The Road to London goes through other countries not to mention oceans and other continents. Unfortunately, for the Smart Gilas Pilipinas National Team, just as the journey gets underway, they have to deal with some speed bumps in the fast lane.
by rick olivares
Waiting to exhale
Volleyball practice by the Ateneo’s high school varsity team was winding down when Rajko Toroman walked in. The Serbian coach of the men’s national basketball team, tussled brownish blonde hair and all, wore his customary golf shirt, khaki pants, and Air Jordans. But the biggest difference was how wide the smile was on his face.
For a change, there was none of the usual traffic that stretched from the flyover along Katipunan all the way to UP that tried many a people’s patience. The amiable coach shrugged at the daily traffic that clogged the metro’s streets. “That’s life,” he would say. But the easy grin in his face, the spring in his step, could be attributed to more than that. He felt as if a thorn that had long been stuck in deep in his side, had been removed.
In the first real taste of challenge since May when the Smart Gilas team competed in the FIBA Asia Champion’s Challenge Cup, the nationals’ stint in the ongoing Philippine Cup of the Philippine Basketball Association had degenerated into a theater of the absurd.
Following the high of dismantling the Powerade National Team, the youthful squad had to contend with controversies that involved several of its players that threatened to undo the chemistry that was so vital their fighting form not to mention their mission.
The team as part of their preparations, would time and again, go up against the pro teams in practice games. They had performed well and blew out many a foe even while undermanned. But with a long road ahead, they simply couldn’t keep playing practice games or going abroad for friendlies. They had played in Japan where they were massacred by the referees. And most recently, they became the first Philippine team to beat the Singapore Slingers. But going abroad was taxing on the budget. So logically, it made sense to apply as a guest team in the Philippine Basketball Association much like they did in the previous year.
The PBA first debated whether to allow Gilas’ candidate for naturalization, CJ Giles to play. Some coaches claimed that it gave an undue advantage to Smart Gilas while others didn’t mind thinking it would help raise the bar. That the league even bothered to debate about it seemed comical more so when some 20 years ago, they allowed the Northern Consolidated Cement team that was the national squad, to play with three supposedly naturalized players. And NCC won a championship.
As good as the league is, they are hardly the paragons of consistency as they’ve botched many issues. The Fil-Sham Controversy is one and while not an issue any longer, the results were hardly satisfying.
Hardly had the Giles question been resolved when the Japeth Aguilar controversy blew up. Aguilar, the former Ateneo and Western Kentucky center was chosen as the Number One Over-all Pick of 2009 by Burger King yet following a stint with the Powerade team under his Burger King coach Joseller “Yeng” Guiao, Aguilar refused to sign and said he’d rather play for the Smart Gilas National Team.
Burger King management was stung by the startling rejection and they proposed to the board to ban him despite the lack of any rule that said a draft pick cannot renege on the draft rights. It wasn’t the first time a draft pick refused to report to the team that selected him as Fil-Am Alex Cabagnot returned home to the United States rather than report to Sta. Lucia, the squad the drafted him. After some threats and mediation, Cabagnot finally reported.
With the intercession of SBP Chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, who also owned Talk ‘N Text, Aguilar signed with Burger King and in a three-way trade and agreement, played one game for the Whoppers before moving to Talk ‘N Text where he was promptly released to the national team. The aggrieved Burger King team received draft picks and cash in exchange.
The PBA’s Board of Governors then bandied about the decision whether to render the squad’s games as bearing or non-bearing. After some haggling, it was decided that the PBA teams will play Smart Gilas in a single round robin. A win by the PBA team would count in the standings while a loss would not. As odd as that decision was arrived at, it was passed. And it would come back to bite them again in a few short weeks.
Smart Gilas’ troubles wasn’t all external. After their exhibition series in Japan where everyone to a man will say “hindi lang niluto, ginisa pa,” the players went back to their mother teams for the college season. Those only ones who remained, having graduated from college, were Chris Tiu, Jayvee Casio, Jason Ballesteros, and Mac Baracael. The return of Dylan Ababou, RJ Jazul, Ric Cawaling, and the others saw the finely tuned offense sputter. Toroman chafed at the way UST used Ababou at the four-spot. Ditto with Mark Barroca at the two-spot. Their sudden re-integration into the Gilas’ system was a re-learning experience once more.
And then there was the addition of Aguilar and Al-Hussaini to the mix that also changed the rotation or even the way some were used. In Jakarta, the starting unit was Giles at center, Baracael at power forward, Cawaling at the three-spot, and Tiu and Barroca at the guard position. Now they had Giles, Aguilar, and Baracael. Casio, and Cawaling. If Ballesteros or Aldrech Ramos were the first bigs off the bench, now it was Al-Hussaini. Clearly, it was a relearning experience for all.
But it wasn’t all about rotation or familiarity with the system. Within the team, Giles sorely tried Toroman’s patience. His late night escapades, while a little tolerable among some of the team’s management, was inexcusable for the Serb who preached discipline above all.
