SEVILLE, Spain – The Philippines is back on the global basketball stage after 36 long years and Filipinos from all over the world made sure they did not miss their chance to witness Gilas Pilipinas compete against the best of the world.
During Gilas’ opening game in the 2014 FIBA World Cup against the much taller Croatian team, a predominantly Filipino crowd gave Gilas what seemed like a home court advantage.
Roviel Villa, 26, a student from the University of Stavanger came all the way from Norway with 8 other Filipinos to cheer for the national team.
Lining up to get into the Palacio Municipal de Deportes, Villa felt he was back home again after spending the past 3 years in Norway.
“It feels like all the things that I picked up from Norway, it’s like they disappeared in an instant, and then my Filipino sides just came out,” said Villa.
“And what’s amazing was it wasn’t only Filipinos who came from the Philippines. There were Filipinos who came from Ireland, UK, Norway, Italy, and all the other countries in Europe, even in America, they all flew to Seville just to watch the game.”
Villa fondly recalls the moment when Jimmy Alapag, one of his favorite players on the team, was fouled after making a three-point shot and calmly converted the free throw to complete a four-point play.
“Alapag made that play, shot that three. Everyone in the arena was standing, shouting, and the flags were waving.”
“I think, for Gilas, they felt like they were playing in the Philippines,” he added.
Villa, a Cebu native who grew up watching Philippine basketball legends like Allan Caidic and Alvin Patrimonio, has followed Gilas since the head coaching days of Rajko Toroman.
Toroman was at the helm of Gilas Pillipinas from 2008 to 2012. He led the team to a 4th place finish in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship.
Toroman’s team caught Villa’s attention because of the collegiate standouts in the team. He also believed in the system that Toroman was running, and when the Serbian coach was replaced, Villa said he started having doubts. (READ: The Smart Gilas boys: five years after)
Villa, once a fan of the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), says he has grown disinterested with the league. He said it got boring for him. Still, he gave the post-Toroman team a chance and continued following them.
When he learned of the team’s historic run in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship held in the Philippines, he quickly decided, since he was already in Europe, that he would go to Spain to give his support despite knowing he could only attend one game due to his schedule.
Villa, together with friends from Norway, endured connecting flights from Stavanger, to Toulouse and Paris in France, and then Amsterdam in Netherlands before finally arriving in Seville, Spain.
It was a 12-hour long journey that he said was more than worth it after Gilas announced that its back in the world basketball stage following a gallant stand versus Croatia.
He cheered loudest for two players - team captain Jimmy Alapag and fellow Cebu native June Mar Fajardo.
In the game against Croatia, Villa said he was cheering in Cebuano when Fajardo was fielded in to replace naturalized center Andray Blatche.
He calls Alapag the heart and soul of Gilas, noting how the savvy point guard leads the team and hits crucial timely baskets.
Francis Naval, a Filipino engineer who has been living in Dubai for 10 years, is also looking forward to cheering for Alapag and the rest of the Gilas boys.
Photo by Rappler
He missed the opening game but will be in attendance for the next four.
Like Villa, Naval recognized the historic value of Gilas participating in the world tournament.
"Nung una hindi ko pa inisip pumunta. Sabi ko okay, nakapasok pero parang ayoko pa dahil nag-aalangan ako sa mga papeles na kailangan asikasuhin, kailangan pa mag-leave. Pero nung papalit na naisip ko bihira lang 'to, first time in 36 years. So, nag-decide ako na go na."
(At first I wasn't thinking of going because I had to do so much in terms of paper work. But as the tournament drew near I figured, this doesn't happen often, first time in 36 years. So I decided to really go for it.)
Naval believes the team has what it takes to win at least two to advance to the next stage. He also expects the team to put up a good fight agaisnt the much-higher ranked teams Greece and Argentina because of the presence of Blatche.
"Si Blatche makikita mo siya talaga yung kailangan ng team. Although may positive at negative akong nakikita, okay naman yung positive. May tira sa labas at nakakapagdala ng bola."
(You can see Blatche is really what the team needs. I see some positives and negatives on his game but the positives are very good. He can shoot from the outside and can handle the ball well.)
Another added motivation, he said, is that Blatche currently has no NBA team and his performance in the FIBA World Cup could very well serve as an audition to one of the 30 teams in the pro-league.
Villa, who saw how down the team was after almost coming up with an upset, had one message for Gilas: "Just keep on fighting."
He also had a special message for his fellow Cebuano.
"Bai, pagpadayon jud na imong gibuhat bai. Kahibawo ko na kaya ra jud na nimo. Maayo ka. Tuo jud sa imong kaugalingon."
(Buddy, keep doing what you are doing. I know that you can do it. You're good. Believe in yourself.)