<
>

Jayson Castro's quiet leadership drove Gilas Pilipinas to greater heights

As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.

We honor the athletes who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. Jayson Castro collected trophies and accolades in the PBA and on the international stage throughout the 2010s,but it was his leadership and the reverence which his peers had for him that truly set him apart and compelled us to pick him as one of the top Filipino athletes of the decade.


Every member of Gilas Pilipinas filed into a conference room, glad for the heat that distracted from the below zero weather. They were far from home. They traded their sandos and shirts for thermal coats, and two layers of jeans. They traded the warmth of fellow Pinoys smiling and greeting them, for people who looked different and couldn't speak the same language.

Needless to say, it was the first time that they had been in Kazakhstan. And odds are, this would be the last.

The conference room served a dual purpose. It was a place for them to warm their bodies and remove the layers of clothing that wrapped each man and woman, as well as the place to talk strategy. After all, they were in the midst of a must-win match at the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers. After a convincing win against Qatar, Gilas needed to defeat Kazakhstan in their home court. They needed help from countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea to get them to the next round, but the most pressing issue was them handling business against the Kazakhs.

They sat quietly as Coaches Ford Arao, Sandy Arespacochaga and Lead Scout/ Special Assistant to the SBP President Ryan Gregorio fiddled around with the projector. It was safe to say that there were weary bodies lying around on the floor, owing to a grueling trip from Qatar to Turkey with an eight-hour layover, all the way to Kazakhstan, with a special bonus that included extended time in the embassy clearing each person's passport. By the time their heads hit the bed, it was around 7 AM and most of them had been awake for 24 hours.

I sat there quietly, observing everyone trying their best to stay awake and alert. It was understood that no one was being insubordinate, nor disrespectful to the coaches breaking down their strategy. It was just matter winning over the mind. But there was no choice. Gilas Pilipinas had basically a day to strategize, get in one practice at the venue, before playing the biggest game in Philippine basketball history. It had to be done.

As the coaches continued to speak, there was one voice that came from the back, which seemed to pierce the room. Jayson Castro spoke up. I don't remember what he said, to be honest. In the greater scheme of things, it was perhaps inconsequential. Perhaps it was a reminder about a defensive strategy that everyone already knew, or a player's tendency that wasn't theirs to defend.

"What Jayson Castro did throughout this entire decade, whether he stepped on the floor as a member of TNT or Gilas Pilipinas, was to provide hope."

What I do remember about that moment when Castro spoke up was how everyone's demeanor changed. All of a sudden, players that were starting to nod off wiped the weariness away from their face and turned to him. Teammates that were slumped in their sits jolted back up, as if ready to be called upon anytime by a teacher for a surprise oral exam. Even the coaching staff stopped mid-sentence and trained their eyes on Jayson.

It was that moment that crystalized to me why Castro is one of the greatest Filipino athletes of the decade. His achievements in the sport of basketball on its own would put him on the list: five PBA titles, two Finals MVPs, five Best Player of the Conference Awards, seven All-Star appearances, silver medals in the 2013 and 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, and a two-time member of FIBA-Asia's all-tournament five. Those can easily be Googled, and will forever serve as validation why Castro is one of the greatest basketball players in Philippine history.

But there's so much more to the résumé than just the plaques and trophies. What Jayson Castro did throughout this entire decade, whether he stepped on the floor as a member of TNT or Gilas Pilipinas, was to provide hope. There was purity of belief that with Castro on our side, we were better than whoever you had on your side. Throw away any and all scouting reports: Castro was better than whoever could be thrown at us.

At the peak of his athletic powers, before he discovered that he could also shoot at an elite level, Castro put the fear of God in every defender that stood in his way. He was either going through you, or around you. During those elite years of Talk 'N Text, there was no scarier sight than seeing Castro coming at you full speed in transition. And with Gilas Pilipinas, he was the guy that we all held on our shoulders, knowing that his world-class game was second to none.

And the most impressive thing about Castro's decade-long brilliance is the way he went about it. You barely heard anything from the man. He never demanded a trade, nor did he act up in a way that drew attention to himself. If you didn't know him as he was walking around with the team, you'd think that he was just one of the guys, instead of the center of Philippine basketball's solar system.

But it didn't matter that he chose to remain shrouded in silence. He still commanded everyone's respect and (slight) awe. Baser Amer of the Meralco Bolts was Castro's roommate in Taiwan, during the 2018 Qualifiers. During an off day, we set up an opportunity to interview Amer in his hotel room. All the players were on the same floor, and you could hear all kinds of music, laughing and mobile phone sound effects reverberating around the area. That was definitely not the case when we approached Amer and Castro's room. When we asked Baser why their room was so quiet, he answered that Castro preferred it that way. Somehow, that was all the explanation we needed to hear.

It's safe to say that Castro's stint during the World Cup Qualifiers, which happened in the tail end of the decade, was borrowed time. After all, Castro has tried several times to move on from Gilas Pilipinas, and give others their time to shine. He "retired" when the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament ended, and the Philippines was unable to secure a spot.

But just a year later, Castro returned to lead Gilas Pilipinas to a Gold Medal in the SEABA Championship, and before he or anyone else knew it, he became a fixture of the program once again.

It is difficult to imagine Gilas Pilipinas without Castro, as we transition to a new decade of basketball. But that's the reality that we're facing. And the truth is that Castro has been ready to move on for several years already. But just like a jilted lover that's not yet ready for closure, none of us were ready to move on as well. We saw him grow from Jimmy Alapag's sidekick to now the guy that everyone looks at with reverence when he opens his mouth.

But whether or not this is truly the end, Castro's legacy is secure. Along with June Mar Fajardo, he stands as one of the most unassuming superstars in PBA history. And on an international level, countries in Asia whisper his name when they get set to face the Philippines.

That's who Jayson Castro is. A freaking legend that can ignite one nation and team, while sending other teams and countries quaking in fear.

There is nothing that stood out from Jayson Castro's final stat line in a Gilas Pilipinas uniform: 15 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist in 18 minutes of action. But the team's 93-75 win over Kazakhstan allowed them to achieve their ultimate goal - qualifying for China later on in the year in the FIBA World Cup. And that historic victory was definitely a cause for celebration.

In the locker room, Castro walked around holding a Philippine flag. He asked each and every player and coach to sign the flag. He also asked to take photos with his teammates in the 2013 FIBA Asia Cup, as well as those that competed alongside him in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Seville.

At the time, I was taken aback because I never took Castro to be a sentimental guy. But when news broke later on in the year that he would be skipping the FIBA World Cup, everything clicked into place. In his own quiet and assuming way, he wanted to bow out, and say goodbye. He was no longer the superstar that could say yes to every single opportunity. Now he had a family to take care of after he had been taking care of Philippine basketball for almost a decade. He walked away at the peak of his powers, and during arguably the defining moment for basketball this decade.

He exits at the right possible time. As the calendar shifts to a new decade, a new generation of guards, all of them influenced by Castro, will enter both the PBA and the Philippine basketball consciousness. They will inevitably be compared to Jayson, whether fair or not, whether valid or invalid. And it's possible that someday, an elite guard will impact the game just as much as Castro did, or even more.

But make no mistake about this: there will never be another Jayson Castro. As he continues to chase even more glory in his illustrious career, it's the icing on a brilliant career that has put him on a pedestal very few can stand on.