Brgy. Ginebra big man Japeth Aguilar wants to make the most of the rare opportunity afforded to the country as Manila hosts the Fiba Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) on July 4-10 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Named to the 17-man national pool that is currently preparing for the Olympic qualifying event, Aguilar could feel the sheer weight of carrying the Olympic hopes of a nation known for its passion for basketball.
But he believes preparation will be key for the Philippines as it tries to end a 44-year absence in the Olympics.
“I’m aware of that naman, but, being one of the young big guys, for me, I also look up to players who are ahead of me because I want to try to continue to learn from them so that I can keep adding and my game to keep evolving,” Aguilar told FOX Sports, just before joining Gilas Pilipinas’ once-a-week practice at the Moro Lorenzo gym inside the Ateneo campus Monday night.
The 29-year-old Aguilar said he has seen Philippine basketball evolved in recent years, having been part of the national squad starting in 2009 in the FIBA Asia men’s championships in Tianjin, China.
The PH squad, led by PBA stars James Yap, Kerby Raymundo, Willie Miller, Cyrus Baguio and Asi Taulava and mentored by Yeng Guiao, placed 8th overall in the tournament that served as qualifier for the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.
As a young 22-year-old, Aguilar submitted modest numbers of 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds during the tournament.
The high-leaping Aguilar eventually became part of the Philippine team that made the steady climb in the Asian cage championships, finishing 4th in the 2011 edition in Wuhan, China, followed by back-to-back silver medal finishes in 2013 in Manila and 2015 (Changsa).
“For me, playing in the national team is always a learning process kasi unlike before na hirap na hirap kami dumepensa, but as the years go by, nag-improve na rin tayo,” shared Ginebra’s athletic big man.
“Yung mga teams na dati hirap nating talunin, natatalo na namin ngayon,” he added.
In 2013, Gilas ended the so-called Korean curse when the national side, then mentored by Chot Reyes, defeated its long-time Asian arch-rivals, 83-79 in the semifinals in Manila, a victory that enabled the Philippines to make a grand return to the world championships since 1978.
Last year, Gilas shocked Asian powerhouse Iran in the second round of the preliminaries, 87-73, before knocking off Lebanon (82-70) and Japan (81-70) in the quarterfinals and semis to reach the gold medal round for the 2nd straight edition.
Gilas eventually finished 2nd after bowing to host China, 78-67.
“On my end, kailangan ko pa rin mag-improve sa game ko,” he said.
But this he vowed with full conviction.
“For me, ‘yung desire ko pa rin to play for the Philippines is there and lahat gagawin ko talaga para makatulong sa national team.”- By Richard Dy
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