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Chot Reyes Shares Leadership Lessons from A Grueling End to ‘Gilas Pilipinas’ Journey

Chot Reyes Shares Leadership Lessons from A Grueling End to ‘Gilas Pilipinas’ Journey
Former Gilas Pilipinas head coach Chot Reyes

Winning a basketball match on the global stage is no easy task. And when sports fans come to your games to express their contempt instead of support, that makes it extra difficult for anyone to lead a team to victory.

No one understands this better than former Gilas Pilipinas head coach Vincent “Chot” Reyes, who weathered a lot of criticisms in his colorful tenure with the national team. His journey, marked by historic wins and embarrassing losses, offers valuable lessons for leaders both on and off the court.

Reyes shared some of these, beginning with “accountability,” when he appeared in an episode of “Breakthrough with Boris Joaquin” last Wednesday, Sept. 13, which was also streamed live on The Philippine STAR and Career Guide Facebook pages.

The veteran playmaker recently announced his decision to “step down” once again from a grueling tour of duty as Gilas Pilipinas head coach after failing to deliver on his goal to make it the “best Asian team” in the just concluded 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

“I was hired to get the country to the Olympics... And although we finished better this year than our two previous World Cup stints in 2014 and 2019, the fact is we fell short of that objective… I believe in a leader's accountability… I did not get the job done, and so, I felt it was best to step aside,” Reyes said.

The Philippines could not capitalize on its home court advantage when it lost all but one of its games in the quadrennial tournament. It ended up at 24th place. Co-host Japan emerged as the best team in Asia after winning three games, thus securing an outright spot in the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics.

In his conversation with Joaquin, Reyes rued that the breaks of the game did not go their way. Gilas Pilipinas fought and had real chances of success in at least two of their matches in the group phase, but the lack of preparation due to “circumstances beyond anyone’s control” eventually cost them.

While the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) did everything necessary to get the best Filipino athletes suited up for the national team, Reyes said “player availability and preparation” remained an issue, despite receiving the full cooperation of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

This is because some Gilas Pilipinas members in its latest iteration come from different leagues, such as Jordan Clarkson, who plays for the Utah Jazz in the US National Basketball Association (NBA). Other key players also suffered injuries prior to the World Cup.

“We gave ourselves a chance to win against the best teams in the world. So, imagine if we had more time to prepare,” Reyes told Joaquin. “We had a really good plan put together. But, in the end, what actually happened was very different from the plan,” he added.

Regardless, the seasoned basketball tactician refused to make any excuses. He apologized profusely to Filipino hoops fans in every post-game conference and took full responsibility following their tough losses against Dominican Republic, Angola, Italy and South Sudan.

“If I do not display accountability myself, what right do I have to stand before the audiences that I speak to, right?” said Reyes, who also does speaking engagements about leadership and runs organizations in the corporate world outside of his basketball career.

Rising above hatred and negativity

It did not help that the home crowd was never on his side to begin with. Reyes bore the weight of negativity from disgruntled Pinoy fans throughout their entire FIBA World Cup campaign and he knew it affected the performance of some of his players.

So, in their last game against China, Reyes delivered a pep talk to his team, encouraging them not to get distracted despite coming off four consecutive losses. That game was close during halftime until Clarkson and the rest of his teammates pulled away in the last two quarters.

“It was essentially a no-bearing game. But, still, to be able to come out and play your best and play your hardest even when there was very little at stake, except pride and, you know, being able to prove to yourself that you can compete against the world’s best… That’s where I was coming from,” he said.

“I told my players: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m going to be fine…’ I told them to think about (themselves), to play for their own careers… Obviously, they’re all playing for the country. We’re all playing for our families. But I also told them… how important this game is going to be for [their] own careers,” Reyes noted.

Having coached the national team in the past, Reyes already knew what he was getting into when he reluctantly accepted the position. But he lamented how some sports bloggers fueled the fans’ hatred towards him by running stories or sharing opinions that pitted him against Tab Baldwin.

“I was the one who brought Coach Tab here. I think people are forgetting that. I got him on my staff in 2013, and then I was the one who handpicked him to be my successor. And I was the one who convinced him to come to the Philippines to coach here for the national team,” Reyes recalled.

Contrary to the speculations of many, Reyes said he and Baldwin have a close working relationship. But the latter also had to “step down” from the national team to focus on his coaching job with Ateneo de Manila University. This prompted the SBP to tap Reyes anew to fill the position.

