MANILA, March 7, 2005 
(STAR) THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco  -  The clock is ticking for the Philippines’s international basketball campaign. The lynchpin for all our success is the RP Cebuana Lhuillier team. Team patron Jean Henri Lhuillier met with commissioner Noli Eala the other week to agree on points of cooperation, and for a coordinated overall campaign. The move is now part of an overall program to integrate all basketball leagues and international participation.

In January, the RP Cebuana Lhuillier team flew to Cebu to battle semi-professional teams in the Sinulog Cup, where they finished third in an international field, the only team without an import to place. Upon returning, they shared practice time with Konkuk University of Korea, since they are trying to model their system after other Asian countries. The other week, they scrimmaged with Satriamuda, a professional team from Indonesia. Last Wednesday, they scrimmaged against San Beda College.

"The strength of the team is that, when they’re in the facility (in Las Piñas), they know their shooting skills, their dribbling and everything," head coach Boycie Zamar explains. "But when you bring them out and expose them to crowds and leagues, there you see the differences. It’s good that we see these things now, even before the SEABA."

"I’m impressed," San Beda coach Nash Racela adds. "They’re trying to follow the Korean style of playing, which means quick ball movement, good passing and the use of a lot of motion. They’re getting it already. They just need to work on some of the details. The only thing is that with that style, you really have to shoot well. For the Koreans, that’s a given. For us, it’s something we have to work on a bit."

The team is also adjusting to the loss of its two most veteran players. Center Ricky Calimag signed a pact with the Sta. Lucia Realtors, while point guard Egay Echavez has supposedly joined the Barangay Ginebra Kings while Jayjay Helterbrand is recuperating from his leg fracture.

A great help is advice from FedEx head coach Bong Ramos, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Indonesia, where he coached a commercial team and briefly handled their national team. The Filipino community there has also been a big help in scouting opponents for the SEABA.

"For me the dark horse will always be Malaysia, because of their Chinese population," Zamar declares. "There’s also Singapore; you have to consider that, two years ago, they put in five Chinese nationals. We don’t know what their game plan is. Think about Thailand and Indonesia also."

Last week, Zamar supposedly received word that he would be the head coach of the team. Since the team was formed, the Basketball Association of the Philippines appointed Zamar and Dong Vergeire to coach the team. But team officials claim that it was never made clear which of the two would be the head coach, and which would sit as assistant. Vergeire had been serving as head coach in the meantime. The team had problems in two crucial games in the Sinulog Cup in Cebu, and Vergeire offered to resign, only to change his mind the following morning. After Zamar was appointed head coach, Vergeire did not appear at the big presentation of athletes at San Miguel’s Corporate headquarters last Tuesday, and was absent from the team’s San Beda scrimmage Wednesday. But with the SEABA mere weeks away, this would be the worst possible time to create any new tension.

Be that as it may, Zamar has no time for intrigue, and has asked BAP officials to iron out whatever problems his appointment may present with anyone, so he could concentrate on doing his job. Pressure is mounting for him to bring the SEABA crown back from Singapore in late May or early June, and open the door for the PBA version of the Philippine team. Zamar is also an assistant for the PBA RP team, splitting his time between their practices in Quezon City on the mornings, then driving to the Cebuana Lhuillier practice facility in Las Piñas in the afternoons. Then again, he’s not complaining. Who wouldn’t give anything to pick the brains of Chot Reyes, Norman Black, Tim Cone, Jong Uichico, Binky Favis and the rest of the all-star champion coaches?

"It’s an honor for me to be part of that tremendous coaching staff," Zamar admits. "As a student of the game, I’m learning so much. What we’re doing now for everything to be integrated is a dream come true."

Everything seems to be coming together for Philippine basketball. As many observers would say, it’s about damn time, too.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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