They say the only constant thing in this whirling dervish of life is change.
However, if we were to put Philippine basketball under a microscope, you would say that our culture in the sport we so love over everything is anything but willing to change.
People still cling to the archaic methods to play basketball here. One-on-one, sariling sikap, showmanship basketball is how we describe this type of basketball. It is something born out of being enamored by NBA basketball, which was brought to the country by our American colonizers. We rely on ISOs too much and our player development is whack.
Right now, basketball on the world stage is at a faster pace and putting an emphasis, and added premium, to the creation, management, and maximizing of space. There is more freedom in players being versatile and having the ability to play up to four positions. Efficiency and multi-positional are the keywords in how we play the game at an organized level nowadays.
What about locally?
We’re still stuck playing slow, grind-out basketball that relies heavily on isolation rather than the crisp passing. We still rely on the inefficient and challenged mid-range jumpers than open corner threes and easy layups off great sets. To people, transcendent talent still takes more importance than beautiful team basketball.
It was quite an eye-opener when Ateneo Blue Eagles consultant (we can’t use head coach, because you know, BCAP’s Peenoise Pride) Tab Baldwin spoke openly in Eric Menk’s podcast about what changes need to be done culturally for Philippine basketball to thrive.
For one, the concept of team basketball here is giving it to the best player on the floor, or whoever has the best handles, to break down and create for tightly-contested drives or jump shots in crowded areas. “The problem is there is a blinder on the Philippine basketball landscape. When we look outside, we only focus on what the US is doing and that is a big mistake. In Philippine basketball, you put a ball in somebody’s hands and create for himself. If he runs to a wall, they give it up to another who does the same. To me, great basketball is when players do whatever they can to create for themselves and their teammates, since this is a team game, to have the most efficient outcome. The culture has not evolved to allow them to do that,” he shared in Menk’s podcast.
To emphasize his point, Baldwin used Terrence Romeo as an example. With the ball in his hands, Bro can do lots of things. He is great at breaking down defenses and he is great at creating his own space, but when you take the ball out of his hands, as Coach Tab pointed out in the podcast, the threat level is zero percent.
He shared in another interview that we should all aspire to play the European model of basketball instead of our very Americanized version.
“It’d be in the best interest of Philippine basketball if we had more of an eye to European basketball due to the quality and efficiency of that game as opposed to the more athletic game of the US. The game was invented as a team game and the fact that you have four other players on the floor with you, when you start talking about ISO, they get in the way, but if you learn to use one another as players, then you’re going to get better basketball despite being a great individual player,” said Baldwin. “You do not need to be a great individual player at the exclusion of your teammates. They should see what their teammates are doing when they are on the floor, to have a vision that allows them to anticipate and not just react. The distinction between those two things in basketball is huge but it is big here in the Philippines. Players only react, playing in their own cylinder, instead of with the five players on the court. So constantly, what other people are doing tends to surprise them so they react to that offensively or defensively.”
Multiple coaches have agreed with what Coach Tab has said. One such coach is Bo Perasol, who many have criticized for relying too much on one single player when it comes to his teams. “Coach Tab made a good position. For us to be able to change that, we have to change our mindset. Dito kasi sa atin, mas sikat ka pag mas marami kang bola, naishoo-shoot, but then again it goes against the grain of teamwork. It is not just about the teamwork but about achieving more. What can you achieve more using the philosophy that advocates teamwork, more passing, creating for somebody, especially us. Mahirap na we have a system that is going backwards instead of forward. I think it will take time, but as they see what Coach Tab is doing at Ateneo, more coaches would learn.”
Another coach who agreed was Adamson assistant Don Allado. “This is team ball, this is five-on-five. One-on-one players are good to sell you tickets and sell out a stadium, but they’re not going to win you many championships because the game is played five-on-five and not one-on-five.”
Remember that episode in the popular basketball anime’ “Slam Dunk” where Shohoku’s Coach Anzai told star freshman Kaede Rukawa that while he is good he still lacks what will make him great? Individual talent is nice, but being able to utilize and turn your teammates into weapons is an even greater achievement as it leads to not just personal glory, but wins high team morale.
Meanwhile, for Perasol, it was surreal when he took his team to Serbia and trained with European coaches and teams. He pointed out how the coaches overseas focus on the little things, the mechanics, and the proper positioning as well as reading movements, for a player and for a coach.
“The player development is actually what I think is my burden as a coach when I went around in the US and in Belgrade. Sino ba dapat ang magturo sa atin dito so that the kids would know the basics of basketball, position of the feet, passing, reading and reacting, lahat ng skills na tinuturo individually, hindi lang as a class. We have very good teachers like Coach Ronnie Magsanoc. Their attention to detail is similar to how Serbians really put stock in how players even move. They go down to the little things like where your knee should be facing when in a defensive stance,” he shared.
Going back to the podcast with Eric Menk, another key point for Tab Baldwin is how boxing players into positions is stunting their growth as players. For him, a basketball player is a basketball player regardless of position. Whether you are seven feet or below six feet, as long as you can play on the court, you should not shy away from developing skills meant for players of other sizes. Big men should learn guard skills while the guards should learn big man skills, especially in today’s basketball.
