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After controversial start, things looking up for national program —and a wary Reyes hopes to ride momentum

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Jordan Clarkson far from satisfied in his debut in the Fiba World Cup Asian Qualifiers.

Jordan Clarkson gestures during a game against Lebanon in the Fiba World Cup Asian qualifiers in Beirut. Photo by Fiba.

Chot Reyes knew right from the jump that his return to the Gilas Pilipinas saddle was not going to be filled with rainbows, butterflies and unicorns.

He did not, however, expect that his fourth stint with the national team would put him through the wringer.

“When I took this job, I knew it would be very difficult. We knew we were going to open ourselves to a lot of criticisms and all of that,” he told the Inquirer over the phone while on a break from a family trip in Polillio, Quezon.

“When the offer came, we really had to think about it long and hard. I went into this with my eyes open, but if there’s any surprise it was with how vicious and widespread the bashing and the hatred was,“ he added.

Much of the flak Reyes has dealt with thus far stemmed from a spate of debacles Gilas suffered on the international stage—a little over a year before this cage-crazed nation cohosts the 2023 Fiba (International Basketball Federation) World Cup.

Lost gold

One of them was seeing a more than three-decade stranglehold of the Southeast Asian Games gold medal snapped by Indonesia in May last year. Two months later, Gilas failed to make the knockout phase of the Fiba Asia Cup held in Jakarta, turning in its worst finish in the continental meet in 15 years.

More controversies plunged Gilas into an even more frayed state: A number of the program’s young standouts opted to ply their trade overseas, while the pros at home had a hard time committing to the national cage program.

It also didn’t help that before all of that, the Philippines was seemingly on an upward trajectory, having won twice against regional tormentor South Korea during the Asia Cup qualifiers in Pampanga and gallantly standing up to Serbia and the Dominican Republic in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade. “Fortunately, things have started to look up,” said Reyes. “We’ve started playing well in the [World Cup qualifying] windows. And then Jordan Clarkson came in,” he said. A lot of the problems were solved by a key June meeting between tycoons and basketball patrons Manny V. Pangilinan and Ramon S. Ang.

Summit product

A product of that summit was Reyes’ reunion with the pro league’s winningest coach, Tim Cone, effectively shoring up the Gilas bench. A stakeholders meeting—which featured the country’s two leading varsity leagues—followed about a month later, resulting in the synchronization and alignment of events to the national program’s benefit.

That united front seemed to have rubbed off on the country’s lawmakers as well, as they moved swiftly on the naturalization process of Barangay Ginebra’s beloved import, Justin Brownlee. The American is now just a presidential signature away from becoming a Filipino.

“I think for all the negative stuff that went down, it was the stimulus needed to unify our basketball communities,” Reyes pointed out.

“The public opinion has calmed down. I think the [resentment] died down a little bit, but I’m also aware that just one loss will roll us all back,” he added with a nervous chuckle.

With the World Cup slated in August, Reyes has elected to take up Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas’ offer to have him focus only on Gilas.

“We’ve already decided for me to take a step back from TNT,” he revealed. “But with regards to other plans, there’s nothing more to share. We’ll just make the formal announcement once everything’s final.”

The national team will resume training after the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Commissioner’s Cup Finals.

“We’re looking forward to that [and] restarting the Monday practices. Ginebra is in the PBA Finals and [that team has] a big chunk of our players. We’ll just wait for that along with the guys in Japan and those who have injuries,” he said.

“All this has just been really a practice in adaptability, versatility and preparedness. We’re looking to prepare for the next window,” Reyes said of Gilas’ homestand against Lebanon and Jordan in February.

“But the big picture is really August [this year]. That’s really the focus.” INQ

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