BATANG Gilas is vying for top honors in the ongoing Fiba Under-18 Asian Championship in Thailand, while the seniors’ squad is making do with a makeshift crew as it flies the flag in the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
So as two national basketball teams try to make the country proud in different divisions, a former national coach has aired his educated thoughts on how our teams can excel on the international stage.
Appearing on retired PBA star Eric Menk’s “Staying Major” podcast recently published on YouTube, former Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin talked about the ingrained hoops culture of this basketball-crazy country and how it hinders local players from becoming more successful.
In short, Philippine basketball needs a change in culture for its teams to succeed internationally, Baldwin said.
“I think there’s a blinder on the Philippine basketball landscape because this country has been so good in basketball for so long that it becomes insular; it doesn’t look outside enough, and when it does look outside, it looks only at the US, and it’s a big mistake, because we can’t be the US. It’s simply impossible,” the veteran coach said in an excerpt of his hour-long chat with Menk.
“So our cultural development here as a basketball nation has revolved around really streetball which has dominated so much of the play in this country – and it is entertaining, and it is fun, and it will work inside the borders of the country,” he added.
“But if you want to be successful outside, you’ve got to rise to the level of your opponents, and when your style of basketball can be exploited by disciplined, intelligent teams, and they will force you to innumerable mistakes, you have to look at yourself,” the American-Kiwi mentor continued.
Baldwin, who led Gilas to a silver-medal finish in the 2015 Fiba Asia Championship in Changsha, China, “encapsulated” the Philippine style of basketball “from a negative standpoint as opposed to what we should be.”
“It’s very simply this: that in Philippine basketball, you put the ball in a player’s hands, and that player sees what he can do to create for himself. When that runs into a wall, then he gives it to somebody else who does the same thing,” the current Ateneo coach said.
“Great basketball is played by players, who, whatever they do on the floor, they do it to see what they could create for their teammates. That’s why this was created as a team game. It wasn’t created as a ‘your turn, my turn’ style of play. It was created as ‘let’s see what we can cohesively do together to create the most efficient outcome,’” he added.
Baldwin has done a remarkable job in instilling that mentality in the Blue Eagles, transforming the superstar-less Katipunan-based dribblers into a well-oiled machine that thrives on team play – on the way to ruling the UAAP last season.
Baldwin, who led the New Zealand Tall Blacks to a historic semifinal appearance in the 2002 world championships (now Fiba World Cup), said most players and teams in the Philippines are still blinded by the deep-rooted culture of hero ball, preventing them from accepting changes.
“I think we’re in conflict with that in this country all the time because we have great, great basketball players who really don’t know how to use their skill to help one another in their play,” Baldwin, who also coached the national teams of Jordan, Lebanon, and Malaysia and club teams in Turkey, Greece, and Romania, explained.
“It’s not that they’re selfish. It’s not that they don’t want to do that. It’s just that the culture hasn’t evolved to allow them to do that, so in some ways, they're victims of the culture,” he added.
Baldwin was frank enough to mention his former player at Gilas Pilipinas, isolation sensation Terrence Romeo, as a prime example.
“I love Terrence. I think he’s a tremendous player, but you take the ball out of his hands, he has a hard time being effective on the floor,” Baldwin said. “Put the ball in his hands, he can do amazing things either from his hands to the rim or his hands to a shooter.”
“But Terrence would have very few of what we call ‘hockey assists’ – reading one step beyond what happens when the ball leaves his hands – and this is where I think great basketball and great basketball players live,” he added.
And for Filipino cagers to be successful as a unit on the bigger stages, Baldwin feels the first step is acknowledgement that there’s something to be fixed.
“I think it’s kinda like being an alcoholic: you got to admit there’s a problem first,” Baldwin said. “And I think that’s difficult, and I understand that. I understand because basketball in this country is on a high. It’s always on a high, it’s been on a high for seventy, eighty years, so it’s very difficult when you’re having so much success to look at yourself and say, ‘What’s wrong?’”
“And yet as a coach, you got to do that constantly. When I went to Ateneo, it was a learning curve all over again for me,” he added. “If I had been stubborn and arrogant, and said, ‘look, my way or the highway’, I’d probably be out of that job already. You’ve got to adapt yourself to where you think should be. And I think every coach should aspire to be a great coach.”
Baldwin pointed to European basketball as a place where Filipinos can learn from, pointing to new Phoenix Suns coach Igor Kokoskov, the first NBA head coach to be born and raised outside North America, as an example.
“There are many European coaches on NBA staffs now,” Baldwin said. “They get it in the US. They get that the best basketball is played from an intellectual standpoint in Europe, so they’re trying to blend that with great athleticism and the great culture of America.”
“But we don’t get that here,” he was quick to add. “And until we get that, there’s not gonna be a desire to change. So, you know, climb the highest mountain, shout into the wilderness all you want, but until people are prepared to listen, we’re not gonna change.”
Baldwin believes that talent and ceiling are hardly issues anymore for Filipino cagers.
“There’s no reason – with the talent that we have in this country – when people talk about, ‘Oh, we’re not big’ – (that's) rubbish. We have plenty of big people in this country. We don’t have scores of them, but we have plenty to make a roster of 12 guys,” he said.
“But until we teach these guys, until the message gets through that you got to play a certain way, we’re not going to be successful. And yet, there’s no excuse for us not to be successful at the highest level. We should be a Top 15 basketball nation in the world in my opinion,” he added.