For the young players of Gilas Pilipinas, playing against Serbian center Boban Marjanovic was an unforgettable experience -- and not just because of the lessons that the towering big man gave them on the court.
"On the court, sobrang grabe," recalled Mike Nieto. "Ang hirap, kasi ang laki."
Marjanovic, who stands at 7-foot-3, was the difference-maker in Serbia's game against the Philippines in the recent FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade.
Gilas had kept in step with the home nation, even leading by a point late in the fourth quarter. But Marjanovic was unstoppable down the stretch, towing Serbia to an 83-76 win as he overpowered the Filipinos inside the paint. The 32-year-old big man finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds in the game, and missed just six times in 18 attempts.
"Kagaya ng sinabi ni (Gilas forward) Isaac (Go), that's why he's in the NBA," Nieto said of Marjanovic.
Yet as much as they learned from Marjanovic on the court, they also learned from his attitude off of it.
"Star player ka, he's in the NBA," said Nieto of the Dallas Mavericks center. "But off the court, no comment kami sa kanya."
He recalled an incident where Marjanovic helped one of the members of the Philippines' utility staff, much to their surprise.
"There was this one instance pa na, Coach Sandy (Arespacochaga) posted this on Facebook, nahulog ni Kuya Rolly 'yung mga tuwalya namin. Si Boban pa mismo 'yung nagpulot para tulungan si Kuya Rolly," Nieto said.
"Kami nahiya kami, sabi namin, 'Boban, give it to us na.' Kami pa 'yung nakatingin na ganoon, nagulat kami, pinulot ni Boban, ang laki ng kamay. So pinulot lang niyang ganoon," he added.
"Parang tinuruan rin niya kami ng lesson na, as basketball players, we're also role models to the youth. And no matter where you are, no matter who you are, kailangan maging humble ka."
Though their loss against Serbia was disappointing, the Gilas players showed their appreciation for Marjanovic afterward. A video of the team doing Marjanovic's trademark "heart" gesture has since gone viral after the Olympic qualifiers.
According to Nieto, he told Marjanovic that he has a great following in the Philippines as well.
"Sabi ko, 'Boban, you have a lot of fans in the Philippines. I think you have to go to the Philippines.' Sabi niya, 'Yeah, soon.' Hopefully nga daw makadalaw siya sa Pilipinas," he said.
"Ngayon nalaman na namin kung bakit talaga ang dami niyang fans, on and off the court."
Marjanovic and Serbia went on to the finals of the OQT, where they bowed to Italy, 102-95, to miss out on an Olympic berth.