CHRISTIAN Standhardinger has already established himself as one of the best big men in the PBA. The Fil-German with the unorthdox playing style was both an integral and intriguing piece whenever he played for the Gilas Pilipinas national team.
But a decade back, only a few knew how good Standhardinger was. Noli Eala was one of those.
The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) executive director back then, Eala was one of the few people who saw the immense potential in the 6-foot-9 bruiser, who was then playing in the US NCAA.
"Christian was really on our radar. He was a big man, we saw his film and coach Rajko (Toroman) was impressed by him," he recounted.
Back in 2008, the original Smart Gilas national team was in its formative years, enlisting amateur players as they scoured the best collegiate talent in the land.
"At that time, ang idea is to form that all-amateur national team para hindi na ma-disrupt ang PBA, so we got a dedicated team made up of the top collegiate players in the land," said Eala.
"The first part was the collegiate players, and then the second part was to get the Fil-foreign talents."
Standhardinger was part of the wave of Fil-foreign names that the SBP initially referred to Eala, who shared, "Ang nag-refer sa akin kay Christian was Nardy Madrasto, who also gave us the names of Stanley Pringle and Chris Banchero."
In 2009, the federation got hold of Standhardinger through his Filipina mom Elizabeth, whom Eala described as "a very nice woman."
Standhardinger, then a gangly 20-year-old, was coming off his first year in Nebraska, where he averaged 8.1 points on 40-percent shooting, and 3.8 rebounds for the Cornhuskers in the US NCAA.
But as promising as the prospect was, Elizabeth wanted Christian to first finish his Business Management degree before making other commitments.
"Sabi ng mother niya, 'I want him to finish his studies first.' They were very thankful for the offer, but she wanted Christian to finish his studies. Patapusin muna si Christian and then we'll talk after college," Eala recalled.
It was a tough no for the SBP to take, but Eala said that they understood the Standhardingers' position, which was in consonance with the mandate given to them by SBP chairman Manny V. Pangilinan.
"Wala namang commitment. And we did not want to bypass the parents because that's part of the instructions na ibinigay sa amin," he said. "We had to go through the right channels and ayaw din naman namin na maapektuhan yung college eligibility niya when you talk to agents. It was his mother who represented him and they were very open, but we never really spoke directly to Christian."
Eala eventually left his SBP post in 2011 and admitted that he had lost contact of Standhardinger since then, only catching up with the banger when he played for Hong Kong Eastern in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL).
"After that, hindi na kami nakapag-usap and hindi ko na rin na-follow up. It was only years after na nakausap ko si Christian and he said he knew about it, but it was just the timing. I suppose pana-panahon lang talaga," he shared.
Eala, however, believes that Standhardinger would have been an absolute game-changer had he committed to the national team back then.
"Christian would have been perfect for Rajko's system. He's the perfect big kasi he's a great passer and pasok na pasok siya sa sistema ni Rajko 'cause he's a good screen and roll player. He would have benefited playing for that system 'cause he's a guy that's very active," he said.
"Sa sistema ni Rajko, we really wanted him and be a centerpiece. You remember that time, we're developing that core of Chris Tiu, Mark Barroca, Jvee Casio, Dylan Ababou, Mark Baracael, and Jason Ballesteros, and then you still had Japeth Aguilar, Marcio Lassiter, and Chris Lutz. So imagine that, Christian would have been perfect with Japeth and the shooters that we had."
Standhardinger's commitment then would have also helped his citizenship status, the same way the SBP did with Lassiter and Lutz, who, like him failed to secure their Philippine passports before turning 16.
"Kung nandoon sana siya, he would have been in the same boat as Marcio and Chris Lutz na di na siya ma-consider as a naturalized," Eala said. "Nagawan sana ng paraan ng SBP eventually na yung passport requirement ay maayos para makapaglaro siya for Gilas as a local."
It's something that Eala still regrets to this day.
"If he accepted that offer initially, maybe he would not have a status na naturalized player," he said. "Sayang kasi at that time, we didn't ask him to be a full-time player like the others. All we wanted was for him to accept the offer and play for us from time-to-time kasi pinapayagan naman sa college yung maglaro para sa national team.
"Iran was doing that for (Arsalan) Kazemi, same with (Rui) Hachimura of Japan. There are many cases like that and that's what we were offering, without him losing his college eligibility and still play for the national team. But the mom maybe wanted him to focus on his studies and in the NCAA. And mahirap din na lumipad pabalik-balik dito, and we understood that."
If Standhardinger chose to accept that, Eala is firm in his belief that the all-amateur Smart Gilas program would have been a tremendous success.
"Kung pumasok si Christian and we were able to get guys like Pringle, Banchero, and the other players to the program, I think we would have been able to compete pretty well. And if nakuha namin si June Mar (Fajardo) and Greg (Slaughter) full-time, I'm confident that we'll be really able to compete," he said.
"Yung idea and experiment na us having a dedicated national team would have ran its full course, kasi di talaga nabuo yung four-year cycle eh. The whole marching order in 2009 is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
"It was a four-year program, but ang realistic time sa amin is that in 2013, all players are fully developed already, and if we have gotten additional players, for sure that would have been a strong team. Juxtapose that program to the future, it would have been a successful experiment kasi later on, from the amateurs din naman yung ibang umakyat sa Gilas."
Of course, those plans didn't come to be as Toroman was fired and Eala soon left the SBP.
From supplanting reinforcements, the PBA players eventually were called up to form the Gilas Pilipinas squad under coach Chot Reyes, winning the silver medal in the 2013 Fiba Asia Championship here and advancing to the 2014 Fiba World Cup in Spain.
For Eala, it was a missed opportunity for the Philippines to place its full belief in the process, as years later, the same model that Smart Gilas followed has been resurrected, this time with Tab Baldwin at the helm.
That's one big 'what if?'
"Iba ang naging takbo, may mga nag-intervene, and naging impatient tayo sa results, so hindi natin nakita yung full effect ng program na all-amateurs. I can understand the rationale, us wanting to win right away. It was an expensive program and hindi madali yung ginawa namin, but there are reasons why na-expedite yung process," he said.
"Pero babalikan din naman pala yun, that the core of the team also came from the amateurs. Sana tinapos na yung cycle, tinignan kung ano resulta. Kasi after that, tuluy- tuloy na yun eh. After four years, those who first got in will graduate and papasok na sa PBA, tapos papasok naman yung bagong batch. That was the program, na tuluy-tuloy na lang yun na para bang it's one step for the amateurs before you turn pro."
For his part, Standhardinger eventually got to represent the Philippines and proceeded to the PBA, where he is now the top dog for NorthPort.
Hindsight is 20/20, and as much as there are regrets for Eala when it comes to Standhardinger, he's just happy to see him blossom to the star that the SBP envisioned him to be a decade earlier.
"At least, nandito na siya at nakikita na natin kung gaano siya kagaling," he said.