MANILA, Philippines—Many, including the man himself, were surprised when Marc Pingris was included in Gilas Pilipinas' 24-man pool for the upcoming window of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers later this month.
Their doubts were not unfounded. Pingris had not played for the Philippine national team since 2016, when he was part of the Gilas squad that competed in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Manila. Since then, Pingris battled injuries that kept him from playing for his mother club, the Magnolia Hotshots.
He didn't return to action until the 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup, after a grueling recovery from ACL and MCL injuries that prevented him from playing for a full season.
"Na-injured ako, tapos one year akong 'di nakapag-laro," Pingris told ABS-CBN News. "And then, nandoon na tayo, nagkaka-edad ka na, so hindi ko in-expect na talagang pinagsabihan ako na attend ako sa practice."
"Sinabi ko sa wife ko, and then, noong una napatanonong siya, bakit ikaw, bakit hindi 'yung iba," he added. "I don't know."
"Siguro, may purpose si Lord or may purpose si coach bakit andito ako ngayon."
For Tab Baldwin, the program director of Gilas Pilipinas, Pingris' purpose makes his inclusion in the pool a no-brainer.
He points out that the 38-year-old Pingris "still has value as a player," moreso now that Gilas Pilipinas is experiencing some issues regarding the availability of their big men. Both Christian Standhardinger and Japeth Aguilar are not playing in the upcoming February qualifiers, and June Mar Fajardo is out indefinitely because of a leg injury.
"We're gonna need every bigger body than we can get to play," said Baldwin.
Pingris' true value to the program, however, is in the leadership and inspiration that he can provide to their group. This is all the more important considering the youth of the current pool, Baldwin said.
"Because this is the national team, and because we are trying to first and foremost for 2023 develop a culture, and it needs to be a culture of belief. It needs to be a culture of dedication and commitment," he said.
"Ping's the best example I was ever around in my years in Gilas."
Baldwin said he believes Pingris is "the right kind of leader" that is needed by their young players.
"His inclusion was really to bridge the former Gilas teams that have been successful, with this Gilas program and to inject into it, I think, the spirit, the commitment, and the passion that he has for the national team," he said.
"'Cause I know, I absolutely know we cannot be successful, no matter how much talent we roll out on this court in four years' time, if we don't have a culture that embodies the people of the country," he added.
"And who better than Ping?"
Pingris is grateful for the trust given to him by Baldwin, and vows to do all he can to fulfill that role.
"Ita-try ko 'yung best ko to guide these (players). Ito 'yung mga future kasi natin, sila ang susunod. Para the next time na sila naman 'yung tumanda, may mai-share naman sila sa mga kabataan na magiging next na Gilas player or 'yung mga dream na gusto maglaro din sa PBA," he said.
His message to the young players in the team is simple, and echoes Gilas' iconic rallying cry.
"Gusto kong sabihin sa kanila, kahit maliliit sila, wala sa talento 'yan, wala sa height 'yan, nasa puso 'yan," he said emphatically.
"'Yun naman ang puhunan natin. Mga Pilipino naman, tayo, maliliit 'yung height natin. Pero pagdating sa basketball, kahit nga ice tubig nakikipagpatayan ka, 'di ba?"
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