Baldwin’s tireless approach gives Gilas a shot in Olympic Qualifers

MANILA, Philippines – Tab Baldwin wasn’t happy, and the rain that started to surprisingly splatter on the roof of the Meralco Gym on what was supposed to be a humid summer Thursday afternoon wasn’t the reason why.

Over the past few minutes, Gilas had been trying to perfect this play. It was simple in principle but the execution seemed taxing. 

The ball handler would call for a screen a few feet above the 3-point line on the left wing. After losing his imaginary defender, the playmaker in this drill, Terrence Romeo, would throw a pass in the low post before the ball would find itself back in the hands of the original screener, who’d pop for a jumper at the free throw line.

It seemed simple, and for instances it looked like Romeo and Mo Tautuaa were performing it well enough to move on to the next set. 

But Baldwin didn’t see it that way, so he approached Tautuaa - already a pretty good player - bent his knees, and went into specific detail about how he wanted the big man to free up space for Romeo. He then told Romeo to do the play again, but before the pick could come, the head coach didn’t like something about Romeo’s movement.

On the prior play, Romeo had faked a step to the right before slashing left. This time, he went the opposite. “Where did you fake last time?” asked Baldwin, always the perfectionist. Romeo realized his mistake right away, and went about correcting it. 

After he and Tautuaa finished the drill, the still-displeased Baldwin asked for the whiteboard and called a huddle that lasted more than 5 minutes. All eyes were shifting from him to the whiteboard, all ears intently listening to each word spoken.

When the players returned to the practice, it was flawless. Dribble, screen, pass, pass more, then the shot - swish.

“One of the points I’ve tried to make to the players is that the fundamentals are so important,” the 58-year-old head coach told me later on as players stretched and ate following a gruelling second straight 3-hour practice session. 

“There’s all the elements of the two-man game and the 3-man game to get the fundamentals right - how to cut, how to screen, how to use a ball screen, how to set a ball screen, how to roll on a ball screen.”

Each and every one of those fundamentals, as well as maybe a hundred more, from shooting to passing to defending and what else, are what Baldwin wants every player on his roster to perfect in time for the Olympic Qualifiers in Manila from July 4-10 at the Mall of Asia Arena. 

The rabid fan support and familiarity of country are going to be invaluable assets for Gilas when they battle for one of the 3 remaining spots in the men’s basketball tournament of the 2016 Rio Olympics, but the reality is this: the level of talent the national team will face is going to be superior even if the Philippines can field its best roster yet.

France may be without many familiar faces, but Nando De Colo and Alexis Ajinca are still NBA-quality players among a roster of proven worldwide talents that’s currently ranked number 5 by FIBA in the world. Canada needs no introduction, and that team becomes the instant favorite if Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson commit for the tournament. Senegal, New Zealand, and Turkey are tough outs as well.

Baldwin agrees on the disparity Gilas will have to overcome from a talent standpoint in less than two months, so the team is banking on two aspects in order to catapult past their adversaries: attention to detail and, as the head coach puts it, “team chemistry.”

“I think we have to be very detailed,” he said. “I like to tell [that] all my life I’ve coached underdog teams. From New Zealand, to Jordan, to Lebanon, and the Philippines, and I’ve always tried to tell those teams that our margin of error - we don’t have one.

“Whereas [teams] like France or Turkey or Canada, they can get away with being a little bit sloppier, a little bit lazy, but they won’t in most cases. But against us they probably could get away with that a little bit because of their length and experience and quickness.”

For the head coach, it’s simple: “We can’t make mistakes.”

EDUCATION. Tab Baldwin (in white) constantly works on improving the fundamentals of his players. File photo by Czeasar Dancel

EDUCATION. Tab Baldwin (in white) constantly works on improving the fundamentals of his players.

File photo by Czeasar Dancel

Baldwin’s resumé speaks for itself. Following years of success in the National Basketball League (New Zealand), the Jacksonville, Florida native won silvers and golds for New Zealand and Jordan in international play. Nearly each time, the story was the same: Baldwin’s teams may have less talent, but there’s little to no chance the opponent will come in having prepared better.

Whether it’s from his experience learning around guys like NBA-caliber coaches Mike Dunlap or Brett Brown, or even just from his love of the game, Baldwin’s tireless approach and meticulous attention to detail gives his team a fighting chance regardless of the opponent. 

So when guys who have played in the highest levels of basketball come to Manila in July, Gilas will have a chance at victory, regardless of the odds. The roster, especially with former NBA big man Andray Blatche (who may or may not be overweight), has potential. Pair that with a head coach who preaches and lives perfection of the little things on the court, and you may just have a winner.

“I think that that’s how you do your job correctly,” he said about his approach. “I think you have to be tuned in and focused on your players. I expect them to be focused. When they execute their job, why should I be any different?

“They’re going to make mistakes, and the more times they make them, they become bad habits. If they get bad habits during my practices, that’s my fault. If they bring bad habits onto my practices, it’s my job to correct them.”

Said Marc Pingris, “Sobrang strict si Coach ngayon. Of course siguro medyo malapit na rin. Gusto niya ma perfect namin ‘to.”

(Coach is really strict nowadays. Of course because the tournament’s already near. He wants us to perfect this.)

Pingris, the team’s defensive stopper and hustle man, has as much Gilas experience as anyone on the roster, playing for the team back in 2013 when they won silver in the FIBA Asia Championship under Chot Reyes. I asked him to compare the two head coaches.

Si Coach Chot, kapag nagkamali kami, ituloy lang namin basta bumalik kami sa formation namin. Pero pag dating kay Coach Tab naman, pag nagkamali kami, gusto niya i-hinto niya. Kailangan magawan namin nang tama.”

(With Coach Chot, when you make a mistake, you just need to continue as long as you return to formation. But with Coach Tab, when you make a mistake, he wants to halt to make sure it’s corrected right away.)

Like I said: meticulous.

There are still challenges present and some more that will arise, because there always are. 

Injuries to big man Greg Slaughter and versatile wing Matt Rosser takes away two viable options for the final Gilas roster. Baldwin will have to make the right choices on who to cut and who to retain for France and company. And according to the head coach, there’s even less time to prepare this year, even with all the tune-ups they have scheduled.

“It would have been idea to have this same group of players last year, and then have them again this year, but we don’t, so that puts more pressure on the coaching staff to try and bring a new group of players, a new chemistry up to speed. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Though even with minimal time, Gilas will make the most out of what they have. Every dribble of every practice will have a purpose, with a slot for Rio on the line. A chance to make history. A chance to make the world know even further that the Philippines is a country rising in the ranks of FIBA, poised to join the elite.

“I don’t need to unwind,” Baldwin said, when asked if he ever needs to get away from the constant teaching and the sound of basketballs slapping the hardwood. “My wife is a gem of a human being - she feeds me and keeps me happy - and I have great kids, so I’m blessed. This is what I love to do. I don’t need to unwind from what I love to do.

“If somebody said to me, ‘Do you have a few hours to go fishing?’ I’d jump at it, I’d find time, but other than that, I’m pretty happy.” –