IN THE ISH: The end of Jayson Castro and Ranidel De Ocampo’s Gilas runs

BLUR-RDO

This article by Chuck Araneta appears in SLAM PH #201

For The Blur and RDO, the credits are rolling, their National Team movie now finished. In the midst of a long list of people responsible for bringing Pilipinas Basketball places: back to the world stage, in the minds of now-wary opponents, and in the hearts of a Gilas-loving nation, there are two names that will forever star: Jayson Castro and Ranidel de Ocampo.

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Ranidel De Ocampo entered the floor with 6:39 remaining in the fourth quarter of Gilas Pilipinas’ match against New Zealand. Down 65-60 and needing a win against the Tall Blacks to advance to the semis, Coach Tab Baldwin needed an extra shot of offense, and an opportunity to rest a bleeding Andray Blatche. So he turned to the veteran, the man he trusted to always make the right decision on both ends of the floor.

De Ocampo put up one shot during his stint: his patented line drive triple. You know which one it is: it’s the shot that he releases almost from the top of his head, Bong Hawkins style. It takes awhile to fire, but more often that not, it hits its target.

RDO missed the shot. In fact, that was the only stretch he would play in the final game of his career donning a Gilas uniform. That stint lasted all of 33 seconds. Total. Eventually he subbed out. And as he headed back to the bench, he would never return.

That would be the last we would ever see of Ranidel De Ocampo representing the Philippines.

Jayson Castro’s situation was different. He was still playing, still contributing at a high level. “Asia’s Best Point Guard!!!!!!!!” everyone screamed as he showcased his speed to the basket as well as his knack for hitting Russell Westbrook-like triples in isolation. But despite the flashes of brilliance, Asia’s Best PG was only the third best guard on the floor that night. Tai Webster and Corey Webster, the brothers-in-arms leading the charge for the Tall Blacks’ campaign to make the Olympics, thoroughly outplayed him. The two combined for 48 points, while Castro delivered only 13.

That would be the last we would ever see of Jayson Castro representing the Philippines.

“Masaya kasi na-miss ko ang mga teammates ko sa Gilas. Parang bumabalik uli yung pakiramdam ko na naglalaro kami sa Gilas. Nararamdaman ko yung chemistry na magkasama kami. Excited uli ako maka-practice. “- Ranidel De Ocampo (February 22, 2016)

De Ocampo was dying to get on the floor once again. It had been too long since then. Too many sleepless nights wondering about the future, and what was left in the tank for his basketball career. A debilitating back injury suffered in late 2015 during a routine workout had robbed him of his livelihood for the short term, and quite possibly the long as well. He would be forced to skip the entire Philippine Cup, seeing his Tropang TNT bow out in the first round of the quarterfinals in unceremonious fashion. For a man who was used to being smack dab in the center of everything, De Ocampo was forced to sit on the stands wearing his crisp polo shirt and jeans.

It killed him, and ate him inside. That’s why when he got the go-signal to return at the start of the Commissioners Cup, he took it a step further: He immediately joined the Gilas practice.

There he was, inside the Moro Lorenzo Gym, grinning from ear to ear. The Gilas pool was still brimming with amateur and professional players: a Marcio Lassiter here, a Kiefer Ravena and Kevin Ferrer there. RDO was there, participating in the warmups, basic dribble-drive movements and casual three-point shootouts with guys that he had traveled the world with to compete for the Philippines.

It was good to have him back. “Okay naman yung first practice namin,” De Ocampo said, after his first practice in several months. “Kahit paano meron naman kami nagawang maganda.”

In retrospect, it was such a strange thing to come out of the mouth of RDO. As early as 2003 when he was but a wee lad at 21-years-old, De Ocampo had already been representing the Philippines, winning a gold medal in the SEA Games in Vietnam. He counted another Gilas mainstay, Star Hotshots forward Marc Pingris, as a teammate on that squad. So yeah, he’s been around the block. He’s worn the Philippines’ uniform proudly for so long, other players would have probably taken the privilege for granted at a certain point.

But not RDO. He’s made of sterner stuff. The type that keeps coming back for more, despite his body telling him not to anymore. The stuff that wills him to literally start from scratch despite his career almost being cut short. No one would have blamed RDO for retiring from international competition after last year’s FIBA Asia Cup silver medal. A host of young players were beginning to come up in the basketball scene, like Troy Rosario and Mac Belo. Surely it would have been understandable that De Ocampo had finally earned his rest, right?

Gilas Pilipinas vs Turkey Tuneup pic 8 by Roy Afable

But Coach Tab Baldwin needed De Ocampo. He needed his veteran there to guide and mentor those that were coming to take his spot, or at least play alongside him. Not only that, the Philippines needed him. Manila would be hosting the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against star-studded teams like France, Canada and Turkey. Gilas needed the sure things, the best possible players out there to perform on a high level and not screw things up.

So De Ocampo was there once again. He never expected a roster spot to be given to him, mind you. Much like everything in his career, RDO had to earn everything that came his way. He played for FedEx the first few years of his career, toiling in obscurity for a team that was headed nowhere, completely under the radar. But when he was traded to Talk ‘N Text in 2008, his career finally took off.

We marvel at players like Belo or Rosario, but remember that RDO was the blueprint for the new generation of forwards who can play both positions. Those two will hopefully be a fixture for the Gilas program for years to come, but never forget that De Ocampo was, and forever will be, the OG.

