So what did we learn from the Gilas debacle in the recently-concluded Olympic Basketball Qualifying Tournament?

Let me go straight to the point here. After losing to the French Les Blues 93-84, and the New Zealand Tall Blacks 89-80, what was clearly evident was our team's lack of size at the global level of competitive basketball. Our talent and cage IQ may be tops at the SEA games level of play; we may still be able to compete with the top teams at the Asian regional level; but at the global environment, the height and heft factor just cannot be denied. You may dream all you want, you may conjure basketball sorcery and magic, you may wish upon your favorite cage star, but the fact remains that in basketball, height truly is might. No amount of arguing about talent, about court savvy, about 'puso', or about the Splash Brothers' incredible use of the 3-ball is going to change that.

And the sad thing about it is that you can't teach height. You can teach basic basketball skills; you can train hard to develop speed, stamina and strength; but you can't teach your bones to grow a foot or so taller.

But hold on now, I am not saying that we should give up on basketball all together, hear? I'm not ready to go to that extreme yet. (Though to tell the truth, I believe we Filipinos would be better off competing in football or other sport where height would not be such an unfair disadvantage.) Rather, I am advocating that we change our tact a bit if we are to go even farther in our quest for global cage respectability.

My proposition? Since we cannot teach our players to be tall, let us therefore teach our tall players to play small. What this means is that we should get our more versatile players to slide down to a lower position. We need to get some of our centers to slide down to the power forward position, our power forwards to play small forward, and our small forwards to go down to the off-guard position, and so on. There is one reality we can't sweep under the rug. As we go to higher levels of competition, the opposition just gets so much taller. And our players must then learn to adjust, for it's a giants' world they choose to compete in.

For easier understanding of this slide-down process, let's put a face to each of these positions. June Mar Fajardo, the country's premiere center today, demonstrated that he could play power forward at the global stage. With the higher level of play, his ability to play a lower position proved just right. And he performed credibly at the 4-slot.

On the other hand, his best buddy, Marc Pingris, one of the country's best power forwards, was clearly undersized at that position, being a mere 6'5". At the global stage, his size would have been best-suited for the small forward position. But then, his skill set and mindset were not yet primed for the lower position.

At 6'6", Ranidel de Ocampo is a top-notch power forward in the PBA. He too was undersized to play the 4-spot in the global arena. Good thing Ranidel has a mean outside shot that makes him a threat as a small forward or even as a shooting guard. Ranidel's versatility as he faces the basket at the 3-spot is a big asset for the Gilas team at higher levels of play. Now, if only he can put in more speed, strength and lateral movement...

Troy Rosario is showing great promise under the paint as a power forward in the PBA. Still, his fearless tip-ins against the big bad behemoths at the MOA proved pesky at best. He'd be an even bigger threat if he slides down to the small forward or 3-spot.  At 6'7", he'd be undersized as a center or even as a power forward.

Same holds true for the 6'9" beanpole, Japeth Aguilar. If Japeth can hone his slashing skills, he'd be the ideal 3-guy with his wide wing span and his dunking ability.

Gabe Norwood has great talent, and great laterals to make him the best defensive player in the team. I'd love for him to try his luck as a point guard for the world stage. This may be a big experiment with the Rain or Shine team, but if Gabe is given point guard chores in the PBA, he'd create a big mismatch at his position. He'd be like a Magic Johnson who can see right on top of his guard. And this would prepare him for the bigger battles on the world stage.

At the Asian regional level, I'd give Jeff Chan a good chance at the 2 or the shooting guard spot. At the global arena however, he is simply so undersized he becomes a liability in defense. He needs to bulk up for the global wars so he doesn't get pushed around.

Calvin Abueva, at 6'2", plays the power forward and small forward position in the PBA. His toughness and strength, despite the size, would be ideal for the 2-guard, but he'll have to hone his outside shot as well.

Heck, for the global wars, I'd play Beau Belga at the 3 or even the 2-spot. Beau may be big and burly at 6'5", but he can run and he has a decent outside shot. He'd be a Charles-Barkley type banger that could give the opponents some problems.

We have players who have the versatility to be able to adjust to new positions. We need this for the global cage wars. Crucial in the scheme of things then are our present crop of PBA coaches. If they are willing to give our key players valuable playing time in their 'slide-down' positions, then this will augur well for the next Gilas. Our coaches will have to be adventurous and take chances with positional changes.

This holds true for our college coaches as well. Coaches should resist the conventional tact of getting the tallest players to play center. Instead, coaches should be audacious and encourage their players - early in their basketball careers - to play the smaller positions instead.

Decades ago, a promising tall kid was picked to join a prestigious university in the US. Within weeks, he was gone. He claimed that his coach wanted him to play the center or power forward slots. He desisted, and instead joined Michigan State, where his coach allowed him to play point guard. He eventually became the star of the team, capping his college career by winning the crown in the most-watched NCAA Finals ever. Imagine our collective loss if Magic Johnson had allowed himself to cowed into accepting the 4 or 5 slot. Magic revolutionized the game by being the prototype point guard of the future then. Magic's accomplishments and his legacy in the NBA speak eloquently of the wisdom of sliding down as we go to higher levels of competition.

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Published by Charly Holganza