“I am exclusively of the belief that every basketball player should be a basketball player and should master all the skills there are in the game. They should commit themselves if they want to be great in the game and they should not just be pigeonholed in one position or one type of action because it becomes predictable, and when you become predictable, you are easier to guard,” Baldwin said in another interview.
Allado said that he didn’t let positional labels stop him from shooting the leather in an era where big men must be parked down low exclusively, and pointed out that developing other skills to be versatile is important to enjoy a fruitful career.
“Your game has to evolve and not be cornered into just one role. It is good to be a threat anywhere at any time, and that is always my principle. I cannot just be, ‘Oh I’m a power forward’ and label myself to be just inside the paint and shoot mid-range jumpers,” said Allado. “For you to be effective and for you to sustain a solid career, your game has to evolve. You have to be changing it up all the time so you can stay relevant in the game and compete. Why? The game has changed. The game has evolved. Gone are the days where you can have plays where you just straight give me the ball and get out of the way.”
Thinking of it, if you are Jerrick Ahanmisi and find yourself in the post with a smaller guard, what do you do or what if your three-point shot is denied and you had to take one dribble and pull-up from midrange? Or how about if you are Papi Sarr, wide open from 20-22 feet out, would you reset or take that open shot, the best available, at the moment? Or Sean Manganti(tokounmpo), all 6’5” of you bringing the ball down and directing the set, as Allado puts it, “Sean realizing what he can do to be the best version of himself for us.”
This rise of multi-positional basketball, brought about by the Golden State Warriors’ lineup of death with no true big man, is something the Philippines has been slow to catch on. It’s quite a breath of fresh air that newly-minted UE Red Warriors Coach Joe Silva is giving his players free reign.
“Players can do everything now. My players are quite surprised that I am allowing them to take three-pointers, even the bigs. The game is evolving and it is necessary for them if they want to go to the next level to be equipped with those skills,” shared Silva. During his time with the Blue Eaglets, he would allow 7’1″ Kai Sotto to take threes, while now with the Red Warriors, he has Alvin Pasaol at his disposal.
Truth be told, what he’s employing is nothing new. If we go back to the days of Frankie Lim, another one of the perpetrators of breaking the basketball status quo of dominating ISO players, by utilizing a literally sweet-shooting big man (Yousif Aljamal was a deadshot, deadshotter than Mick Penissi can ever be) to stretch his floor back with San Beda run. He’s replicating the same thing over at the University Of Perpetual Help by surrounding his outstanding big man, Prince Eze, with a host of shooters like Gelo Razon and a superb ball screen guard in Ed Charcos.
Probably the best example of coaches adapting modern basketball at the moment is that of Letran’s Jeff Napa and Lyceum’s Topex Robinson. They have been playing unconventional lineups that actually work and, from a fan’s standpoint, interesting to watch in terms of synergy and actual chemistry that has a nice output on the floor, which was on full display last August 17.
For Letran, Jeo Ambohot, all 6’7” of him, is now shooting threes and doing small forward things, and has even shown good ballhandling skills while a Bong Quinto, who stands at roughly 6’2”-3”, is doing all the dirty work down low, punishing smaller wingmen that opposing teams put on him. They also have another versatile wing in Jerrick Balanza.
On the other side of the fence, Topex has been putting the Marcelino twins as his guards while MJ Ayaay and CJ Perez interchange at the forward spots PER POSSESSION. To emphasize the interchangeability of these players, there’s LPU big man Mike Nszeusseu hoisting it from downtown more frequently this season.
But if you switch to watching the PBA, this beauty in college basketball is entirely lost. We’re back to superstars scraping for their points night in and night out. The only ones running a semblance of orchestrated sets are the likes of San Miguel (Junemar not relying too much on ISO), Ginebra (which is deviating quite a bit from the ISO-centric triangle), and probably NLEX (Yeng Guiao is REALLY good).
It is back to boring old one-on-one basketball. It is not fun watching sariling sikap at all. At times it sure is called for, but to see it every possession and every play? Lord God, please poke our eyes out after the spoiling by that magnificent Jones Cup showing of Ateneo that displayed what team basketball can do, no matter the personnel or team.
With the UAAP over the horizon, the PBA recently opening its last conference, and the NCAA hot on its own hardcourt wars (which are so damn good we tell you), every day would be a spectacle of coaches who are trying to change the culture of Philippine basketball and coaches who still cling to archaic methods. Y’all are soon going to realize that the major points of the podcast that tackled the current state of Philippine basketball holds water and that if we want to start to get recognized for more than Puso, we have our work cut out for us.
The chase is on for the maddening revamp of this broken culture.
The chase is on for the time we will hear folks say “Grabe yung skill at disiplina ng Pilipino sa labang ito” instead of “Grabe yung pusong pinapakita ng Pilipino sa labang ito.”
It all takes a collection of brave and bold voices to start it. And dear God, everyone in Humblebola hopes the likes of Tab Baldwin, Topex Robinson, Jeff Napa, and Joe Silva, are the ones to make us all face the music as basketball-loving people.