Shen Zijie went down with what was later diagnosed as a hip pointer in the first half of their surprising struggle against Japan. Du waited for him to be stretchered back to the general area of their bench before berating him for his mistakes - and yes, all of this, while Shen was writhing in pain.

There's surely a lot of pressure for Du to produce results heading into the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) and the FIBA Asia Cup in August. That's why I'm quite interested to know how the news that Gilas drew with them in their final tune-up will be received back home.

3. The new culture of this Gilas incarnation

What Toroman did in 2009, utilizing only collegians in a long-term program, Baldwin has repeated as the group of youngsters that saw action in the Clark qualifiers was devoid of pro talent. What was pleasantly surprising, however, was the discipline and focus displayed by Gilas, with an average age of 22, the very moment they stepped on the court for both the start of practice and the one-hour preparation before tip-off.

I'd usually stand at center-court to survey their opponents - and make sure I can put an identifying factor on those jersey numbers (especially the Indonesians). On the three occasions I was on-court while the Philippines warmed up, I got to experience the players truly going through facets of the game plan by engaging each other.

RJ Abarrientos pulled Kai Sotto aside and practiced the timing of their pick-and-roll action. Jordan Heading showed Isaac Go exactly when and where to pull the elevator screen. Carl Tamayo shot from just one spot for a good five minutes before going to the opposite spot for almost the same time. Many of them also ran towards Baldwin or assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga to ask about something particular about a certain execution.

The kids were zoned-in. The new culture had them functioning cohesively even before the starters hit the floor.

Once the game commenced, the players on the bench were assigned to communicate to the person on the court who shared their position and when substituted, they then traded responsibilities. When Ange Kouame spent extended minutes on the bench due to foul trouble, he continually hollered to Sotto, Go, and Geo Chiu. By the time he was reinserted, he was almost hoarse.

Many have pointed to Baldwin's system as the key to the Philippines' sweep of its group en route to qualifying for the FIBA Asia Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia. However, that is true only because the players have all wholeheartedly committed to the system.

Thanks to their new culture, Gilas is going to the OQT with renewed vigor and a sense that anything is possible. For sure, they are no longer just a replacement nation.