Surveying Gilas Pilipinas’ winding, bumpy road to the FIBA World Cup

The Naismith Trophy, the crown jewel of international basketball, was on display for everyone to see at the Lighthouse in the Meralco compound as part of the 25-nation FIBA Trophy Tour on July 26.

An Samahang Basketbol ng Pilpinas official picked up the trophy during a photo opportunity, which cued the guardian of FIBA’s ultimate prize to rush in and remind everyone that no one was allowed to touch it.

You can look, but you can’t touch.

“It’s a beautiful trophy, and it really symbolizes excellence in the basketball world,” Gilas Pilpinas men’s head coach Yeng Guaio said. “Bawal pala hawakan, gusto ko hawakan pero di ko mahawakan.”

The Naismith trophy stayed in Manila for a few days, but it isn’t realistic for the Philippines to be its home for the next few years. Even Guiao himself admits that it is a stretch for them to come home from the FIBA World Cup with the trophy in tow.

“It is always a dream to have that trophy, maybe not just a stop for the Philippines but as a permanent stop,” Guiao said. “Pero hindi natin alam kung kailan mangyayari yun. Hanggang ngayon panaginip pa lang yun.”

Despite the dose of realism about winning the trophy, there is a real chance that Gilas Pilipinas comes away as the top Asian nation in FIBA’s showpiece event. The top placed Asian country automatically earns a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That is an achievable goal that the Philippines can strive for.

The Philippines hasn’t qualified for the Summer Olympic Games since 1972, and getting there in 2020 would be a monumental achievement for the country’s basketball program.

But the road to that, or any form  of success in the World Cup, is long and ardous. In fact, the team has already suffered a few bumps along the way already.

Withdrawals from Jayson Castro, Bobby Ray Parks, and Scottie Thompson from international duty left the national team thin at the guard position. The trio were not included in the 19-man pool Guiao named.

To make things worse, San Miguel Beermen sharpshooter Marcio Lassiter could miss out on the World Cup completely after suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Despite the six-week time table given by San Miguel for Lassiter’s return, Guiao refused to give up on the veteran guard.

“We have not given up on Marcio, we are hoping that he is able to recover quickly,” Guiao admitted.

Guiao added they will not be considering more players for the national team pool despite the injury to Lassiter. 

“We’re just really looking at the pool itself. Wala naman tayo idadagdag na. At this point I guess it’s too late,” Guiao said. “The guys who have been practicing and been putting the time and effort sa team should get the opportunity to step up. We have no plans on naming new players.”

The real litmus test to see where Gilas Pilpinas stands ahead of the World Cup will be their upcoming training camp in Spain from August 4 to 12. The Philippines is slated to take on Congo and World Cup-bound teams Ivory Coast and Spain in a pocket tournament.

But even then, Gilas Pilpinas will not be in full force because of the ongoing PBA Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs. Depending on which teams make it into the Finals, there could be as many as five pool members who don’t make the trip to Spain.

The team will only be truly complete when they take on Australian NBL team Adelaide 36ers in Manila for a pair of goodwill games before the World Cup. By then, we will have a better idea of the final composition of the World Cup bound squad.

While the conditions for preparations are far from ideal, the Philippines is still bullish of their chances to cause a stir at the World Cup. Even if topping Serbia in the group seems to be a bridge too far, catching Italy ‘on a bad night’ and beating Angola is doable according to Guiao.

“Keep games close and see what happens,” Guaio said.

If the Philippines can grab two wins from the group stage, who knows how kindly the dice will roll? 

Gilas Pilipinas are in Group D in China, and will tip-off their campaign against Italy on 31 August. Serbia comes next on 2 September before the final group phase game against Angola on 4 September. 

All Group D fixtures will be played at the Foshan International Sports & Cultural Arena.