FTS TBT: Japeth Aguilar deserves our cheers

“Ang tagal na nating ginagawa ito ‘no Japs?” said Gilas Pilipinas team manager Butch Antonio when Japeth Aguilar showed up for the first time in practice for the 2017 SEABA tournament. I don’t know what it is about Japeth but it sometimes does not feel that he ages. He still dunks with the same ferocity he had back in college. He still tries to block every shot that’s within streaking distance and he does it with mean intent. He still bites on every pump fake (joke lang…okay…medyo joke lang).

It’s easy to forget that Aguilar has been doing this playing for the country thing far longer than anyone else. It started with coach Rajko Toroman back in 2009. It exploded in 2013 with coach Chot Reyes. He missed the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship but played for coach Tab Baldwin in the FIBA OQT.

Japs told me he was retiring from international basketball after that stint, so did Jayson Castro but the return of coach Chot convinced them to give it one more shot.

For the second #FTSTBT post, we take a look back at Japeth’s Gilas journey through the years. From playing an important role in the first two times, to not fitting in to coach Tab’s system, to returning for coach Chot with the leadership, patience, and guile of the champion that he is but still with the same gusto of a rookie.

Again, this post first appeared on GMAnews.tv.

After their win against Qatar, Gilas head coach Chot Reyes was joined by Japeth Aguilar in the press room. Aguilar’s head was bowed down as he rubbed his hands together, trying to get some heat in the frigid room full of reporters.

He grabbed the microphone with the usual awkward, herky-jerky movement he has. This place, and that microphone, are reserved for players who had a large affect on the outcome of the game. Versus Qatar, Aguilar had 14 points, seven rebounds, and a block in almost 18 minutes, the most among players who came off the bench.

His presence here, with the Gilas team, and in this room, was almost hard to believe. Up until the last moment before Beau Belga was named as the last cut from the Gilas roster, there were petitions for Aguilar to be the one to get dropped.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to understand why people wanted the last slot to be given to Belga. It was easy because Aguilar has no solid fanbase that would make enough noise to warrant any attention.

Talk ‘N Text fans can’t relate with him. GlobalPort fans didn’t get enough time to really get to know him. And Ginebra fans have yet to see their latest recruit in the Barangay’s red and white.

Belga on the other hand has earned the respect of the entire league because of his physical play. He has a solid Rain or Shine fanbase and he is the Patron Saint of every wide-bodied boy who ever held a basketball.

Belga and Aguilar are exact opposites. One relies on his basketball IQ and his gulang, the other relies mostly on his athleticism. Belga was the underdog, so a lot rooted for him to succeed.

But above all these reasons, one stood out the most. Filipino basketball fans wanted Belga to be a part of Gilas because Belga never left them. They know Belga will always be theirs. They aren’t sure if Aguilar will ever be.

Aguilar’s basketball career so far has been defined by abrupt departures. Left Ateneo for Western Kentucky. Pulled a one-and-done with Burger King. Left Talk ‘N Text to again try his luck abroad. Traded to Ginebra from GlobalPort after just 14 games.

If Aguilar was rewarded with a slot with Gilas, what will happen if he decides to leave again? If we as fans become attached to him, what will we do if he leaves for the United States again?

As fans, we cherish normalcy. We can’t bring ourselves to go all in on Aguilar because we know it’s impossible to pin him down.

But in his first five games in the FIBA Asia Championship, Aguilar  has given us no choice but to cheer from him.

In their past two games, Aguilar has been a highlight machine. There are two instances that kill the Filipino fans with anticipation. One is when Jeff Chan gathers for one of his long bombs. The other is when Aguilar accelerates and elevates for his dunks.

Not too long ago, Aguilar was a youngster who had to brush his hands with sap from a mango tree so the ball would not slip while he tried to dunk it. Now he does it with so much ease. Not too long ago, fans dreaded seeing Aguilar on the floor for the Philippines. Now they’re willing to pay the price of admission for the chance to see him dunk.

Aguilar used to be all about highlights. A quick search on YouTube will make you a witness.  Swatting shots to the third row. Reverse dunking against UP at the Blue Eagle Gym. Dunking with Kevin Durant hot on his heels. All great moments. All just moments.

With Gilas, Aguilar still has his highlight moments, but his consistency has been his most important contribution. He is the primary reliever of Marcus Douthit. When he is on the floor, he is expected to alter shots and grab rebounds, and so far he has done all of that and more.

We no longer cringe when he gets the ball 15-feet away from the basket because we know he can make the shot. We no longer fear that he’ll jump for every ball fake. We no longer pull our hair after he fails to get an easy rebound because he has gobbled up all the loose balls in his general vicinity. Japeth Aguilar is slowly becoming the player we all thought he could be, the player we know he could be.

“It’s not only about myself,” Aguilar said afterwards. “It’s about our team chemistry and those moments given to me.” His thoughts trailed off, as if he didn’t know how to continue. Aguilar gathered himself then spoke in Filipino, not minding that about half of the room would not be able to understand him. “Kaya ko nagagawa ‘yon dahil sa team din,” he finished.

He struggled to formulate his thoughts in English like how he struggled to fit into basketball in the States. He’s good enough to play like he’s eloquent enough to speak but at the end of the day, it’s just doesn’t fit.

When Aguilar said it in Filipino, everything felt natural.

In five FIBA games, Aguilar convinced Filipino basketball fans that he is worth rooting for. As they shower him with their support, they hope to convince Japeth Aguilar not to leave them anymore.

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