Zero seconds left on the clock. Down 79-77. Paul Lee on the free throw line. Three free throws set to be attempted. It was the kind of moment that could either end as a fairytale, or as a heartbreaker.
Gilas Pilipinas found itself up against China in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan in a nip and tuck affair. It was the battle for third, but it remained to be a big deal for every Filipino Basketball fan. This was China they were up against, the team that’s long been considered as the gold standard of Asian Basketball. Beating them was a dream.
Three made free throws later, that dream had finally come true. The Philippines, by all accounts, had beaten China.
It was celebrated across Philippine Basketball circles, and why not right? Gilas had beaten CHINA ON THEIR HOME COURT. This was a team that’s long been considered to be in a different echelon in Asian Basketball. By all accounts was it an upset, one that deserved to be talked about for days to come. Gilas were treated as heroes.
Let’s briefly dig deep into that Chinese team Gilas beat. It didn’t have any big names such as Wang Zhelin or Yi Jianlian. This clearly wasn’t their best group of players. Besides the lack of big names, the other obvious characteristic of the team was their youth. That Chinese team had four players who were 21 years old and below during that time. Zirui Wang was a 21 year old, Shang Gao was a 20 year old, while both Zhao Jiwei and Zhou Qi were 18 year olds. You could say then that those were practically college kids going up against grown men in an international tournament.
“College kids going up against grown men in an international tournament” was an idea that was thrown around a lot this past week, as the Ateneo Blue Eagles played in the Jones Cup. It was an entire team of college kids playing versus adults. Not much was expected from the team coming into the tournament.
A week later the general sentiment was, “Wow, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are REALLY good.” The entire nation was in amazement of their performance, finishing with five wins and three losses that was good for fourth in the entire field. The fourth place finish is deceiving. It has to be viewed from the perspective that the Blue Eagles were the youngest team in the field.
Many mentioned Coach Tab Baldwin’s leading the charge for the Blue Eagles as a big reason for their success, and it’s a valid point to make. But he isn’t the end all and be all of the success the Blue Eagles had. Another key to their success was how the players responded to the pressure that was thrown their way. They were facing unfamiliar territory, having to find ways to win versus older competition. In the process, they remained composed, and welcome the challenges that they were facing. As a result, they became better and better as the tournament progressed. It all culminated with Matt Nieto’s game winner versus Chinese Taipei, a moment that will be replayed for years to come:
That’s the problem, however. It’s “just” Ateneo who directly grew because of that experience. What about the rest of Philippine Basketball? What can they get from the performance of Ateneo besides the pride that they represented the Philippines well internationally?
Ever since the Philippines rebooted their National Team program back in 2009, the main goal for every tournament the country joins is to win. It makes sense. Why even join a tournament if you wouldn’t want to win? It’s become the frame of thought for most Filipinos, in any sport for that matter. Anything less than first place is considered a failure.
Given such expectations, we would scoff at China who doesn’t always send their best group of players for international tournaments. Take for instance, the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup tournament we talked about at the start of this piece. No big names, plenty of youth within the team. The result was a fourth place finish. The same happened just last year during the FIBA Asia Cup 2017, where China finished fifth. This then leads us to ask, why did China choose to send that group of players instead of their best crop? Don’t they care about winning basketball games?
A little rundown of some of the key international tournaments China’s participated in since 2014:
2014 FIBA Asia Cup: Finished fourth
2015 FIBA Asia Championship, 2016 Olympics qualifiers (with core team): Finished first, qualified for Olympics
2016 Olympics (with core team)
2017 FIBA Asia Cup: Finished fifth
You notice a pattern with how China operates. The 2014 and 2017 FIBA Asia Cups, which did not have much bearing, had China sending in young teams with our their core guys. The 2015 FIBA Asia Championships as well as the 2016 Olympics had them sending in their core team.
They obviously care about winning basketball games, who doesn’t? But here’s something China’s grasped better than the Philippines. You don’t have to win every basketball tournament you join. You just have to win the ones that matter.
Not every tournament is created equally, but that doesn’t mean you can’t maximize each one. What China does with the tournaments with less bearing is to use them as training grounds for their younger players.
Some of the young guns they brought in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup? Zhao Jiwei was a member of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship team that won it all in Changsha as a 20 year old. Zhou Qi is now widely considered as the next great Chinese prospect. All products of the developmental program of China that exposes their players to high levels of competition at any early age.
So, What can Philippine Basketball take away from get from this Jones Cup experience?
Philippine Basketball can now take more drastic steps in developing its future. Ateneo was a team filled with collegiate kids, but they were able to somehow compete. Most importantly, they were able to develop not just as a group, but also individuals.
There will undoubtedly be struggles, whether you send Ateneo, La Salle, San Beda or ideally, the Gilas Cadets. For every game winning three, there will be key turnovers in the fourth quarter. One dunk later, you miss out on a rotation the next time around. It’s fine. Pain like that is necessary for greater things in the future.
We may finish fourth in these tournaments where we send in younger talent, and that’s fine. If it means developing a potential NBA talent, or increasing the amount of talent for your national team for Olympic qualifiers, then that’s a return you accept 100 percent of the time.
You don’t have to win every tournament you join. You just have to win the ones that matter. The future is bright for the future of Philippine Basketball. It’s time to take some drastic steps, by choosing our battles carefully.
Photos from Smart Sports