Throwback Thursday: National Punks

This article was originally published in SLAM #149

Gilas gang targets London Olympics, PBA careers and a slice of your faith.

By Mico Halili

Incredibly, Smart Gilas players hear boos. They’re not in Qatar, Dubai, Lebanon, Bahrain, Serbia, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan or the United States. They already know how to compete in these places. On this night, Gilas front-runners Chris Tiu, Marcio Lassiter, Mac Baracael, Mark Barroca and Jvee Casio hear boos while playing in Cubao. In Quezon City. In the freakin’ Philippines. Such is the price of patriotism. Such is the price of playing against Ginebra. The very same people they represent, they very same fans they choose to serve, show them no love. Yet the National Team understands. It’s a situational snafu. A heat of the moment thing. Come September, when they haul their determined asses to China, with an elusive Olympic slot on the line, they know Ginebra die-hards will be cheering for them too. So today’s hate is temporary. The boos are just for one series, happening in the context of a heated PBA Semi-Finals race.

Maybe it’s not really hate. Maybe it’s tough love. To help Gilas prepare for the merciless FIBA-Asia Olympic Qualifiers, everyone in the PBA seems encouraged to punch them in the gut. Or, if you’re seldom used Ginebra big man Yancy De Ocampo, encouraged to hit Gilas center Marcus Douthit from behind with an elbow to the neck. I love you Douthit. Boom! Tough love. Tough times. Maybe a campaign in the PBA is supposed to be this treacherous. Consider this: Ginebra must beat the life out of Gilas in the Commissioner’s Cup Best-of-5 Semi-Finals (or Ginebra can at least try). It’s one way to maximize the National Team’s participation in the PBA. And, if Gilas beats the living crap out of Ginebra in return, it’s one way to convert more doubters into believers.

The Gilas plan, after all, hinges on a vision. It’s a grand plan to bring the Philippines back on the Olympic hardcourt. Foolish? For some, yes. Ambitious? Damn straight. A vision without ambition, anyway, is just an errand. But to stare at the peak of Mount Olympus, to announce an assault at the unreachable, all the way down, miles, miles away, where mortals roam, is the stuff of legend. Thus, 5 players want us to believe in the improbable. Realistically, Tiu, Lassiter, Baracael, Barroca and Casio can make us trust in a national hoops initiative again. Tragically, they can make us believe some more. To fuel this crazy addiction we have, for more history, more hurt, more hoops.

Filipinos’ basketball faith demands devotion of the cruelest kind. 5 Gilas gangbusters are working hard, scoring, defending, performing with bitchy resolve to make the gauntlet one joyous ride for the team and its supporters, real or imagined. Even if the boos come in loud and clear, a PBA championship is within reach, Mount Olympus is in sight. They’re out there scaling the unscalable mountain. Even if the responsibility to rewrite history for these future PBA stars might be too much. They don’t know what a Philippine Olympic Basketball Team looks like. They weren’t born yet in 1972, the last time we made it to the Olympics. 5 guys are too young to know what ’72 was like. Yet they’re too talented to be free of this heavy burden; to bring that 1972 feeling back.

CHRIS TIU is the choir boy with a mean streak. He has flaws. He is slow. He can’t jump.  He looks like he plays Monopoly better than he plays sports. But thanks to the constant exposure provided by a second PBA stint, people know better. Opponents know better. Tiu uses his basketball mind more efficiently than most. His mind, then, controls his arms, feet, hands. He uses them all, to gain whatever advantage allowed by basketball law. He pushes, obstructs, grabs. A quiet, cherubic-faced terror. Mothers want to embrace him. Rivals want to strangle him.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a goody-goody on the court, pero hindi ako naninira,” Tiu clarifies. “I play tough inside the court, I really hustle for the ball, I set good screens, I do things that don’t show up in stats. People wonder how I can get 10 rebounds in a game, eh hindi naman ako tumatalon. I think, like most things, rebounding is a matter of will. Because I’m not naman gifted athletically like others, I just have to do what I can in my own human capacity.”

And Tiu has the capacity to accomplish a lot. He shoots three’s, guards PBA imports, hosts television shows, endorses products, supports charitable causes, manages businesses, smiles for fans, poses for photos, puts you at ease and, if need be, pulls you by the nostrils if a rebound is up for grabs. He’s still undecided about joining the PBA. He wants to. But his desire to focus on Gilas is more current, more intense.

“With Gilas, ultimately it’s a team game, it’s a system where everyone’s involved, you can actually excel by using the system correctly,” Tiu explains. “And, I think, that’s one of my strengths. I’m not too much of a one-on-one player as basketball experts already know by now. I like to move without the ball, read the screens well. That’s my game.”

MARCIO LASSITER is PBA-ready. It’s the first-impression which sticks. More than how he glides even when he rams into opponents. More than the way he scores inside, outside, sideways or upside down. More than his resolve to butt heads with opponents. He has had a bloodied forehead, a broken nose, aches here, pain there. He doesn’t seem to mind. He probably even enjoys it. When I watch him play, I see a leaner Ryan Reyes, I see a very early version of Jeff Cariaso.

“You have to be mentally tough,” Lassiter says. “Anyone you play, anytime you play, you have to prove to each person on the court you belong there. Especially when you’re wearing this jersey (he tugs on his Gilas uniform), there’s a lot of pride, trying to win games for the country, so you don’t want to let no one down. So I always keep that at the back of my head.”

It’s hard to imagine how Gilas can win internationally without Lassiter. Balls, man. He has balls. He drives to the hoop ready to face whatever consequences for doing so. If there’s a 7-footer in the way, so be it. If he gets fouled, so be it. And if he has to foul, hard, so be it too. He competes like a machine. No wonder Gilas Coach Rajko Toroman depends on him like one. Lassiter plays over 40 minutes per game in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup. Not surprising at all.