When Giles’ younger brother Malcolm and then former college teammate at Oregon State, Wesley Washington, arrived in Manila, Giles would take them about town and would saunter back to his expensive condo unit in the wee hours of the morning. That affected his focus during practice and in one film viewing session on the eve of Gilas’ game versus Talk ‘n Text, the American fell asleep and Toroman finally blew his top. In his finely tuned mind, Toroman found Giles to be an example of what was wrong with the American game – they got by on sheer talent and athleticism. But on skill and teamwork, in the international game, the United States could be beaten. Why not? Serbia, or even back when it was a part of the Yugoslav Federation, beat the Americans soundly on several occasions.
Most of the team players preferred to keep away from the brewing storm. Giles was talented without a doubt. The Los Angeles Lakers saw that enough to give him a try during summer camp but the knock on Giles was that he was a headache.
Prior to his being invited to join the Gilas program, he was given a thorough background check where SBP officials conducted interviews with his former coaches in order to ferret the truth about Giles. Some of his coaches said that Giles’ alleged bad rep was blown out of proportion. He proved impressive enough when he showed up at the Joe Abunassar Impact Basketball Camp in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In Jakarta, Giles proved to be an invaluable player by holding off some of the best teams in Asia some of whom paraded two imports. He even played on a gimpy knee that spoke volumes of his dedication. Team Manager Butch Antonio was pleasantly surprised, “Like other American imports, he could have chosen not to play because that could have been a potentially career ending injury. But he asked to be taped up and we won the game against Lebanon.”
The team liked him and forward Mac Baracael, a highly influential locker room presence himself even dubbed him “Big Bird” after the shuttle bus that transported them all around Jakarta.
But even there, Toroman had to somewhat bend his rules. Curfew was set at 11pm where the players had to be inside their rooms to get rest for the following day. Most of the players and team officials hung out at the coffee shop where they took advantage of the free wifi as opposed to the $20-a-day charge at their rooms. Because of the time difference between Asia and North America, Giles stayed up late so he could chat with his brother and friends back home in Seattle.
The team’s assistant coaches Allan Gregorio, Jude Roque, and Djalma Arnedo took turns staying at the coffee shop until past midnight with one eye on their laptops with another at the entrance of the hotel in case some of the players decided to sample Jakarta’s nightlife.
On one occasion, Giles took exception to the head coach’s admonition to call it a night. The 6’11” player glared at the Serb who bristled at the disrespect that it bothered him all the way to breakfast the following day. “He has no discipline,” complained Toroman while throwing up his hands in the air.
And when Giles fell asleep during film viewing, Toroman had enough. Team officials stepped in to patch things up but had to be careful of not overly coddling the American. Privately, they knew that had the circus gone any longer, it would have come down to between Toroman and Giles. The team, the NSA, needed both. But between the two, Toroman was more important because without him, the program would be in disarray. Giles was a proven talent but the baggage that people warned team officials about began to surface and in Toroman’s mind, he felt that Giles should go. “Better to start fresh now than later,” he said while not letting on much how he felt about the setback.
As Giles made his way to the Cuneta Astrodome during Gilas’ match with Talk ‘N Text, his mind unfortunately wasn’t on the game. While checking his email from his mobile phone, he learned that his son Jayden was in the hospital with a blood problem.
Unfortunately, Giles only informed trainer Jim Saret of his problem. The coaching staff took his lack of focus to be another of his bouts of irresponsibility. Still, Toroman was willing to give Giles the benefit of the doubt. In the locker room prior to the nationals’ taking to the floor with the Tropang Texters, Toroman addressed Giles: “Are you with us? You are starting.”
But as the team raced on to the floor for their warm-ups, Giles still mysteriously looking disinterested, sat down on the opposing team’s bench while motioning one of the team’s masseuses to massage his thighs. Toroman watched it unfold from his side of the court, went closer to make sure that he wasn’t imagining things, and then turned around. He muttered a few expletives in his native tongue then called the attention of Saret who had become Giles’ confidant.
Still Giles started. But as the game began, he seemed out of sync with his teammates. As he hauled down a defensive board he whirled around and without even bothering to look, threw the ball to an opponent that led to a basket. Toroman who hardly sits on the bench during games was beet red. He sucked in air and told second string center Jason Ballesteros to go to the scorer’s table. He was taking out Giles. Not just from the game but for good.
Toroman wasn’t the only one angered, SBP and Gilas officials couldn’t contain their anger. “Pauwiin na yan,” threw in Bernie Atienza who is in charge of the team’s tournament schedule. SBP Executive Director told Giles that he was taking the first flight back home to the United States. “I told you that you will not destroy this team,” said Eala through clenched teeth.
The team was so dispirited that they were blown off the court. The loss lead to insinuations by league and club officials that Gilas had purposely dropped the match to give Talk ‘N Text a plus in the standings.
And Toroman, concerned about what the media had to say about the nationals’ problems, refused to read any newspapers after that.
The Hammer Drops
Toroman suspected that Giles was taking drugs hence his erratic behavior. Giles never drove around on his own as he had a personal driver who reported everything the American did. He also swore that he never saw the American taking any banned substances. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t doing anything.
It was only after the match that team officials and the coaching staff found out about the condition of Giles’ son. Toroman felt bad. “Why didn’t you say so?” The team knelt down in prayer to lift up Jayden to God. But soon after that, Eala, made a few calls to verify the veracity of Giles’ story.
