MANILA, Philippines – The Mall of Asia Arena turned from celebratory blue to an image of sorrow and despair. As thousands of Filipinos slowly left the stadium – many with tears streaming from their eyes – the big screen hanging from the heavens of the 20,000 thousand-seating complex showed an image of the Philippine flag painted on the face of a Filipino in grief.
For one night, once again, the puso of millions of Pinoys beat as one, and when the final buzzer sounded, you could see it breaking by the look on their faces.
One more time, it’s devastation for Gilas Pilipinas, which lost to New Zealand on the second day of the FIBA OQT and became the first nation of the tournament to get eliminated – in front of its home fans, nonetheless.
Dreams of making the 2016 Rio Olympics? Gone.
Hopes of beating a powerhouse and telling the world, “We have arrived,” Erased.
A memory to last a lifetime? Better luck next time.
Such has become the conundrum of the Philippine national basketball team. Close, but just not quite. Victory within grasp, only to be snatched and sent into a night of despair and what could have beens.
There was the question if Gilas could have defeated Iran in the 2013 FIBA Asia finals had Marcus Douthit been healthy and challenged Hamed Haddadi.
There were the haunting memories of blowing winnable games against Croatia, Argentina and Puerto Rico in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
There was the anger of the blatantly bad calls while playing against China in the title match of last year’s FIBA Asia Championship.
And then, this. The squandered 10-point lead against France which would have easily been the country’s most significant basketball accomplishment in decades. Then the loss to New Zealand in a game where the Philippines entered as favorites by a shade under 10 points. Truth be told: it wasn’t really that close; the other team was much, much better, with Tab Baldwin getting out-coached.
Said the 58-year-old head coach after the game:
“This program is in its own world in a way. We’re always battling a lot of different things internally and we’re trying to battle externally as well. We’re trying to lift our level, we’re trying to lift our standards, so that we are not just competitive with this level of basketball, but we can go out on the court and have everybody’s – including our own – belief that we can win. Not a wish, not a dream, but a real belief.”
For years, the Filipino people have been banking on that belief. Gilas players grew up idolizing the Tony Parkers, Nic Batums, Boris Diaws, and Cory Josephs of the world. But when will the time come that those guys are on the other side looking at us, with our arms raised in victory, the world’s basketball stage our playground?
Your answer is as good as mine – I don’t know. What I do know is that after another heartbreak last night, I saw a despondent Marc Pingris put both hands behind his head and look up to the sky, his face turning red, an entire country sympathizing with him.
I saw June Mar Fajardo, the most unstoppable force Philippine basketball has ever seen, walk to his mom, arms locked in a hug, as the two cried out their disappointment and leaned on each other for strength.
I saw Jeff Chan go to his wife, and they both bowed their heads simultaneously, needing each other to get through another defeat.
I saw Andray Blatche, who gave his blood, sweat, tears, and heart to this country – the country that has adopted him as one of its own sons – on his knees mid-court of the Mall of Asia Arena.
“I know it hurts for everybody. It pains me to be in this situation and I speak for the whole team,” said team captain Gabe Norwood after the game.
There will be statements of what serious changes should be made. Angry fans on Twitter will prod their knowledge, believing Gilas should have done this and that. The criticisms will flow, turning one of the most important events in Philippine basketball history to a game of cat and mouse; of who’s wrong and who’s right.
Questions surround this program now. Who will return? Jayson Castro and Ranidel De Ocampo say they won’t. Will PBA players be back? Will Ray Parks, Troy Rosario, and Terrence Romeo be the nucleus that could one day catapult the Philippines to the higher level of the world’s elite? What’s going to happen to Andray Blatche? Will the Cadets program be a success? What lessons will Gilas learn from the two losses?
“It’s a positive that we get this competitive experience for Philippine basketball players, but it’s also an eye-opener for us to understand that we need a lot more of this if we expect to be successful in this level. Certainly, we were competitive, and that’s a positive, because there probably was a time when we probably wouldn’t be competitive at this level,” said Baldwin.
“We need more of this, and this is the pathway. Trust me there is no other pathway. If we want to start winning at this level, we got to take a bunch more beatings at this level to learn how to win at this level.”
Wherever this Gilas program goes, and whether this magical run that has made the world realize how much we love basketball will ever translate to success on the court, the future seems unpredictable.
But there is something that is predictable.
Something that will never change and continue to inspire hope in the puso battlecry and mantra of the Philippines.
You, the fans. You, the loyal supporters. You, the one who gives his/her own heart and soul to a basketball team that has the ability to inspire unlike anything else in this basketball-loving country.
Because Gilas Pilipinas isn’t just the 12 players on the roster or the coaching staff or the team management. Gilas Pilipinas is each and every one of you who pledges loyalty and support to a team that represents what being a Filipino is all about: getting back up once you’ve been knocked down, fighting until the very last breathe.
I saw it in the losses to France and New Zealand, as the national team was unwilling to concede defeat until the fourth quarter ended.
And I also saw it after the game to New Zealand, as hundreds of fans waited outside the players’ exit of the Mall of Asia Arena with Wednesday night turning to Thursday morning. Gilas players one by one came out, the agony of defeat clear on their faces, but erased right away by the love and adoration of screaming spectators who stayed patient for a chance at a picture or autograph.
I saw it when Marc Pingris went to each fan one by one, clapping hands, giving hugs, and throwing t-shirts. I saw it when Fajardo bowed down for pictures with Pinoys and started cracking jokes again. I saw it when the fans screamed “ROMEO! ROMEO!” and he exited the bus to take selfies, basking in the moment.
I saw it when Castro, De Ocampo, and Chan posed and smiled, signed and greeted, likely for the last time after a game wearing the country’s name on their chests. I saw it when former team captain Jimmy Alapag threw up a blue shirt to the mass. I saw it as each and every one of them cheered and screamed until the bus finally departed the parking lot.
“That’s the nature of the game,” said Alapag. “You go out there and compete and fight as hard as you can, and sometimes you fall short, but you have to dust yourself off, pick yourself up, and like I said, Gilas will live to fight another day.”
Resiliency. Headstrong. Passionate. Love for country. That’s what each and every guy who wears the Philippine jersey is all about. There will be more tournaments, more players wanting to fight for the nation, more opportunities to show the rest of the globe what we’re made of.
And there may even be more devastating defeats, but guess what: the Philippines will keep getting up.
“Can’t stop being proud,” said Norwood. “We were wearing that flag across our chests, and as badly as it hurts, we know the effort that we put in as well.”
Sure, Gilas didn’t win a single game in the FIBA OQT. Sure, history will have to wait for the Philippines to finally make a lasting imprint on the international stage. Sure, hearts were broken again.
But nothing changes – the resolute just gets stronger. The pain of defeat is more impactful than the ecstasy of victory, and this recent downfall will be more fuel for the fire. The Philippine team will return, and the millions of people behind its back with them. Gilas is defeated, but definitely unbroken.
Not just now, but forever and always: Laban Pilipinas. – Rappler.com
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