Photo courtesy of East Ramos
When the Philippine national men’s basketball team flew to New Zealand for a training tour last July 9, the squad accomplished much more than its original goal completing its buildup for the FIBA Asia Championship in August.
The Kiwi trip was a replacement for the William Jones Cup, after tournament organizers withdrew its invitation to the SMART-Gilas Pilipinas national team amid rising tensions between the Philippines and Taiwan.
David Perez, a Filipino based in New Zealand who helped organize the tour, quickly sprung into action, providing options for Gilas coach Chot Reyes.
“I was already in contact with Chot when this happened. Chot and I had plans all set to bring the Wellington Saints to Manila to play Gilas from 17 to 21 July,” Perez told InterAKTV in an email.
“But due to the Jones Cup’s ‘uninvite,’ I asked Chot if he would consider visiting NZ to get the necessary preparation games instead of the games they would have played in the Jones Cup.”
Perez helped set up the exhibition matches with club teams as well as a showdown with the Tall Blacks, New Zealand’s vaunted national team that is ranked 18th in the FIBA World listings.
“Aside from the Wellington Saints, I was also initially pursuing the national team of New Zealand, the Tall Blacks, to play Gilas either in Manila or NZ. When they heard that Gilas had plans on coming to NZ, they finally agreed to play Gilas on the 18th of July,” said Perez.
During the trip, Gilas also got valuable inputs from veteran international coach Tab Baldwin, a former coach of New Zealand, Jordan, and Lebanon.
“When I got in touch with Coach Tab, he was very keen to help,” said Perez.
Reyes and his crew acquainted themselves well during the trip, splitting their six matches while coming close on all three of their defeats.
Photo courtesy of East Ramos
Throughout the tour, Gilas banked on the support of overseas Filipinos all over New Zealand, from Napier to Wellington to Auckland. For the basketball-crazy Pinoys, the Gilas games provided a little slice of home.
“I’ve seen heaps of basketball games back home but I would say watching the Philippine team here is different as it gives you that proud feeling, and pride combined with excitement to see your ‘kababayans’ battle against the locals,” said East Ramos, a Filipino based in Auckland who saw Gilas battle the Super City Rangers.
“It was also nice to see our fellow NZ kababayans come out and watch to support the Philippine team despite the harsh weather.”
The strong support for the Philippine team was not lost on Kiwi players and journalists, who couldn’t help but admire the Filipinos’ passion for the game.
“The vociferous Filipinos, occupying one half of the grandstand, drowned out the locals with their foot-stomping antics chants of: ‘Defence! Defence!’” wrote sports editor Anendra Singh in his report for Hawkes Bay Today after Gilas’ first match against the Hawkes Bay Hawks.
“I didn’t know we had so many Filipinos, although I’m not so sure if they live here or they are from outside the region or country and just following their national team,” Hawks captain Paora Winitana told Singh.
But beyond just carrying the country’s colors, the Philippine team brought pride by performing well in front of their countrymen.
“I think they played really good team basketball, they were well-gelled and they knew each others’ moves and roles,” said Ramos. “I was impressed with Gary David’s performance as he didn’t only rack up points, but played great defence as well especially when the team was making its run.”
Photo courtesy of Chot Reyes
Perhaps Gilas’ best result came against the Tall Blacks, a one-point loss in a highly-physical closed-door matchup. Even though the New Zealand squad had only commenced training, Reyes took pride in his players going toe-to-toe with their highly-touted rivals.
“They missed a couple of their mainstays and their tryouts just ended so they’re far from their best form yet. Still, we battled them hard,” Reyes said.
“The guys really played well, especially Marcus. This is a great way to end this tour.”
Baldwin agreed with Reyes’ assessment.
“There were some good players missing from the TBs and the TBs didn’t have many practices but it was still a pretty strong top 7-8 players so the 1-point loss is a good result when playing in NZ. Great tour in NZ for Gilas, great coaching staff and outstanding group of players to work with,” he said.
Perez thinks that the result against the Tall Blacks bodes well for the Philippines for the Asian championship.
“To be competitive versus the Tall Blacks, even though they just assembled three days ago, speaks volumes of the competitiveness of Gilas. Talent-wise, not many teams in FIBA Asia will be as talented as the team Gilas played on the 18th of July. Another thing to note is the Tall Blacks came to play hard and played physical,” said Perez.
Photo courtesy of Josh Reyes
With ample support from Filipino basketball fans in the country, New Zealand has proven itself to be an attractive destination for future training tours for the national squad. Ramos thinks that it’s a good opportunity.
“I can see both countries benefiting from a possible partnership as the Philippine style of play is more of American whereas NZ is more of the European type,” he said. “Both parties would learn a lot when they play with each other. There’s also a good chance of the Philippines learning from other sports like rugby where NZ is excellent at.”
The level of support in New Zealand for the Philippine team serves as a small preview of the FIBA Asia Championship, where Filipino fans are expected to come out in full force to back the national squad.
Ramos is hopeful that Gilas can keep up the great performance in front of the home crowd.
“I think this team would do well in this year’s FIBA Asia Championship and would end up as one of the teams in the semis if not the finals,” he said.
“They actually have a real chance at the championship.”