“Like I said, I did not apply. I did not volunteer (for the job). In fact, when this was offered to me, I initially did not accept it. It took a couple of meetings until finally they (SBP) told me, okay, it’s final… That was the only time I accepted it,” he explained.

“I think hindi na-communicate nang mabuti sa (it was not communicated well to the) public what happened. And so, people are saying that I stole the job. How can I do that? Remember, I was retired at that point. I was completely outside of basketball,” Reyes underscored.

The ability to keep showing up to work despite receiving harsh and unfounded criticisms on a daily basis is another valuable trait that aspiring leaders have to master, according to Reyes. You not only have to prepare your team for it, but yourself as well.

“I was booed by my own countrymen before every game. Hindi biro ‘yun (That’s not a joke)Boris. To be booed right before a game. But I prepared myself for it… I think that’s a big lesson that I can share with leaders, how you can keep your mind in situations like that when it’s kind of chaotic,” he said.

To keep his sanity in check, Reyes told Joaquin he has been doing some mindfulness practice, which includes breathing exercises on top of his physical fitness routine. This is important to help you stay present, focused, and not get rattled.

“I simply listen to the voice that matters. I have a very strict regimen, a daily routine where, like I said, I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. So, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t read that at all… Number two, I’m a big believer in gratitude,” Reyes shared.

“When you have your own regular routine, then you are focused on the most important things. And when you fill your day with productive things, there is very little space for negativity to come in,” the veteran coach advised.

Reyes said he is grateful to still have the support of other mild-mannered Filipinos and his fellow coaches, even those from other teams, who empathized with him. “It’s a coaching fraternity and they all understand, but they really couldn’t understand why that (booing from fans) was happening.”

“The worst thing that a leader can do in crisis situations is to panic. Because when you panic then you’re going to emit that to your players as well. So, I think those are some of the most powerful things that I learned,” he pointed out.

Focusing on the positives

Despite everything, Reyes chooses to be optimistic. He believes Gilas Pilipinas has a bright future with the continuing development of its young players like Dwight Ramos, Rhenz Abando, AJ Edu and Kai Sotto who are all in their 20s.

When asked of his thoughts about the European style of basketball, which proved to be so effective, Reyes responded: “The Euro style is perfect for the European player. We cannot force the Euro style on us because, number one, of our size and our lack of experience playing it and understanding it.”

“And I don’t know if we can play the Euro style and beat a European team playing the Euro style. We cannot out-Euro the Euros… So, we have to find our own style of play,” he added. Reyes, however, acknowledged the idea as a valid point since the two teams who reached the finals came from Europe.

Germany took home the FIBA Basketball World Cup title this year after beating Serbia in the gold medal match. Reyes argued that while the Philippines’ style of play looked “bara-bara” (sloppy), the team managed to compete and their losses were decent.

“I’m very, very proud of this team. Amid very difficult circumstances, we performed much, much better than ever than in all the previous World Cups. Remember, as early as 10 years ago, we were not even playing in the World Cup,” he said.

Reyes understands the Gilas Pilipinas program will remain a work in progress moving forward. But he hopes the fans will keep supporting the team and everyone involved in it to ensure its success. SBP has officially named Tim Cone to take over head coaching duties for the squad in future tournaments.

Cone served as one of his assistant coaches, whom he was also trying to convince in the past to succeed him in the post. Reyes, meanwhile, plans to focus on coaching his Talk n’ Text team in the PBA and resume his leadership development work.

Reyes said the past few weeks leading up to the World Cup had been “very hectic” for him, so he is taking his time to “rest, recover and decompress.” He will travel to the UK for vacation at the end of the month and take a side trip to the FIBA headquarters in Switzerland to donate his game jacket.

“My coaching jacket is going to be there in the FIBA museum… Of course, that’s a great honor and thrill for me,” he told Joaquin. In the end, Reyes appeared to have no regrets, reiterating that his work for Gilas Pilipinas was born out of his desire to serve the country.

“I’m not a politician with millions of constituents nor am I an entrepreneur with thousands of employees. All I am is a basketball coach. And the only way I know how to serve my country is by coaching the national team,” Reyes said.

“To everyone, thank you for the support, thank you for all the prayers and encouragement. And I just like to say that I fought the good fight and I fought ‘til I could not fight any more for my country with all my heart. Laban Pilipinas! Puso!” he noted at the end of the interview, echoing the Gilas battle cry. 

Watch the full episode of “Breakthrough with Boris Joaquin” here: