MANILA, Philippines – What burns in Andray Maurice Blatche’s mind? In all 6-feet-11 inches of him?
“There’s unfinished business,” he says during a late night call in Atlanta with Rappler.
The memory of Changsa, China on a painful October 3, 2015 evening still haunts and motivates him. He remembers everything vividly as much as he would like to forget it. He remembers the bad calls, the partisan crowd, the cheap stunts to distract the Philippines.
“Inside the locker room? It was like someone had died. Coach Tab (Baldwin, Philippines head coach) and Boss MVP (Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas President and team patron) were telling us not to be ashamed and that we should walk out with out heads and chins up high. That we did our best under the circumstances we played under. But the team… we all felt like we let the country down.”
Blatche hears that some of the French players who ply their trade in the National Basketball Association are skipping the Olympic Qualifiers, the last seat for that ticket to the Rio Olympics that is months away. Dray looks forward to returning to the Association after a spell in China.
Some say it’s a risk to play while not having that NBA contract. “The pros outweigh the cons,” Blatche concludes. “If they don’t want to play for their country, that’s their business. I’m here to get the job done. It’s unfinished business."
Dray hears that the murmurs and criticism of not coming to Changsa in shape. “People do not realize what I was going through. The dearest person in the world to me, my mother (Angela Oliver), had cancer and it was a very difficult time. She got me through difficult times so why shouldn’t I be there for her?
“I didn’t touch a basketball for 4 months so I was out of playing shape for Gilas. But that is why I am coming back to play. Not only to fulfill a contract, but you don’t know how much a sour taste that loss to China, falling short in the Worlds, hurt. You don’t want to just come in and play. You want to win.”
“And yes, I am in playing shape."
File photo by FIBA
Back in early 2014, when the idea of first playing for the Philippine national team was broached by his trainer Rory Jones, who has worked with many NBA players, Dray’s first thought was, “Why me? Why do they want me?”
The big man from Syracuse, New York was told that basketball was more than a passion in the Philippines. It is a way of life. And at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, a religion.
“Playing for the Philippines is one of the best things I have done in my life. I watch my teammates and the others who play in the PBA and the college leagues. Man, if they were here in the US, some of them would be playing in the NBA.”
Blatche refuses to single out any player who is a joy to play with. “I love playing with them all. Even the new guys like Calvin (Abueva) and Terrence (Romeo). We all have each other's backs. It’s a team in the purest sense. It’s an honor to even be part of it. I get inspired too by seeing them play.”
At 29 years of age, Dray finds a lot of inspiration in the world. “There’s my mom of course. Her battling cancer, she shows me that you can’t give up. In a basketball sense, even in the last two, 3 minutes of the game, even with seconds left and you’re still down, you can’t ever give up. You still fight.
"Miracles don’t happen if you don’t work for it. Watching the Golden State Warriors play beautiful basketball, that makes you want to get better. Watching the Denver Broncos come out this season and play for Peyton Manning, that was inspirational.
“I’m from New York and that is the Mecca of basketball. The love of the game that I first developed on the streets. It doesn’t matter where you are from New York, the game is in your blood. It doesn’t go away even if it becomes your job. There is a reason why we play. We love the game. And that is why I can’t wait to come back and play for Gilas."
Andray Blatche will arrive in Manila on May 27. – Rappler.com