by Joseph Pimentel/Asianjournal.com
LOS ANGELES - The last time the Philippine National basketball team reached the Olympics in 1972, most of the players on the current roster were not born yet.
Inside the Home Depot Center in Carson, excitement fills the air. Predominantly white jerseys with a shield-crest of the Philippine flag adorn a new generation of Filipino national basketball players.
The RP team arrived in Los Angeles during the last week of March and started training at the Home Depot ADT Event Center on Monday, April 2.
The group is hoping to be the first Philippine team in 36 years and eighth RP National basketball team to qualify for the Olympics. Next year, Beijing, China is hosting the 2008 summer Olympics.
"We want to create history by being the first Philippine team in 36 years to reach the Olympics," said RP National Coach Vincent "Chot" Reyes.
After the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) lifted its suspension against the Philippines in February, Coach Chot Reyes quickly assembled the "best of the best" 12 players from the Philippine Basketball Association.
"We have a group of players that could play a lot of different positions. The guards are quick and the team as a whole could shoot the ball pretty well," said Coach Reyes. "More importantly is the excitement. These guys want to be here. They are a group of the highest paid professionals in the Philippines who are giving up their family time, vacation and rest time to come and represent the country."
"The team was put together three weeks ago [March 12] but as a group they have been playing with or against each other in the PBA for the past two years. It's going to be really exciting to see how they continue to gel," added Aboy Castro, Assistant Coach and Scout of the RP team.
The task to qualify will not be easy. The Chinese National Basketball team led by 7'6" center Yao Ming of the NBA Houston Rockets has dominated the FIBA Asia Championship for Men the past three tournaments. The tallest player on the RP team is 6'9" Asi Taulava of the PBA Talk N Text team.
"Our biggest weakness is going to be [going against] the size of China, Qatar, and Lebanon - the bigger teams in Asia. That's our biggest concern," said Coach Reyes.
Despite the odds, the coaches and players are set out to regain the dominance over Asia that once was Philippines basketball of the 1950's and 60's. But first, they have to compete against other players in tune-up games.
The RP team on Monday April 2 and Tuesday April 3 scrimmaged at the Home Depot Center against a compilation of American players who play international basketball professionally, ABA Hollywood Fame players, and Bryon Russell, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After being down by as much as 18 points on Monday, the RP National team came back and defeated the group of rogue players much to the dismay of Russell on the final score of 98-81.
"It was fun everybody had a good time. Both teams competed," said Russell. "And [on Monday] we lost to the Filipino National team. They started off slow but their very competitive and they stepped their level of play up."
Coach Hernando Planells, also of Filipino-American descent, coach of the ABA Hollywood Fame and the scrimmage, said the RP team doesn't appear to have a lot of size but they have a lot of speed that could carry them to an Olympic berth.
"From a talent perspective, and I've seen a lot of other national teams, I think they are very talented," said Coach Planells. "I truly believe they do have a great shot in qualifying for the Olympics."
Planell's rogue team with Russell blew out the RP National team by more than 20 points in the second game on Tuesday.
Jayjay Helterbrand of the PBA Barangay Ginebra Kings and member of the RP National team said after the lost that this is a learning opportunity but no reason to worry.
"We can't get down on this lost. We have to make sure we learn from it. Hopefully, we can improve and get ready for the upcoming tournament. We're playing guys that are bigger and stronger than us and just as quick so it's definitely going to help us get ready in our upcoming games versus China, and the best of Asia."
Helterbrand right now doesn't care about winning or losing games. He knows it's still early in the training process and the chemistry of the team is not there yet.
"This is only our second game we played together as a group," said Helterbrand. "Chemistry is built on playing together repeatedly. It's going to come with a lot of playing time and training together. We are the best in the Philippines but if we don't work together, we're not going to beat anybody."
Coach Reyes after the defeat said, "We're not in game shape right now."
To prepare for the rigorous training and conditioning regiment that the upcoming tournaments will require, Coach Reyes asked the assistance of the Abunassar Impact Basketball camp, which has trained NBA players Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and other prominent professional players.
Joe Abunassar, President of the Abunassar camp, said the training regiment for the RP National players start their day at 8 a.m. where they do "performance training," a series of exercises including two hours of weights training, balance and body control, and nutritional information before hitting the basketball court for another two hours to work on individual skills. After they grab lunch, the players end their day playing an intra-squad or exhibition match.
"What the games are great for is it allows you to see strengths and weaknesses. Not winning or losing but seeing where the team is at right now," said Abunassar. "These are a group of guys that really play well with each other."
The Philippine National team will continue to work out at the Home Depot Center until they depart back to the Philippines on April 13 to prepare for competition tournaments in Iraq, Thailand, Qatar, and Europe. Most importantly, the team has the date circled for the FIBA 2007 Southeast Asia Basketball Association (SEABA) tournament and The FIBA Asia Championship for Men, the Olympic qualifying tournament.
Coach Reyes is hoping to see more Filipinos in the stands cheer them on for their next few exhibition games scheduled on Saturday April 7, Tuesday April 10 and Wednesday April 11. All games start at 2 p.m.
"We need all the support we can get," said Coach Reyes.