By Drei Christopher Villanueva
In the past, the Southeast Asia Basketball Association (SEABA) has been a tournament dominated by the Philippines wherein even amateur and collegiate standouts could simply run roughshod over their regional counterparts.
But in recent years, the stakes have grown higher, with the SEABA event serving as a qualifying event for the FIBA Asia Championship, which will be part of a six-window event leading to the 2019 World Cup. These days, the country is forced to field nothing less than our best players to compete for the flag.
Last year, the Philippines failed to get an outright seat in the SEABA when our Gilas Cadets failed to crack the top five at the 2016 FIBA Asia Cup. For 2017, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) doesn’t want to take any chances; with the upcoming SEABA overlapping with the SEA Games, the basketball governing body has added 12 players to join the previously named 12 Gilas Cadets.
Leading the 24-man pool are reigning three-time Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo of San Miguel Beer, scoring champion Terrence Romeo of GlobalPort, hardworking forward Calvin Abueva of Alaska, and Jayson Castro of TNT.
“For now, the main focus is really the SEABA,” said Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes, who is making a return tour of duty with the squad he was able to lead to the World Championship for the first time in 40 years. “It’s an important event. It the qualifying event for the FIBA Asia,”
Under his tutelage, Reyes guided Gilas Pilipinas to a runner-up finish behind Iran in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila. For reference, Fajardo and Castro are the only remaining players from that squad he coached four years ago.
Abueva was part of the 2015 FIBA Asia squad that placed second to China and was included in the 2016 roster of coach Tab Baldwin before an injury would cut him out of the lineup shortly before last year’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. But there was also a surprising twist as Castro, who after the OQT announced his retirement from playing with the national team, had a chance of heart to give himself another chance to represent the country anew.
Jimmy Alapag, who played alongside Castro for many years be it in TNT and Gilas Pilipinas, was a key factor in convincing The Blur to give playing for the national team another shot.
“We spoke briefly during the time when he hasn’t decided yet whether to join the national team or not, but to be able to see him accepting the challenge to play for Gilas means a lot,” said Alapag. “The team needs him more, especially in the absence of veteran players like Gabe Norwood, Marc Pingris and Ranidel de Ocampo.”
Norwood, who has been part of the national team program since 2007, will be seeing action for the first time since the PBA-backed squad was created. Named as the team captain of the Gilas team that competed in the OQT last year, Norwood was recruited by Reyes straight out of George Mason University in 2007 during the country’s return to active competitions in FIBA-sanctioned events after being suspended in 2005.
De Ocampo has played with the national team since 2009 and played alongside Pingris, who joined the national team in 2013, all the way to the OQT event last year.
Another player who will be back in the national team program is Japeth Aguilar, who started representing the national squad as early as 2008 when the original SMART-Gilas, an all-amateur program tasked to represent the country in major international events.
Also added in the pool is Star point guard Paul Lee and Rain or Shine center Raymond Almazan, who was requested to train with the national pool last year leading to the OQT.
But there will also be new faces in the pool, including Phoenix big man Norbert Torres, Meralco guard Jonathan Grey, LA Revilla of Mahindra, Bradwyn Guinto of NLEX and Art dela Cruz of Blackwater. These players will join the Gilas Cadet stalwarts who joined this year’s PBA Rookie Draft and selected by different teams thru a separate draft, namely, Blackwater’s Mac Belo, Matthew Wright of Phoenix, Roger Pogoy of TNT, Russel Escoto of Mahindra, Kevin Ferrer of Barangay Ginebra, Ed Daquioag of Meralco, Arnold Van Opstal of San Miguel Beer, Alfonso Gotladera of NLEX, Von Pessumal of GlobalPort, Jio Jalalon of Star, Mike Tolomia of Rain or Shine, and Carl Bryan Cruz of Alaska.
Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president Al Panlilio said they are currently working out the training schedule of the new Gilas pool.