ONCE a national player, always a national player.
Although left out in the 20-man pool of Team Pilipinas for the fifth window of the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, veteran Asi Taulava showed up at the Meralco gym Sunday night to support the Filipinos in their tune-up game against Lebanon.
The 45-year-old NLEX center watched the game on the sidelines as he sat beside Arwind Santos, Jayson Castro, and Ricci Rivero.
Santos, Castro, and Rivero were all in street clothes and didn't play in the final game of the team's four tune-up matches heading to its two-game window against Kazakhstan (Nov. 30) and Iran (Dec. 3).
"He went on his own just to show support," said coach Yeng Guiao afterwards, appreciative of the gesture made by the 6-foot-10 Fil-Tongan who was part of the Team Pilipinas' pool in the last Jakarta Asian Games and the fourth window of the FIBA qualifiers.
Taulava quickly left the venue following Team Pilipinas' 71-58 loss, but was watching on the Filipinos' bench when Guiao fielded in teen prodigy Kai Sotto to start the second half along with the quartet of Gabe Norwood, Matthe Wright, Paul Lee, and Japeth Aguilar.
The 7-foot-2 Sotto, who was only a year old when Taulava was hailed PBA MVP in 2003, had the NLEX center and the rest of Team Pilipinas up on their feet when the Ateneo Blue Eaglet standout drove to the basket and tried to score on a two-handed slam against Ater James Majok.
The Sudanese-born Australian-Lebanese, drafted by the LA Lakers with the 58th overall pick in 2011, got a piece of the ball but made contact on the young Filipino and was whistled for a foul.
Just before Sotto was to take his two free throws, the 31-year-old Lebanese went over to the high school player and gave him a tap to the delight of the jampacked crowd.
Sotto, son of former PBA player Irvin Sotto, sank both foul shots to trim the deficit to 44-50, before he was recalled to the bench and replaced by Greg Slaughter, with Team Pilipinas and the audience giving him a well-deserved ovation.