Fade to Blatche: A Team Philippines FIBA World Cup Postmortem
The FIBA Basketball World Cup ended last week for Gilas Pilipinas, the Philippine national team. The Andray Blatche–led squad failed to advance from the group round, finishing with one overtime win over Senegal and four competitive losses (three of which were legitimately heartbreaking).
That’s it, right? The basketball world developed a brief crush on Philippine basketball and the sheer chutzpah of 5-foot-7 guards who careen into the paint against Greek 7-footers. Blatche, the newly naturalized Filipino, seemed to exhibit more leadership, toughness, and passion in five games with Gilas than in nine years in the NBA, and as a still-unsigned free agent, he could be rewarded handsomely for it.
Great. Fun story. Time to move on to the World Cup’s more pressing concerns, like the potential Spain-USA final and Nenad Krstic’s exquisite baldness. Well, nobody’s moving on quite yet in the Philippines, if the Tagalog poems dedicated to team captain Jimmy Alapag being passed around Facebook are any indication. And rightfully so. There may be no nation that loves basketball as much as the Philippines does, yet most Filipinos aren’t old enough to remember when fellow Pinoys like Carlos “Caloy” Loyzaga and Danny Florencio competed and held their own with the best players in the world. Now, thanks to Alapag and Marc Pingris and Gabe Norwood and Ranidel de Ocampo and L.A. Tenorio and Junmar Fajardo and the entire Gilas team, a new generation of Filipino basketball fans has seen its team play at the highest level of international competition and be a possession or two away from beating Argentina, Croatia, and Puerto Rico.
For me, a foreigner who lived in the Philippines, fell in love with its basketball culture, and came to see the country as a second home, watching Gilas play swelled me with the kind of fullhearted pride I’ve felt only a few times before. Gilas showed that Philippine basketball — this thing that I’d felt was special since I first landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in 2005, that I’d dedicated much of my career to — was not just a quirky hoops human interest story but instead a brand of world-class basketball that charmed and impressed fans all over the globe. Basically, Gilas validated me. And I imagine that millions of Filipinos felt a similar fulfillment last week, only several times greater, because in my case Philippine basketball is an interest that I care deeply about, and for them, it’s in their bones.
But as much as we may feel like throwing this 1-4 team a ticker-tape parade down Roxas Boulevard, the Gilas players and coaches have been adamant in calling their tournament run the beginning of an era that will include regular appearances for the Philippines at FIBA Basketball World Cups and Olympic Games. With that in mind, here are three takeaways from Spain that look toward the future of the Philippine national basketball team.
1. Et tu, Andray?
No, Andray Blatche is not going to somehow stab Gilas in the back, as Brutus did to Caesar. I just find Blatche puns irresistible. In fact, based on how well Gilas performed with Blatche at the World Cup, it seems likely he’ll continue playing for the Philippines in future tournaments. Before Spain, Gilas head coach Chot Reyes told me that was the plan — that Blatche would return for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, where the Philippines hopes to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and that if the team managed to reach its first Olympic basketball tournament since 1972, that Blatche would once again be their man.
The plan was for Blatche to be back in uniform for the Philippines much sooner than that — at the Asian Games, which begin in less than two weeks in South Korea. After some international hoops bureaucratic wrangling between the Olympic Council of Asia, the Philippine basketball federation, and FIBA, it appears as if Blatche will be banned from competing in the Asian Games thanks to a selective interpretation of residency requirement rules for naturalized players. Despite being backed by FIBA, which sent a strongly worded letter urging Asian Games organizers to reinstate Blatche, the Philippines is now considering withdrawing from the competition.
During the World Cup, some fans observed that Blatche could be a ball-stopper in Gilas’s attacking dribble-drive offense, that he forced a number of ill-advised passes that became turnovers, and that the team probably could have done without so many Blatche-as–point forward escapades. These are fair criticisms, but they don’t amount to a case for replacing Blatche with a different naturalized big man.
Yes, there are better players in the world than Andray Blatche. None of them, currently, have indicated a burning desire to play for Gilas Pilipinas. The team already went through the lengthy legal process of turning Blatche into a Filipino citizen. He averaged 21.2 points and 13.8 rebounds in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, played through injuries, demonstrably bought in to the team’s puso, or “heart,” identity, and embraced his teammates. He’s a classic give-and-take player — he gives his team scoring and size, and his perimeter skills create mismatches against most international teams; he also takes away from his team’s success with turnovers, sometimes questionable shot selection, and by slowing down the offensive rhythm. I think there’s little doubt that Reyes and the Gilas coaching staff will accept the negatives in Blatche’s game to keep the positives.
2. Dual Citizens, FIBA, and the 16-year-old limit
Gilas players Alapag, Norwood, and Jared Dillinger are Filipino American. So is 2014 second-round NBA draft pick Jordan Clarkson, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Lakers. So is former Saint Mary’s guard Stephen Holt, who played with the Atlanta Hawks at summer league and signed to play in the German Bundesliga next season. And so is Jason Brickman, who led the NCAA in assists last season at Long Island University and who will play pro ball for Dynamo Moscow.
