SLIDESHOW: Gilas Pilipinas’ bumpy road to the 2019 FIBA World Cup

MANILA, Philippines – A dream was realized early Monday morning, as Gilas Pilipinas qualified to the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.

It was an exceedingly difficult journey for the Philippine men’s national basketball team, who played with their backs against the wall in the final window of the qualifiers but managed to get the job done – to the relief and delight of the basketball-crazy nation.

Thus, for the second straight edition of the FIBA World Cup, the Philippines will compete in the showcase event. Gilas Pilipinas had ended a 40-year wait in 2014, when they qualified to the World Cup in Spain by copping the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship.

Take a look back at the rollercoaster journey that Gilas Pilipinas took to get to China.

Gilas Pilipinas’ journey to the 2019 FIBA World Cup began when their journey to the 2016 Olympics ended. The national team failed to qualify to the Rio Games, losing both of their assignments in the qualifying tournament held at home.

At the same time, FIBA unveiled a new qualifying process for the 2019 World Cup, which would make it harder for the Philippines to make it.

Chot Reyes returns as head coach of the Philippine national team, two years after steering Gilas Pilipinas in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. Tab Baldwin, who called the shots in the FIBA OQT in July 2016, was demoted to consultant.

Chot Reyes unveiled his 24-man national team pool in January 2017, which saw one player per PBA team join a group of “Gilas Cadets.” Included in the line-up where veterans Jayson Castro, June Mar Fajardo, and Calvin Abueva, who joined young players including Roger Pogoy, Kevin Ferrer, and Mac Belo.

It was also announced that the Philippines will be hosting the 2017 SEABA Championships.

The Philippines sailed through the 2017 SEABA Championships at home, winning every game by a large margin while being cheered by partisan crowds at the Araneta Coliseum. The tournament served as a showcase of Gilas Pilipinas’ supremacy over their Southeast Asian neighbors. Chot Reyes made sure to create a formidable team that included naturalized center Andray Blatche.

It was a busy month for Philippine basketball, as the national team competed in both the FIBA Asia Cup and the Southeast Asian Games.

Christian Standhardinger and Carl Bryan Cruz displayed their commitment in playing in both tournaments, rushing from Lebanon to Kuala Lumpur to suit up for the Philippines in the regional competition.

The Philippines settled for seventh place in FIBA Asia, but claimed another gold in the SEA Games.

The Philippines competed in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, and welcomed a potential naturalization candidate in Isaiah Austin. The team was mostly composed of collegiate stars, as PBA players were not released by their mother clubs.

The Philippines’ road to the 2019 FIBA World Cup formally began in November 2017. They started on the right note, beating Japan on the road on November 24, then Chinese-Taipei at home three days later. However, there were plenty of concerns, particularly when it came to Andray Blatche who was clearly not in peak physical shape for the games.

The Philippines got great news to end the year, as the country was awarded hosting rights to the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup along with Japan and Indonesia. This marks the first time that the World Cup will be held in three different countries. It was redemption for the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, which had previously failed in 2015 when it bid for hosting rights to the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The new year brought a glimpse of the future to the Philippine national team program, as Chot Reyes unveiled his much-hyped “23 for 23” list – a group of 23 players who can theoretically represent the Philippines in the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Included in the list are towering teenagers Kai Sotto and AJ Edu, along with collegiate standouts Thirdy Ravena and Juan Gomez de Liano, among others. The 23 for 23 cadets joined the national team in an eventful practice at the start of the year, as Gilas started 2018 on a hopeful note.

The Philippines suffered its first loss of the qualifiers in February, falling to a powerhouse Australian team in Melbourne. But they recovered at home, banking on a clutch shot by Jayson Castro to sink visiting Japan and claim a spot in the next round of the qualifiers.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, with Chot Reyes acknowledging that their preparation was lacking.

The Philippine national team was dealt a blow in May, when Kiefer Ravena was suspended by FIBA for using banned substances. It was a shocking development that cost the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 Rookie Draft 18 months of his basketball career. Not only was he not allowed to play for Gilas Pilipinas, he was also banned from suiting up for his mother team, the NLEX Road Warriors.

The Philippines took another step towards qualification to the FIBA World Cup by routing Chinese-Taipei on the road in late June, ahead of what would be a crucial rematch with Australia. The game was made memorable by a 22-point outing from June Mar Fajardo, while Andray Blatche contributed a double-double. Their impressive win gave Gilas plenty of optimism heading into the Australia game at home.

Perhaps the most pivotal month in Gilas Pilipinas’ road to the World Cup. The Philippines lost to Australia in their highly anticipated rematch at the Philippine Arena, but the result of the game was secondary to what happened: the two teams engaged in a wild free-for-all in the third quarter of the contest, a brawl that drew global spotlight to Philippine basketball.

The Philippines ended up having just five players left after the brawl, and lost big to the visiting Aussies. The repercussions of the brawl were severe. Ten players from the Philippines were suspended, along with coaches Chot Reyes and Jong Uichico. Gilas also had to play its next home game behind closed doors.

The untoward incident would eventually come to affect the Philippines’ participation in the Asian Games, with SBP and the PBA waiting until almost the final minute before deciding to send a team to the continental competition.

After much back-and-forth, the Philippines decided to send a team to the Asian Games. The core of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters composed the bulk of the team, along with other PBA stars. Coach Yeng Guiao called the shots for the national team that would compete in Jakarta.

The team received a massive boost when Filipino-American guard Jordan Clarkson was given clearance to play for the Philippines in the Asiad. Unfortunately, even with the NBA player’s presence, the Philippines could not make it to the podium, settling instead for a fifth-place finish.

Still, their fine performance in the Asian Games served as a balm to the Philippine basketball community that was still stinging from the brawl against Australia.

With the fine job that he did in Jakarta, Yeng Guiao was given the opportunity to again call the shots for the national team as it continued its quest for qualification to the World Cup. They started off on the wrong foot, as Gilas lost to Iran in Tehran, but they got back on the right track at home.

In an eerie atmosphere that saw less than 100 people present at the Araneta Coliseum, Gilas Pilipinas defeated visiting Qatar to revive its World Cup dreams.

The fifth window of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers proved to be another crucial one for the Philippines, as they hosted Kazakhstan and Iran in back-to-back games. Wins over the visitors would have made Gilas’ journey to the World Cup easier, but unfortunately, they could not get the job done.

They lost to Kazakhstan – which they had routed in the Asian Games – in late November, then collapsed against Iran in their next game. Gilas played both games without Andray Blatche, whom Guiao left out of his roster.

The back-to-back losses at home put the Philippines in a must-win situation heading into the final qualifying window. Blatche confirmed that he would suit up for Gilas in both do-or-die games – which would be played on the road.

Gilas Pilipinas returned to work early in 2019, as they prepared for a pair of must-win games against Qatar and Kazakhstan. They welcomed some new faces in practice – Roger Pogoy made his comeback from suspension, Ateneo star Thirdy Ravena was included in the pool, and Andray Blatche formally made his return as well.

Their preparation was still far from ideal, as they only had a week to train with Blatche in Manila before he had to return to China. Moreover, “Kuya Dray” was not present when the team competed in its lone tune-up before flying to Qatar.

The Philippines also did not hold its fate in its hands for the final window. They needed to win both games against Qatar and Kazakhstan, but other results also had to go their way for them to claim a spot in the FIBA World Cup.

But Gilas Pilipinas took care of business, and they got some help from an old rival – South Korea – to secure passage to China later this year.