MANILA, Philippines -- As proud as he was to have represented the Philippines in two recent FIBA competitions, the experience was also somewhat bittersweet for Mike Nieto.
Nieto, 24, expected to play in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers and the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament with his twin brother, Matt. The two have been teammates virtually their entire lives, and looked to take the next step together with Gilas Pilipinas.
But Matt suffered a broken hand before the Asia Cup qualifiers that ruled him out for both events.
"Siyempre malungkot ako. It was a sad moment for me, and of course my father and my mother," Nieto said of his brother's injury. "Ang tagal naming pinag-trabahuhan, since January, tapos biglang noong May, early May, biglang na-injure nga 'yung kamay niya."
According to Mike, they were not immediately aware of the extent of the injury, and Matt initially tried to play through the pain.
"Alam mo naman kami… kahit anong injury, ipapagpag lang namin kung kakayanin," he said. "Kaya si Matt, nabali na 'yung kamay, sinubukan pa rin niyang lumaban."
"Kaso hindi na talaga umabot," Mike lamented.
Matt wasn't the only player to suffer an untimely injury. Young forward Dave Ildefonso sustained a bone bruise that also forced him to miss the FIBA events, and Rey Suerte sprained his ankle the week before the qualifiers in Clark.
But the Gilas players lived up to their "next man up" mentality and got the job done in the Asia Cup qualifiers. Young guard SJ Belangel and RJ Abarrientos, in particular, were impressive against South Korea and Indonesia. Belangel etched his name in Philippine basketball history with a buzzer-beating triple to sink their rivals in their first game.
On the leadership end, Isaac Go was named team captain in Suerte's place, while Mike remained as vocal as ever.
"At the end of the day, gusto kong kasama si Matt doon. Pero kahit naman wala siya doon sa line-up, kasama pa rin siya doon sa success na nangyari," said Mike.
"Hindi lang si Matt -- pati si Rey, na na-injured last minute. Si Allyn (Bulanadi), malapit nang makabalik from his shoulder injury," he added. "Si Tzaddy (Rangel), Jaydee (Tungcab), si Javi (Gomez de Liano)."
"Lahat talaga sila na naging part ng pool na 'yun," he stressed.
Matt is expected to return to the fold in time for the FIBA Asia Cup in August. The guard played three games for Gilas in the qualifiers, averaging six points, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 rebounds per game.