Clarkson, Holt, and Brickman would be meaningful additions to the Gilas lineup, but none of them are eligible to play for the Philippines. This is because FIBA rules require players eligible for dual citizenship to acquire it before they turn 16 years old if they want to someday represent that country in international basketball. So for a Filipino American like Clarkson to play for the Philippines, he would have had to get his Philippine passport before his 16th birthday. This rule has been on FIBA’s books for several years, but according to FIBA communications coordinator Simon Wilkinson, it was amended in late 2010 “to clarify the rule and prevent it from being circumvented by certain countries.”
The scuttlebutt in Asian basketball circles has long been that FIBA ramped up its enforcement of the rule to prevent Emirati countries from stacking their rosters with American and African dual citizens who were essentially ringers. Qatar was notorious for this, a strategy they’ve also employed with Bulgarian weightlifters, Kenyan distance runners, and South American soccer players. Reyes joked that he and his coaching staff used to call Qatar’s basketball team the “AfriQataris.”
FIBA’s 16-year-old limit makes it much more difficult for a country like Qatar to cherry-pick basketball players, turn them into dual citizens overnight, and trot them out onto the court. Unfortunately, the rule arguably hurts the Philippines more than any other country. The worldwide Filipino diaspora is estimated at more than 10 million people, including more than 3 million Filipino Americans, and practically every Filipino community in every corner of the world has a basketball league. It’s hard to imagine a talented young Filipino American players like Clarkson and Brickman, when they were still 15, knowing that they needed to apply for Philippine passports if they ever wanted the opportunity to play for the country. So the Philippines loses the chance to add players with legitimate Filipino heritage to the national team, and it’s not just high-profile talents like Clarkson but also Philippine Basketball Association stalwarts like Joe DeVance and Sol Mercado, who have made their lives in Manila but were raised in the United States and didn’t become dual citizens at an early enough age to play for their country.
It’s unlikely FIBA will change the rule or make some kind of exception for the Philippines, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gilas program increases its outreach effort to Filipino American youth basketball programs to spread the message for promising young players: If you want to play for Gilas Pilipinas, get your dual citizenship before 16.
3. The Next Jimmy
When I visited the team’s pre–World Cup training camp in Miami, Gilas assistant coach Tab Baldwin said this about Philippine point guard Jimmy Alapag: “He’s the shortest guy in international basketball — and one of the slowest, probably1 — but still is a very, very effective basketball player.”
Baldwin, the former head coach of the New Zealand, Jordanian, and Lebanese national teams, meant it as compliment — that Alapag would find a way to create space and hit big shots under any circumstances, against any level of competition. For the better part of a decade, the Philippine team could count on heroic late-game performances from Alapag, but the 36-year-old guard announced during the World Cup that he intended to retire from international play after Spain. He played so well in the World Cup that pressure is already building for him to reverse that decision, but in Miami, Alapag told me that he was stepping down from the national team to give younger players a chance to take over. “There has to be a transition sooner or later,” he said. “The Asian Games is the only big tournament before the Olympic qualifier next August. I told coach, I really think it’s important that whatever team he’s planning to put together for [the qualifier] really needs to be together now.”
If that’s so, then Alapag may have saved his most unforgettable performance for his last competition. In the Philippines’ near upset of Argentina, he dragged Gilas back from a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter with five 3-pointers — all off the dribble — whose degree of difficulty would make Jamal Crawford envious. This Gilas team played with heaps of confidence, much of which seemed to stem from Alapag, who carries himself as if he’s absolutely certain his team will win every game. That’s not how basketball works, and the Philippines obviously didn’t win every game, but they played like they expected to win and they gave themselves a chance to win them all.
Alapag, one of the smallest members of the team, was also its backbone, and it’s unclear who will step into his role whenever he finally leaves the national team. Fellow point guard L.A. Tenorio has the same kind of unwavering drive as Alapag, but Tenorio’s unorthodox game can limit his effectiveness in some matchups and he doesn’t shoot well enough to consistently take over the ends of games. Combo guard Paul Lee can slash and shoot well enough to carry Gilas, and he plays with a toughness and a chip on his shoulder that teams can rally behind, but he’s a new addition to the lineup and his lack of experience in international competitions showed in how many fouls he gave up and the number of bad passes he forced. Jayson Castro has been the best guard in the Philippines for the last few years, but an Achilles injury slowed him during the World Cup. Besides, even at his best, Castro has seemed like the type of player who can lead Gilas for three and a half quarters before stepping aside and letting a designated finisher like Alapag take the shots in nut-cutting time.
It could be any of these guards, or some combination of them and other players. It could be a recent college star like Kiefer Ravena or Ray Ray Parks. It could also be that the second coming of Jimmy Alapag doesn’t exist. But Alapag is ready to pass the torch, and Gilas Pilipinas needs someone to run with it.