MANILA, Philippines -- Two of the 10 Filipino players who were suspended in the wake of the national basketball team’s brawl with Australia in July will return to action on Monday.
Japeth Aguilar and Matthew Wright served their one-game suspension against Iran, the Philippines’ first assignment of the second round of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers, and were subsequently included in the 12-man roster for the game against Qatar.
For both players, it is an honor to once again be called up to play for flag and country -- especially after what happened at the Philippine Arena in last July.
“I’m very fortunate to be called up again,” said Wright. “There could have been a lot of other people who were worthy of taking my spot. So just to be called up again to play Qatar was already an honor.”
“It’s always an honor for me to represent the country,” said Aguilar. “Always for a bigger cause.”
Their roles in the controversial brawl against Australia have been much discussed. In the case of Aguilar, there was also the question of his father’s involvement in the incident. Yet both players are eager to put their suspensions behind them, and instead focus on what they can do for the national team against a dangerous Qatar squad.
“Masaya ako na natapos na, na-lift na ‘yung suspension,” said Aguilar. "(We’re) very eager to contribute, to help the team.”
“That one-game suspension felt like forever,” admitted Wright. “But I’m just ready to put the past behind me, and focus on trying to help the team.”
“For me to just be able to get the suspension out of the way, and to be able to get back to just playing basketball, it’s exciting for me and I’m more than prepared,” the Phoenix guard added.
Further motivating Wright and Aguilar is that they had to sit on the sidelines and watch as the Philippines bowed to Iran, 81-73, last Thursday in Tehran. It was the squad’s first game of the second round of the qualifiers, and while they gave a good account of themselves, their efforts were not enough.
“It was very frustrating,” said Wright. “You’re more nervous watching the game than when you are on the court.”
It must have been especially difficult for Wright, who knocked down 43.8% of his three-pointers during the first round but had to witness the Filipino shooters go ice cold against Iran, making just five of their 28 attempts from beyond the arc.
“We just missed some shots,” he said. “It’s a game of hits and misses, and they were good shots.”
“We’re confident that we’re going to make them (against Qatar),” he added.
Even as they keep their focus on Qatar, however, there will be something to remind Wright and Aguilar of the brawl against Australia, and their roles in it. Monday’s game will be played behind closed doors and no fan will be allowed to enter the Araneta Coliseum during the game. This, too, is a consequence of the Australia brawl.
It is a unique experience for everyone in the roster, including the coaching staff. Even the Qatar team has yet to play a game behind closed doors.
Aguilar, who is used to playing in front of huge crowds as a member of Barangay Ginebra, preached focus. “We still have each other naman to get whatever motivation or energy whatsoever,” he also said.
Wright, for his part, acknowledged the challenge that is in front of them.
“We rely on our fans heavily to give us the extra boost, and to be able to rally us when we’re flat and when we’re down,” he noted. “So we definitely see the crowd as an advantage for us.”
“We’re just going to have dig down mentally and just trust in the guys in the locker room,” Wright added. "(We have to) create our own energy… I think it will just be a straight-up basketball game once tip-off happens.”
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.