Standing beside Kuya Del was his point guard, Jayson Castro. He was dressed to go, but on this hot-as-hell February evening practice, he was given the go-signal to only participate in light drills, and not go as hard as the guards a decade younger than he is.

If Ranidel was worried that the end had prematurely come, people were wondering whether Castro’s would ever. The man known as The Blur had been a fixture on the most successful Philippine squads in recent memory. Siya yung pambato natin. Our answer to the Hamed Hadadis and Yi Jianlians of the world.

Oh, you’ve got bigs? Cool. Well, we’ve got Jayson Castro. And he’s (literally) the best point guard in Asia. I know we keep saying it, but only because Castro kept proving it.

2013 was only three years ago, but in truth, it was a lifetime away. Castro made his debut on the squad for Gilas Pilipinas 2.0, and he immediately took our breath away. His drives to the basket against men twice his size seemed like they should have been worth 10 points. His three-pointers, whether off the PU3IT (Pull Up 3 In Transition) or off a pick and roll, made opponents point their fingers at each and wonder how a 5’7″ little guy was able to do these things.

Gilas vs France - July 5, 2016 - PRT - 7

Castro did everything asked of him. All while winning rings as an integral part of a Talk ‘N Text dynasty. The successor to the throne left by Jimmy Alapag.

In practices leading up to the OQT tournament, Castro didn’t go as hard as the others did. It’s not because he was disinterested, or just going through the motions. It was because he was preserving himself. He knew the crown of best PG was a heavy one to wear, and it was something he accepted every year. The nation counted on him to deliver, and he never wanted to let any of us down.

The moments featuring Castro in a Gilas uniform will forever be etched in our collective memories. His scoring battles against the whole freaking continent of Asia in 2013, JJ Barea in 2014, Nikkah Bahrahmi in 2015 were the stuff of legends.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Castro faces a situation similar to RDO: Gilas desperately needed Castro out there. Despite battling through foot injuries because of the wear and tear of a grueling PBA season, sandwiched between tours of duty with Gilas for four straight years, Castro soldiered on. Giving his all and never slowing down.

He couldn’t let us down. He refused to let any of us down.

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Jayson Castro and Ranidel De Ocampo deserved better.

They deserved a better send-off, something more fitting for two men who have given their all for three stars and a sun. A moment where they could bask in the glow of thousands of people giving them a standing ovation, thanking them for their service. A chance to say a proper goodbye.

But that’s never been their M.O. They’ve never asked for any of that. They were more Tim Duncan than Kobe Bryant when it came to announcing things. They’ve never put people in a “will they or won’t they play?” type of situation. When it comes to these two, the expectation has always been for them to perform at a high level, no matter their physical, emotional or spiritual condition. Just like day flows into night, we expected these two to be playing forever: Castro hitting bombs from outside until his late 30’s like Jimmy Alapag, De Ocampo lumbering into the paint, making shots, throwing elbows and starting international incidents.

We were never able to predict when the end would come. And now that it’s here, none of us know how to properly say goodbye.

RDO and Jayson Castro simply have nothing more to give. They have nothing more to prove. They put their bodies through task after task, game after game for flag and country. They stepped up to the plate and formed a core that people could latch on. They were the type of players where if others knew these two would be on board it made the decision infinitely easier.

They lived, breathed and bled Gilas Pilipinas. It was impossible to separate the uniform from these two men.

In front of thousands of hopeful men and women, Gilas Pilipinas fell to New Zealand. The 89-80 defeat meant that their dream of an Olympic appearance ended with a thud. They were out-executed, out-hustled, out-done in almost all aspects of the game.

FIBA OQT Gilas-Pilipinas vs New Zealand pic 11 by Roy  Afable

As the buzzer sounded, RDO and Castro joined their teammates in center court. Fighting back tears, they thanked each other for the journey, and for the battles together. Afterwards, De Ocampo looked for his family, and held his son in his arms. Castro, forever devoid of emotional outburts wandered out of the Mall of Asia Arena in a daze.

And as they exited through the back towards the bus, they saw it.

The “Thank you” from the Philippines. A loyal crowd filled with Pinoys inching ever closer to Gilas, barriers doing their best to hold them back. Slowly Castro and De Ocampo along with their teammates approached the crowd. And as they did, they began to get louder and louder. The thank you’s, well-wishes and arms stretched out to embrace their fallen heroes reverberating around the Arena’s exterior.

Castro and De Ocampo saw all of this unfold. They saw the same thing in 2013, when they ended the curse of Korea, propelling them to the Finals. Even abroad, whether in Spain for 2014 or China in 2015, an outpouring of support from fans kept them moving forward.

Those crowds in years past cheered, as if to say “Keep going on, and keep fighting. We’re here behind you.”

In the evening of their final game wearing a Gilas uniform, the crowd simply wanted to thank the Gilas duo for everything. Thank you for the sacrifices, the road to recovery of Ranidel De Ocampo, and the ever-present excellence of Jayson Castro

To tell them that a nation couldn’t ask for anything more from these two basketball heroes.

A few hours later, RDO tweeted his announcement. A day after, Castro instagrammed his as well. The two have retired from international basketball to focus on their careers in the PBA and to give their slots up for the youngsters that will be part of the new Gilas Cadets program.

RDO and Castro may not be in uniform any longer, but their presence will forever be a part of Gilas Pilipinas. That is their greatest legacy: an example for everyone that there is no higher honor than to proudly represent a country.

No matter how long.

No matter what the cost.

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