When Coach Yeng Guiao first took over head coaching duties for the Gilas Pilipinas team, it felt like it would be a perfect fit— at the time. At the time, Gilas Pilipinas was looking good, in terms of basketball prowess, Gilas was improving talent-wise, but along the way the progress, the upgrades, the milestones, they seemed to have gotten to their head.
What made coach Yeng perfect for the job at the time was the fact that Gilas was short handed, both because of suspensions but also because of perceived politicking within the ranks of the powers-that-be who green light letting players suit up for the national team. Coach Yeng was seen as a bridge that could appease parties coming from all sides and at the same time make do with a decimated pool of players.
Having built his coaching career out of squeezing every ounce of potential out of his players, coach Yeng was expected to bring the same kind of leadership to the international stage. And he did. The first game Gilas Pilipinas played under his tutelage, it was such a joy to see such deliberate and conscious ball movement being executed by the team. An offensive system built on trusting his players to make the right decision, it was diskarte basketball, Pilipinas basketball at its finest— for a while.
Fast forward to 2019 and sports fans’ expectations over the program and coach Yeng have chipped away from the warm reception he initially received. Lackluster performances were initially excused away by the lack of options and preparation, then when reality began to hit Gilas hard, a string of good games made all the doubts just go away. Unfortunately, qualifying for the FIBA World Cup by the skin of their teeth sent a wrong message that all was well, leading the-powers-that-be to commit to the preparations of Gilas Pilipinas, but not all the way.
Again, coach Yeng Guiao was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was called to work his magic and somehow make do with a limited choice of players and limited preparation time. By the time he made his final roster for the FIBA World Cup tournament, 3 slots were reserved for exhausted players coming straight off a Finals stint, 2 of the best shooters in the pool were sidelined with injuries and 3 likely candidates begged off for personal reasons.
But hey, this is Philippine basketball. Laban! Puso! Those are all that matter.
Then we watched in horror as our fears turned into reality. Nobody wanted to say it, nobody wanted to point it out, at least among the Filipino fans, but as the tournament went on, it became dreadfully apparent just how ill-prepared Gilas was. Reality check, Filipino fans weren’t expecting Gilas to blow out the likes of Serbia, Italy or Angola, or that they would win against the powerhouse teams. Filipino fans aren’t that greedy. Remember when we were celebrating losing to Argentina, Croatia and even losing by double digits to Greece? Filipino fans just want Gilas to show the world that we, as Filipinos, short average height and all, belong on the world stage of basketball.
Sure, the performances in the first phase could be written off as simply facing much tougher opponents than before, heck Gilas had that one competitive game against Angola. There was no writing off what happened in the classification round. There’s losing, then there’s long badly and then there’s losing badly to teams you know very well you were capable of beating. Iran, a familiar opponent in FIBA Asia tournaments, one that Gilas has in recent years already learned to hurdle, was allowed to build a sizeable lead, one that no amount of laban and puso from CJ Perez or Robert Bolick could come back from in the final minutes.
It became painfully apparent how deep the problems of Gilas ran. There was no way to diskarte out of this. People began pointing fingers on who to blame in this major set back for Philippine basketball. Was it the players’ fault? The culture? The system? The bosses? Ask coach Yeng Guiao and he’ll give you one answer, “Me.” While not all the blame can be pinned on coach Yeng, if he is to be faulted for something, it is for taking on a task too big for him.
Coach Yeng Guiao’s penchant for the unorthodox and surprise factor didn’t serve them well. When the opponents’ guards are as tall but more agile than your forwards and centers, asking your ball handlers to look for and recognize their own scoring opportunities becomes a nearly impossible task. Even when he dug deep into his technical basketball knowledge, there simply wasn’t enough for him to draw from. He knew it, facing the best the world has to offer, he had never done it before and just didn’t have enough ammo in his clip.
Yet through all the build-up that came before the World Cup, you get the sense that, coach Yeng Guiao, Gilas Pilipinas, with the odds already stacked against them, weren’t really given a fighting chance, not even by the people who were supposed to be looking out for them. And for all the disagreements I and many basketball fans may have with coach Yeng, there is no denying that he is a class act with the interest of Philippine basketball at heart.
On the court, Coach Yeng is hard on his players. He is hard on the referees too. He is ready to scold them at a moment’s notice. Yet off the court he is not one hold back praise for his wards, but he is, however, hard on himself. Where he is quick to scold others, he is quick to take the blame for his misgivings as well.
By tendering his resignation as head coach of Gilas Pilipinas, he allowed the-powers-that-be a clean slate to re-evaluate and rebuild the basketball program that will represent the Philippines for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. If nothing else, coach Yeng is a class act, knowing how to exit programs gracefully. He knows when he has overstayed his welcome.
His absence from the immediate future of Gilas Pilipinas allows the stakeholders of Philippine basketball to focus on the task ahead.
At the end of the day, coach Yeng Guiao represented everything we loved, hated and needed from Philippine basketball. His style of coaching was exciting, the brand of basketball he taught was great for narratives but as we saw, it isn’t what we need in order to grow as a basketball nation. For a country hungry for underdog success stories but unwilling to look beyond our own shores, Yeng Guiao was very much the Gilas coach we deserved.
At the same time, Yeng also represented the humility to know things went wrong at all levels, and to let go of a glorious position for the sake of the greater good. He was quick to recognize many factors that make Gilas ill-prepared for the tournament, among which were the lack of exposure to the quality of basketball being played at that level, the lack of preparation time given to the team and the totally different playing approach their opponents had.
Now, Pilipinas basketball can take a good clear look into how to move forward. Laban! Puso! And diskarte won’t be enough to show we belong in the world stage. Nobody is saying we get rid of what we love of our brand of basketball, only that we go beyond and improve upon it.
There’s no magic wand, no messiah who will make Gilas Pilipinas a legitimate competitor on the world stage overnight. It’s going to take the courage to try, fail and go out of our comfort zones if we want growth. As early as this stage in rebuilding the program, this is where the people who will compose the next iteration of Gilas should start showing their PUSO.