With the Gilas Pilipinas Men's pool needing some beefing up to add to the nine players from the last two editions of the PBA Rookie Draft, Program Head Tab Baldwin and his fellow coaches pulled off a creative solution as they invited much younger players to join the recent training in Calamba, Laguna.
Even if the camp was cut short due to the current rise in COVID-19 cases in the country and the re-establishment of the Enhanced Community Quarantine in the National Capital Region and neighboring provinces, a lot of work was still done by the young crew with their two-a-day practices.
Two of the members of the camp have rather unique situations as they got to learn what it was like to train under Baldwin before they jump into the collegiate competitions in the UAAP to go up against him.
Carl Tamayo, an incoming rookie for the UP Fighting Maroons, and RJ Abarrientos, also an incoming rookie but for the FEU Tamaraws, got invitations to join the camp and they did not think twice about taking advantage of the opportunity.
"Everything about the training camp was good," said Tamayo in Filipino. "We were a little tired because we practiced twice every day but we still enjoyed it because we learned a lot about coach Tab's system."
The 6-foot-7 Cebuano has long been viewed as a future member of the national team because of his size and skillset. He already represented the Philippines in international competitions albeit in Under-17 and Under-19 tournaments.
"I'm grateful just to be invited because I have a chance to prove that I can play at a higher level, not just for Batang Gilas. It gives me a chance to compete against more senior players, which will make me better," he said. "It's very challenging to go up against guys like Isaac Go and Ange Kouame. They're bigger than me and they have more experience but I learn from them. They've taught me a lot about the things I need to improve. Practicing with them makes me more motivated to work harder because I want to reach that level."
After graduating from National University-Nazareth School, Tamayo along with his teammate and fellow Gilas Pilipinas Youth member Gerry Abadiano transferred to UP. However, the pandemic delayed their much-awaited debut.
"It was unfortunate because I was really looking forward to playing for UP in the collegiate level but there was nothing I could do because things were beyond our control," Tamayo shared. "I tried to think of it as an opportunity to try to get better before my rookie season. I've had a lot of time to work out and, even if I haven't been able to play basketball, I did my best to prepare physically."
For Abarrientos, the wait for his first collegiate UAAP game is even longer than Tamayo's. Because of his age and the switch to the K-12 basic education program, the point guard was caught in no man's land, too old to play high school hoops but not yet qualified for the collegiate game.
The last high-profile performance of Abarrientos was back in the 2019 3x3 FIBA Asia Cup where he wowed the fans with an epic performance against Iran to lead his three-man crew to a victory. The game was so epic that FIBA branded it as The Abarrientos Game.
He has since dropped from the limelight but this doesn't mean he stopped putting in the work.
"The invitation to join the Gilas training camp was a surprise but the good thing was that I was ready because I was in good shape," said Abarrientos in Filipino. "I was excited to play for FEU but with the pandemic, I just looked at it as extra time to prepare for the UAAP season. Of course, it's natural to wonder when we'll be able to play but I've done my best to stay in shape."
Both have admitted that balancing their studies with the rigorous training program in Calamba was tough. But the coaches pushed them to prioritize their education and allowed them to miss practices whenever necessary.
"It's difficult to balance everything but we have to find a way," Tamayo said. "The system here gives us time to study. Education is still our priority so when we need to miss a practice session to attend a class, we're allowed to do it."
Even if it was tough, both were happy to be given the chance to join the camp as they were the only squad in the entire country allowed to practice as a whole team with them being inside a bubble.
"Because of the pandemic, not a lot of people get to play basketball so I'm lucky to be in this situation. This is another big advantage," Tamayo explained. "During our first practice, I was like a kid again. When I held the ball, I just wanted to play. I didn't even stretch or anything. I was so excited to be on the floor because it's been a while since I've got to compete."
"It was exciting to just be on the court, just to hold the ball and play," echoed Abarrientos. "It's a new atmosphere for me. New coaches. New teammates. A lot of them are older than I am so I get to learn from them, especially from the Gilas veterans here like Matt (Nieto). Coach Tab really focuses on players who know how to read the game so when he teaches, I learn a lot and I become more confident about my abilities."
With the team breaking camp because of a mandate from the Philippine Sports Commission, it is not known what the future holds for both players. Both could very well be invited to the next camp and, if they're lucky, can even get the chance to play in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in Clark and Olympic Qualifiers in Serbia.
However, there's also a chance that the next time they're going to see coach Baldwin will be on the opposite side of the floor when the UAAP resumes its basketball competitions. Both Tamayo and Abarrientos will surely use everything they learned from their short stint under Baldwin to try and break Ateneo's prolonged winning streak.
"I'm writing everything down so when we go up against them, I'll have an idea," quipped Tamayo. "The Ateneo players in camp were are also saying that it's a very similar system but of course we've only learned a very small part of it."
"I think training under coach Tab will help a little but of course I won't be able to do it alone against Ateneo even if I have an idea about some of the things that they run," said Abarrientos.
"But what I realized that Ateneo's training is really different and it gave me an idea of where we need to be so we can challenge them. They're the barometer right now and we have a lot of work to do before we get to that level."