The Centennial Team was the last Philippine basketball squad to win a medal in high-level regional competition for the country with its bronze finish in the 1998 Asian Games.
Members of the 1998 team have been following the progress of the current flag-bearers, the SMART-Gilas Pilipinas national squad, hoping that the latter equals or even surpasses the Centennial Team’s finish.
“They look great,” wrote Centennial Team coach Tim Cone in a text message to InterAKTV shortly after SMART-Gilas’ impressive victory over Japan on Tuesday. Cone’s lead assistant in 1998, Chot Reyes, is also a member of the current SMART-Gilas coaching staff.
“They’re headed toward the right direction,” said Jojo Lastimosa, the key player in the Centennial Team’s bronze-medal clinching win over Kazakhstan in 1998. “It’s a long way to go, but they’re playing very well now and the team has become formidable now with the addition of Kelly Williams and Jimmy Alapag.”
Olsen Racela, who played backup to ace point guard Johnny Abarrientos in the Centennial Team, said that he likes the progress of the current national team.
“They’re definitely peaking and playing well right now,” he said.
Proceed with caution
But while SMART-Gilas has been impressive, Racela cautioned everyone not to get too excited about the success.
“They played teams they’re supposed to beat,” said Racela, who now coaches the national youth team set to compete in the FIBA Asia Under-16 tournament next month.
“The true test will be in the quarterfinals and the semifinals.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cone, the former Alaska mentor who recently signed with B-MEG.
“It’s a long way to go,” he said. “But everybody seems beatable, so that’s good news.”
Long term goals
But Lastimosa, known as one of the frankest personalities in Philippine basketball, said SMART-Gilas’ problem lies beyond the current tournament, which serves as a qualifier for the 2012 London Olympics.
“Most of the members [of SMART-Gilas] are now professional players,” said Lastimosa. “That’s the difference now. Madi-divide na yung oras nila and problem is if we can still maintain the core of the Gilas team which is having success right now.”
Despite having being co-captain of the Centennial Team, Lastimosa said that he is prouder of his accomplishments donning the national colors from back when he was an amateur. He was a member of the Philippine team that finished third in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, Korea. Basketball oldtimers call the medal the Philippines won the “Golden Bronze” because of the team’s controversial loss to eventual champion South Korea in the semifinals.
“If I want to go back to my involvement as a member of the national team, I don’t want to go back to the time when I was playing in the Centennial Team because that team was formed weeks before the tournament,” said Lastimosa. “I want to go back to the time when the good program started, that was in 1986. Walang palakasan at that time and all of us were pushing each other to play their best because bakbakan kami for a spot for the national team.”
This commitment to the flag and country, he said, is what he wants to see for the next incarnation of the Philippine national team.