A DECADE ago, a courageous program to pump life into the Philippine national basketball team was launched.
Chris Tiu, JVee Casio, Mark Barroca, and Dylan Ababou - then the creme of the crop in college basketball - were among those assembled to form a pool under Serbian coach Rajko Toroman as the newly formed Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) rebooted the national team program after taking over from the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP).
Greg Slaughter, Mac Baracael, Jason Ballesteros, and RJ Jazul soon hopped into the bandwagon as the SBP, attempting to address the perennial club team vs country row - assembled a team which can represent the country any time, much like the Northern Consolidated squad of Ron Jacobs decades earlier.
Years later, the architect of that original Smart Gilas side couldn't help but wonder how different the team would have been had he got a few players more in his roster.
"There were some players that were on our wish list, but we couldn't have them," admitted Toroman, baring that as much talent as Gilas 1.0 had assembled, not all were able to heed the call.
Easily, Paul Lee is on top of that list.
Already one of the most dangerous scorers in the amateur ranks at that time, the Tondo-born guard was one of the biggest ommissions when the team was bared. He in fact even showed up for the team's practices twice.
So what happened?
"Umattend ako ng dalawang practice ng Gilas, pero maraming kasabay yung national team that time. Nasa UE pa ako, and then may practice pa ako sa Cobra sa PBL," he recounted.
Lee had to make a choice: punish his body in three-a-day practices across three different teams, or to pass on the national team opportunity, in the hope that there will always be a next time.
He chose the latter.
"Parang it's too much na kung mag-thrice a day practice ako," he recalled. "Pinagisipan ko na lang kung ano ang kailangan kong i-give up. Sabi ko, 'In God's plan, in God's time, makakapaglaro din ako sa national team.'"
Halfway across the world, Chris Banchero also faced the same dilemma.
Banchero was in his junior year at Seattle Pacific University when the SBP came calling. The Fil-Italian guard was coming off a stellar year, having led the Falcons to the championship in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference to earn a Division II All-American nod.
"They asked me to come down to Las Vegas and try out for the Gilas program. I did pretty well and Rajko wanted me to join," Banchero said.
The problem, though, was he had a year left to earn his degree in International Communications in Business, on top of his aspirations of making it to the NBA.
"I decided that I was gonna get my degree first and I will go from there," he said. "It wasn't a tough decision because at that time, I wanted to go to the NBA. I was an All-American in college and I was getting looks from NBA scouts. It wasn't until I got hurt and tore my ACL in my senior year that I missed out on that opportunity."
It was almost the same situation for Sean Anthony, who even took the time to go to the country just to train with the all-amateur national team that was later reinforced by naturalized player Marcus Douthit.
"Coach Rajko said that he thought I had a lot of potential and he would need to see me more. I had one final semester at school, but I had the whole summer so I practiced with the guys here in the Philippines," the Fil-Canadian forward shared. "That whole summer, we were doing three-a-days, and then a bunch of exhibition games. We even went to Japan for a bunch of exhibition series."
Midnight, however, came when summer ended. Anthony had to go back to McGill University to finish his degree in Physical Education.
"I returned to go back to school after that summer. By the time I finished school, there wasn't a spot for me anymore," he said.
Down South, a big man by the name of June Mar Fajardo was on the rise, with the young giant catching the attention of the SBP just by his sheer size.
As much of a golden opportunity as it may have seemed, the Cebuano slotman knew better than to answer the SBP call. Fajardo simply felt he was still too green to prove his worth among some of college basketball's elite.
"Sabi nila na gusto akong kunin ng Gilas 1.0. Sabi ko, hindi muna kasi sobrang bata ko pa, wala pa akong masyadong experience. Ang nasa isip ko pag pumunta ako ng Manila, wala pang nakakakilala sa akin, baka humina lang ang kumpyansa ko, mas ma-homesick ako, at ma-down lang ako," he said.
Fajardo heeded the advice of then University of Cebu coach Rhoel Gomez and handler Atty. Baldomero Estenzo as he respectfully declined the Gilas chance, in the hope that the next time an invite comes, he'll be more than ready to fly the flag.
