Before leaving for China to participate in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Gilas Pilipinas Head Coach Yeng Guiao said of Italy, the first team Gilas Pilipinas would play against: “They are big, but we will try to beat them with our speed and three-point shooting.”

Guiao must have assumed that the tall and hefty Italians must be slow like the Biblical character Goliath. Gilas Pilipinas had in its roster three-point shooters Paul Lee, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, Mark Barroca, Keifer Ravena, CJ Perez and Robert Bolick. As for speed, except for Andrey Blatche and Jun Mar Fajardo, the Guilas Pilipinas boys are also good run-and-gun players.     

But unlike the shepherd boy David, Goliath’s challenger in the historic battle at Ephes-dammim in the Judean foothills, Guiao went to battle not knowing the adversary well enough. The Italians proved to be superior to Gilas Pilipinas not only in size but in skills as well. As Guiao lamented, “There’s no way we could beat them inside the paint, they’re just too big and too good. Even their bigs were shooting the outside shot really well.”

Not only did Italy have superior “gilas” than Gilas Pilipinas, but their defense was also as solid as Goliath’s metal armor. Guiao had counted on outside shooting and fast breaks to beat Italy. But Italy’s defense disabled Gilas Pilipinas’ weapons. The national team shot only 13% from beyond the arc and turned the ball over 23 times leading to 34 points off turnovers for the Italians. Italy beat Gilas Pilipinas by 46 points.

Gilas Pilipinas next played against the Serbians, who were as big as the Italians but more skillful. Four members of the team play in the US professional National Basketball Association. Nikola Jokic was a contender for the Most Valuable Player award in NBA’s 2018-2019 season. Gilas Pilipinas lost to them by 59 points, leading Serbia’s Coach Sasha Djordjevic to ask if the Philippines had the materials to compete in the World Cup.

The Philippine team failed to win a single game in the 2019 World Cup. Guiao suggested that for the Philippine team to be worthy of competing in international tournaments, the national team must be formed way ahead of the next World Cup. That way, team members would have chemistry among themselves. But chemistry is not all there is to it. There has to be the basic material, as the Serbian coach pointed out. Members of our national team should have not only the same skills as the Europeans, but they also have to be as big as them to be worthy of competing in the World Cup.

And so, in preparation for this year’s World Cup, which opened on Aug. 25 in the cavernous Philippine Arena before a FIBA World Cup record-breaking attendance of 38,115, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) began its buildup of Gilas Pilipinas by forming in June a 21-man pool from which the members of the national team would be selected. A panel of multiple PBA championship coaches was formed to choose the 12 players who would make up Gilas Pilipinas 2023.

Named to the pool were Japeth Aguilar, June Mar Fajardo, Kiefer Ravena, CJ Perez, Roger Pogoy, Poy Erram, Dwight Ramos, Bobby Ray Parks, Scottie Thompson, Jordan Heading, Kai Sotto, Chris Newsome, Jamie Malonzo, Thirdy Ravena, Carl Tamayo, Calvin Oftana, Rhenz Abando and AJ Edu. Naturalized Filipinos Jordan Clarkson, Justin Brownlee and Ange Kouame were included in the pool, but only one of them could be included in the final roster, in accordance with FIBA rules.

The panel of coaches was composed of head coach Chot Reyes, and assistant coaches Tim Cone and Jong Uichico. This is Reyes’ second World Cup stint as head coach. He was head coach of Gilas Pilipinas that got to the second round of the 2014 World Cup. He is a nine-time PBA champion coach and six-time Coach of the Year. Cone is the winningest coach in the PBA with 25 championships including two Grand Slams. He is a four-time Coach of the Year. He coached the national team that won the bronze medal in the 1998 Asian Games and the gold medal in the 2019 SEA Games in Manila. Uichico, who is also on his second World Cup assignment, is a nine-time PBA champion coach and two-time Coach of the Year. He steered the national team to the SEA Games gold in 2013 and 2017.

Selected for Gilas Pilipinas were:

• Japeth Aguilar, the 6’9” center/forward who has been part of the program since Gilas 1 was formed in 2009. This is his third World Cup stint. He was designated captain of the team. He is an eight-time PBA champion and one-time Finals MVP;

• June Mar Fajardo, a 6’10” center who is also on his third World Cup campaign, is a six-time PBA MVP, nine-time PBA champion, four-time Finals MVP;

• Kiefer Ravena, point guard, a member of Gilas Pilipinas that went to the 2019 World Cup;

• Roger Pogoy, shooting guard, also a member of 2019 World Cup Gilas Pilipinas;

• CJ Perez, point guard/shooting guard, another member of 2019 Gilas Pilipinas;

• Jordan Clarkson, point guard/small forward, plays in the NBA for the Utah Jazz. He is the team’s naturalized player;

• Scottie Thompson, point guard/shooting guard, 2021 PBA MVP and seven PBA championships including two Finals MVP;

• Dwight Ramos, a small forward, plays in Japan’s B-League;

• Kai Sotto, 7’3” center who played for two seasons for the Adelaide 36ers in Australia’s National Basketball League and the Orlando Magic in the NBA Summer League. He represented the country in the under 19 division of the 2019 World Cup;

• AJ Edu, 6’10” center who played for University of Toledo. He also represented the country in the under 19 division of the 2019 World Cup;

• Jamie Malonzo, 6’7” forward, a Barangay Ginebra star;

• Rhenz Abando, shooting guard, plays in the Korean Basketball League

With an average height of about 6’5”, this is the tallest Philippine team ever assembled. No player is below six feet. Sotto is the tallest Filipino basketball player ever to represent the country. However, Fajardo at 268 pounds is the only member of the team that can compare with the size of most of the players that compete in international tournaments.

Head coach Reyes told the players that they must strive to achieve their utmost potential to stand a chance against their co-Group A competitors Angola, Dominican Republic and Italy in the 2023 FIBA World Cup. While optimal performance doesn’t guarantee victory, Reyes emphasized that one thing Gilas can’t afford is to fall short of their best when up against the world’s premier basketball teams.

“That’s how we approach this game. We have to be the best that we can be and play our best game and even if we play our best, it doesn’t really guarantee a win because that’s how strong the other team is. The only sure thing is if we do not play our best, then we have no chance,” said Reyes.

In a post in SBP’s Facebook page, Reyes explained to his players that they have little margin for error playing against world-class squads. “(Our) margin for error is very small, so when you get in there, every second you play on the floor counts. That’s the way it is, we really have to be on point every single moment.”

The Gilas Pilipinas boys fell short of their best when they went up against the Dominican Republic on Friday, losing by six points, 81-87. They turned the ball over 19 times, got outrebounded, giving up 17 offensive rebounds, and committed 28 fouls that resulted in 23 points for the opponents.

Dominican Republic star player Karl-Anthony Towns, first overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Rookie of the Year that season, said: “Everyone on their team (Gilas Pilipinas) is hardworking. They played with a lot of love.” I take it as his polite way of saying “Filipinos do not play with a lot of skills.”

It was a different story last Sunday. They played their best, but Gilas Pilipinas’ best was not good enough to beat the taller, heftier and faster visitors. “We got hammered on the boards. We gave up 20 offensive rebounds to the other team. And in the end that was the story,” said Coach Reyes. Gilas Pilipinas lost by 10 points.

Tonight, Gilas Pilipinas will face the Italians, who will be led by Simone Fontecchio, Jordan Clarkson’s Utah Jazz teammate. Italy beat Angola by 14 points. Will Sasha Djordjevic, who is in town as the coach of the Chinese team competing in the World Cup, be still asking if the Philippines has the materials to compete?


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, management professor and an avid sports fan.