Big crowd sends off Gilas Pilipinas
Published on February 21, 2024

Gilas Pilipinas fans came in droves Monday at the Philsports Arena in Pasig to watch an open practice and to bid the People’s Team farewell as it concluded its five-day training before flying to Hong Kong to face the No. 119-ranked home team on Feb. 22 in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers.

Gilas, ranked No. 38 in the world, then hosts No. 78 Chinese Taipei on Feb. 25 also at the Philsports Arena.

Borrowing from an inspired public relations move prior to leaving for Hangzhou, China in October 2023 to compete in the Asian Games, Gilas coach Tim Cone, back for a longer tour of duty, conducted another public workout that saw hundreds present on the eve of the 12-man team’s departure for Hong Kong.

Last year, over a thousand fans attended a combined practice by the Philippine men’s and women’s teams that was highlighted by a surprise interaction between the players of both teams and the fans inside the Philsports playing court, flavoring the moment with an All-Star atmosphere. Cone then took to the microphone that evening and invited the audience to watch for free a tuneup game between Gilas and a team from Korea a few days later.  

This time, nearly the same number of people filled the upper box section of the facility for the 6 p.m. workout, with the national players drawing lengthy applause as soon as they walked in for a shootaround from a packed press conference arranged by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas earlier.

Spectator interaction reached its highlight after practice wrapped up, with the fans allowed to line up, section by section, by the ringside rail for autographs and selfies with the team members.

The media interview was in itself a novelty, with Cone ushering into the room a batch of four Gilas players after another for a Q&A session involving no less than a combined 70 registered media practitioners, from radio, TV, online and print, as well as photographers and cameramen.

Cone was later joined by SBP president Al S. Panlilio and SBP Executive Director Erika Dy.

Panlilio extolled Cone’s virtue as a coach and expounded on why the decision to have the two-time PBA Grand Slam coach mastermind Gilas’ four-year program, connecting the Paris Olympics this year with the 2028 Olympiad in Los Angeles, was a virtual no-brainer.

“Hands down for me, Tim Cone has proven himself many times over,” Panlilio said. “That Asian Games [gold] medal was delivered by Tim. To me, there’s no other choice except to really offer it to Tim.”

Only if Cone had turned down the overture, said Panlilio, would he had been forced to look elsewhere.

But after Cone said yes, things moved swiftly between the two.

“My aspiration in the last World Cup was at least two wins but we fell short. We haven’t had two wins in the World Cup. And if you notice, the Top 16, there was no Asian team. We are all in the bottom. Maybe we can do better next time,” Panlilio said.

“A lot of this vision and this aspiration was due to the discussions with Tim. I also have to understand how Tim is thinking about the whole process. And he did say that we always want to be the best in Southeast Asia for sure, and we always want to be the top team in Asia. We started that with the Asian gold last year and we carry that for the next four years.

“We want to improve every time. If you talk about the World Cup, we qualified in the last three… We want to qualify again to the next World Cup but we want to do better.”

Cone, for his part, said having been chosen national coach again presented a significantly noble meaning.

“I feel like I’m a caretaker of something that is very sacred. It’s something that I grow up with,” he said.

Making it to the Olympics, Cone said, remains the ultimate goal – but not their focus.

“Our focus is, what’s going to take us to get there? And that’s that day-to-day process that we’re going to battle. This window here is a part of the process and it’s going to take us forward, get us advanced,” he said.

“Yes, it’s important that we win, but it’s even more important that we build a foundation from which we can bring into the next window and from which we can bring into the next one and the next one after that.”

Both June Mar Fajardo and AJ Edu were present during the open workout but only as spectators, due to injuries, with Cone lamenting that Gilas would be missing “6-foot-11 and 6-foot-10 players.”

Manning the paint against Hong Kong and Chinese-Taipei would be 7-footer Kai Sotto, 6-foot-7 Carl Tamayo and 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar, who missed Gilas’ public appearance to be with his wife who delivered the couple’s second child. In attendance Monday were naturalized player Justin Brownlee, Scottie Thompson, Jamie Malonzo, Calvin Oftana, CJ Perez, Chris Newsome, Dwight Ramos and reigning UAAP MVP Kevin Quiambao.

Aguilar is on total recall for Gilas in the initial FIBA Qualifiers in lieu of Edu.

Gilas kicked off training for the first window of the Qualifiers on Feb. 15 at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna, which was closed off to the public.