The situation had turned ugly. Giles was upset that the team no longer trusted him. He liked being in the Philippines. With a sizeable salary, he had filled his apartment with toys that big boys with big salaries could afford. He even planned on putting up a t-shirt business with Malcolm in Manila. “I love it here,” he said on more than one occasion.
With the team management slinging arrows towards him, there were no wagons to circle around him for protection. And the big man finally let out how upset he was when no one came to his rescue when he was ganged up by Talk ‘N Text.
In a practice game with the Tropang Texters, the Nationals were pulling away from the pro team after turning the game into a jam session-cum-block party. Prior to that scrimmage, the PBA club had been beaten soundly in several tune up matches by the junior squad and clearly, it wasn’t funny anymore. That day, not only was Giles getting their goat but he was throwing a few choice elbows as well (although that depends on who you speak to for some Gilas players claim that the senior squad was playing dirty). At the half, the TNT team talked about teaching Giles a lesson at the next provocation.
With Gilas up by 10 in the third quarter, Ranidel de Ocampo and Giles became entangled and the former began throwing punches. Quickly, the Tropang Texters held Giles apart as the other teed off on the American. Mac Cardona even raced from the bench and began kicking the prone form of Giles. When asked later why he joined the fray when he wasn’t on the floor, Cardona replied, “Eh, Amerikano.”
What Giles did not see was his teammates rush to his aid but were prevented by both Gilas officials and Tropang Texters who had surrounded Giles. Giles privately felt the team had no balls and this only proved him right. He seethed at the inaction and the lack of fight. His thoughts regarding the team would resurface later on when Smart Gilas played Burger King in their opening assignment of the Philippine Cup.
But that was then. Now Giles was asked to produce the emails where the time stamps would prove part of his story, but it wasn’t enough to let him off the hook. An emergency meeting between tem officials was called. Most were predisposed to send him home and the meetings became tense.
The ramifications of the 20-point loss to Talk ‘N Text would be felt in the coming days as many in the league and in the media wondered that if the game was rigged to give the PLDT-owned team, a brother team because of it’s common patronage, an advantage in the standings.
Rabeh Al-Hussaini, the team’s new signee from the UAAP Champion Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles didn’t suit up as did his former teammate and Gilas skipper Chris Tiu. Al-Hussaini had been down with a fever for several days while Tiu was nursing a bruised thigh. Still the league was having none of it even if Gilas, still sans Giles and Tiu, suffered a double-digit and third consecutive loss to Barangay Ginebra.
Within a few days, PBA Commissioner Sonny Barrios sent Eala a letter stating that the nationals’ matches would be rendered non-bearing and the pro team’s victories over them would be nullified.
An angry SBP mulled over pulling out.
It was a public relations nightmare for both. The league’s decision was unprecedented. Never had they changed their rules midway during a tourney. Some theorized that it was the league’s way of getting back at Eala who was Barrios’ predecessor as league commissioner and who resigned in disgrace after being disbarred from his law practice after a messy marital problem. Other also said that the PBA had conspired to get back at Gilas after the Aguilar incident, the rout of Powerade, and Wynne Arboleda’s attack of a courtside fan during an extremely dirty game between Burger King and Gilas in the national’s first match of the Philippine Cup.
However the situation was complex. The PBA was a staunch member of the SBP and had been most helpful in the national endeavor. An agreement was reached to keep Gilas in the conference even if the matches were no longer counted. Giles, who had somewhat patched up his relationship with Toroman, was given a few days’ leave to attend to his son.
And by his return, the team seemed to break out of its funk as won their first game of the conference – over hardluck Coca Cola, a team not without its own share of troubles.
If anyone expected Giles to be chastened and more abiding of team rules, they should have taken those drug tests that Toroman asked of the import.
Within days of his promising that he would be a changed man, in a drunken stupor, Giles beat up his younger brother that required several stitches. And after a practice where he seemed out of it, the team’s braintrust finally had enough. Giles was sent packing. It didn’t help that Giles didn’t pass the drug test. He nervously tried to stay away from it if not delay submitting urine samples. But once he did, he nervously muttered, “I’m going to fail this.”
And the CJ Giles Experiment was over six months into it.
But within a day of his departure, the former Laker, was in Beirut where the Lebanese Champion Al Riyadi, which had long coveted him since his spectacular performance in the FIBA Champions Challenge Cup, signed him to contract. And there was talk that he would be naturalized alongside former Phoenix Sun Jackson Vroman who was a proven scoring machine.
“Him being there, if he is naturalized” noted one veteran sports scribe, “could haunt us one day.”
After the loss to Sta. Lucia, the team’s fifth in six matches, some players were of a mind that they were robbed of the win because of spotty officiating. When they added up everything that had transpired since that game with Powerade, they’re respect for the pro circuit had dwindled. “Nakakawalang respeto,” chorused several players.
While they all felt for the loss of CJ, they were quite relieved that the circus was over. “For a while it wasn’t basketball anymore,” thought Toroman. “But the good thing is, we make our adjustments now. Now while there is still time.