"Minabuti ko muna na di pumunta. Sabi ni coach Rhoel, 'Dito ka muna sa Cebu, mag-build ka muna ng fundamentals at gumawa muna ng pangalan. Pag pumunta ka sa Manila na wala kang pangalan, baka i-look down ka lang kasi baka hindi mo ma-reach yung expectations nila,'" he said.
"Gusto ko lang na ma-develop ako. Gusto ko rin mag-improve kasi sobrang walang wala ako, late na ako naglaro ng basketball," the 6-10 slotman added. "Tinuruan nila ako ng husto para maging ready ako pagdating ko ng Manila."
Years later and here they are, stars in the PBA and living up to everyone's expectations, just like how Toroman envisioned them to be.
Lee went on to become the No. 2 pick in the 2011 PBA Draft. He has since become a Rookie of the Year, three-time PBA champion with Rain or Shine and Magnolia, and has been named the Best Player of the Conference in the 2018 Governor's Cup.
Anthony entered the draft a year earlier, where he was picked sixth in the 2010 PBA Draft. Although he has bounced around through seven teams in his nine-year pro career, he has become a cornerstone of the NorthPort franchise, with a Mythical Second Team nod back in 2016 to boot.
Banchero took a longer route to the Philippines,spending time in the Asean Basketball League (ABL) with San Miguel before Alaska picked him fifth in the 2015 PBA Draft. He is now the starting guard of the Aces side under Alex Compton.
As for Fajardo, well, he already has a Hall of Fame-worthy career in his seven years in the league. The record-holder for most MVP awards (five) and Best Player of the Conference honors (eight), he continues to be the bar in the PBA, winning seven championships and counting for the powerhouse San Miguel side.
No wonder Fajardo's non-inclusion in the Smart Gilas program was one of Toroman's biggest regrets.
"I regret not having Fajardo as a part of Gilas program," he said.
The quartet, meanwhile, feel otherwise, believing that their decision years back led to them being in the place they are now.
"Walang panghihinayang kasi nagbunga naman lahat ng maganda. Feel ko tama naman yung naging choice ko," said Lee.
Fajardo agreed, saying: "Kung ano ako ngayon, yun ang bunga ng training ko sa Cebu. Pinagtatawanan ako dati kasi walang-wala talaga ako. Pero yung mga coach ko doon, sobrang tine-train ako at yun ang nag-mold sa akin."
It was the same for Banchero.
"I'm very happy with where I'm at, very happy with my life," said Banchero. "Sometimes, that's just the way it works out. Probably, I'll be in a different position on a different team if I accepted it, but I also wouldn't have had my college degree which I'm very happy I did, not just for me and my family, but for my mother. That was very important for her."
Anthony had no regrets, too, saying, "I gave it my best shot, flew all the way out to the Philippines and stayed here the whole summer for that shot. I did everything I could. If I stayed with the team, it still wasn't a secured spot and I still had to earn it. I still had a lot of work to do."
Fajardo and Lee eventually found their way to the team, donning the national colors most prominently in the 2014 Fiba World Cup in Seville, Spain. The two are also shoo-ins for Yeng Guiao's Gilas team in the 2019 World Cup in China in August.
"Nakabalik ako sa national team so no regrets," said the fearless Hotshots guard.
Fajardo said it was meant to be.
"Kung para sa yo yun, para sa yo yun," he said. "Sabi nila coach Rhoel at Atty. Estenzo, kung yung PBA para sa yo, para sa yo at darating ka dyan. Kung yung Gilas para sa yo, darating din yan. Pero dapat ready ka lang kasi maraming sumali sa Gilas pero nawala din kasi hindi sila ready. Dapat handa ka na at malakas ang loob mo."
Banchero and Anthony are still waiting for their Gilas chance.
"I have a Smart Gilas jersey at home, I have a practice jersey so I wore the Philippine colors," the tireless Batang Pier forward said. "I really wish I could represent the Philippines for my family."
Banchero felt the same way, saying, "I wish I could represent the Philippines in a competition because I'm a proud Filipino. I think every Filipino wants to do that. I would love to do that if that ever happens and I'll be very blessed to represent the Philippines, but we'll see."