MAC BARACAEL is the survivor. He’s a man with stories to tell. He’s a player no longer afraid of pain. Gunshot wound, check. Punctured lung, check. Broken ribs, check. Near-death experience, check. Now we know where his swagger comes from. It’s not just from the bad-ass goatee (I advised him to never get rid of it). It’s from a proven ability to quickly climb out of danger, to plunge into oblivion and return safely with souvenirs for everyone.

“Siguro kaya madaling maka-recover katawan ko kasi hindi ko rin bini-baby sarili ko,” Baracael shares. “Kahit injured ako, nilalaro ko din agad. Kasi sa dami ng nangyari sa akin, sa dami ng pinagdaanan ko, tsk (he smiles, pauses, looks far, shakes his head), titibay ka din siguro talaga. Lalo akong tumatapang sa game.”

Aside from immunity and impunity, Baracael also has agility, shooting touch, three-point range and a 6’4″ frame built for serious warfare. Teammates call him “Tubid Part 2”. I can see why. He doesn’t have Ronald Tubid’s flair. Well, not yet. But he already has Tubid’s “angas” — a vital trait when Gilas faces bigger, tougher opponents in the FIBA-Asia tournament of destiny. Besides, Baracael already knows what do-or-die means. He doesn’t need to be reminded.

MARK BARROCA is the breakdown specialist. I know, I know, Gilas is all about the system. But sometimes, in a game, set-plays can go bonkers, plans can go up in smoke. Enter Barroca, the point guard who can transform a ruined half-court offensive into his personal blank canvas. Even the most disciplined teams need a Barroca. He’s the improv guy; no scripts, no spiels. Go Mark, create something out of nothing with jab-steps, cross-over dribbles and turn-around shots. So un-Gilas. So like Barroca.

“Sana nga makapag-PBA ako. Kasi lahat ng players, yan din ang gusto,” Barroca admits. “Kasi kahit nasa Gilas ako, hindi naman sure na makakapag-PBA ako. Ang sa akin, kung ano pa meron ako, pinu-push ko pa sarili ko, mahirap na mabigo. Ayaw ko mabigo.”

Once exiled from his collegiate team, even as one of the UAAP’s prolific guards, Barroca sounds sure of his current place in the national team. As sure as his pull-up jumper from 15-feet. He also sounds sure of eventually joining the PBA. He should be. Always scared of Enrico Villanueva’s bullying arms. Never afraid to take a big shot. His one-on-one style is his best emergency weapon for Gilas. It will be his bread-and-butter when he starts playing full-time as a PBA professional.

JV CASIO is the goofy-faced assassin. During the photo-shoot for this issue, we ask JV to show his most fearsome game-face. He tries to emote. We try not to burst out with laughter. He looks like a kid. Like he can still pass for a grade 6 student, if you just see his face, ears, the unmistakable gap between his two front teeth. You want to pinch his cheeks. But as soon as he gets open, fires a three-pointer straight through the opponent’s heart, with just seconds left in the game, he becomes Jack the Ripper.

“Ako baby-face? That’s just me,” Casio stresses. “Ganoon lang talaga ako. It’s how I am. My mindset talaga is that there’s always something new to learn. Learning never stops. Maraming mas magaling diyan, especially when you play at a higher level. You have to practice and practice kasi hindi naman constant that you’ll shoot the ball well.”

Casio, under Toroman’s prodding, has learned to play point-guard, full-time. He can play like a quarterback now, calling plays, managing the team’s pace, being the playmaker instead of the scorer. But now and then, old habits return. As sportscaster Miakka Lim says, Casio can go “god-mode” anytime and sink every shot in sight. He scored 29 points against Rain or Shine and 29 again versus Powerade. Did they want to pinch his cheeks? Nope. They wanted to slap his cute face with a sledgehammer.

5 Gilas guys, this next wave of PBA stars, are ready to send us back to the Olympics. How? Win the FIBA-Asia championship. Yes, win it all. Moral victory is a useless currency in the Olympic stock exchange. It’s like attaining world peace. The soul knows it’s doable. Only the mind gets in the way. Faith in miracles tells us it’s possible. Our history of basketball heartbreak, however, reminds us it’s easier to question than to believe. Your choice; a. Give up or b. Trust that the right addition of PBA players, impeccable outside shooting, incredible defense, people playing the games of their lives and having an enormous amount of luck can make it happen. 5 guys, Gilas ambassadors of ambition, already know, it means playing beyond perfect.

The day after hearing a shower of boos in a PBA play-off game, Gilas players return to practice. No enemies here. Just the inner circle and the barking of a head coach who demands basketball purity. Toroman, after seeing a bungled play in practice, likely still seething from losing to Ginebra in Game 1 of the Semis, lashes out, “Pish-ko-mah-teh!” Or something that sounds like it. It’s Serbian for a very, very bad word. Good thing I can neither spell nor write this correctly. But Gilas players like Chris, Marcio, Mac, Mark and JV know what it means. They know what prompts Coach Rajko to unleash his dirty mouth; when their stubbornness prevails, when their inexperience shows, when they allow older, bigger players to bully them around. Translation A of Toroman’s tirade: get your act together stupid.  Translation B: I know our ultimate goal is to reach London in 2012, but for the love of pljeskavica, let’s beat Ginebra and reach the PBA Finals first. Translation C: We’re trying to make the impossible possible so, as potential Olympians, don’t dare screw it up. For people to believe, they have to perform. Beyond common expectation. Because 1972 already feels so 10,000 years ago. Pish-ko-mah-teh! It’s been that long.