In rare but pleasant plot twist, Gilas Pilipinas isn't the underdog for now

MANILA, Philippines – There was silence for the most part inside the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Friday night, May 12. Silence during the Philippine national men's basketball team's first game to open the 2017 SEABA Championships.

But it was not the kind of hushed, apprehensive quiet born from the doom of yet another impending defeat, as the hope of an upset was slowly extinguished with each second ticking away. It was not the silence that followed after a once boisterous, hopeful crowd began to absorb the reality that its most cherished team will be beaten down again by someone bigger than them.

This one was more of a satisfied, blissful silence. The home fans were enjoying themselves all throughout a game for a change, marveling at the suddenly almighty Gilas Pilipinas.

For once, Filipinos came into a game confident of the results, and so they could sit back and calmly watch, cheering only for the highlight-reel plays and the opponent's few baskets made.

"I told the players that a lot of times in international competition tayo ang dehado (we're the underdogs)," coach Chot Reyes pointed out the character shift for this SEABA plot to his players. 

"It's very rare that we come into a game na tayo ang lyamado (that we have the upperhand)."

It's not unfamiliar (as this occurs every other year) but it's also not the traditional Gilas Pilipinas narrative that's captured the curiosity of western basketball nations.

The national team's last venture in international hoops was the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July 2016, where their Rio Olympic dreams went to die against the likes of Tony Parker's France and the very disciplined New Zealand.

Before that, Gilas weathered the FIBA Asia Championship but once again sat in second place after getting overwhelmed by the taller, longer Chinese in the final.

Then there was the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where players recalled looks of shock as other teams watched the diminutive Filipinos disembark from the bus in Spain, as if they were wondering what business those little guys had in a world basketball tournament.

The Filipinos had been treated as the underdogs. When those teams underestimated them, Gilas gave teams like Argentina a scare. In the end the Philippines finally made Senegal pay for that miscalculation in a lone win that was meaningless in the tournament, but meant everything to the country.

The biggest advantage of playing at home for Gilas is the inevitable crowd support. But on Friday night the team seemingly did not need it. Gilas was just fine on its own as it tore apart an overmatched Myanmar side comprised of woefully inexperienced 18- to 23-year-olds.

Acutely aware of the position Myanmar was in, Gilas had no intentions of letting up, even if they may have looked like bullies to some.

"It's a very fine line. Kung magbaboy naman kami (If we fool around), if we don't defend them, let them lay-up, and if we don't take shots or take haphazard shots and make haphazard plays, then that's a bigger sign of disrespect, not only for the opponent, but for the game," Reyes explained.

"We talk a lot about winning the right way, playing the game the right way, and you know I'm sure even for Myanmar, they wouldn't want it any other way."

There were obvious concerns over Gilas slacking off against a weaker opponent, which is why the coaching staff emphasized the only numbers that would matter to them for the night would be hustle stats.

GOOD GAME. Players from both the Philippines and Myanmar acknowledge each other after the game. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

GOOD GAME. Players from both the Philippines and Myanmar acknowledge each other after the game.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

And while the Philippines had its sloppy moments, they still thrashed Myanmar by 107 points, 147-40, breaching the 100-point lead with under two minutes to go.

"We've been on the opposite end, when we traveled in 2013 and 2014. In all our travels, we've been on opposite ends of these scores as well. When we played Australia in France, when they beat up on us," Reyes recalled.

"When we played the other World Cup teams, we've been on the other end of the stick, so we know how it feels. And even when we were a lot smaller and a lot less talented than the other teams, we never expected them to take it easy on us, because it's basketball."

In these parts, however, it's a different story.

The Filipinos have been such a dominant force in the Southeast Asian region that it was normal to send collegiate stars to compete in regional tilts, rather than the professional players. So with naturalized center and former NBA player Andray Blatche flanking this Gilas 12 of mostly PBA veterans sprinkled with cadets, there was talk about the lineup being "overkill."

"Dito sinasabi nila na overkill pero actually hindi naman eh. Nilalabas lang namin 'yung laro namin na nandito tayo sa lugar natin (Here they say it's overkill but actually it isn't. We're just playing our game here at home)," said forward Calvin Abueva, who led Friday's scoring with 22 points.

"Siyempre, nandito tayo sa magaan muna 'yung kalaban pero don't underestimate that kasi lahat ng teams talagang naghahanda (Of course, we're playing weaker teams first but don't underestimate that because all teams will be prepared)."

Abueva is right. Teams in Southeast Asia are always raring for the honor of taking down the Philippines. Indonesia, for one, is the only other squad this SEABA that brought an import with them (although his clearance is yet to be resolved). An upset could be just around the corner if Gilas isn't careful.

"Kailangan mo i-treat as a regular game para 'di kayo magkaroon ng bad habits in the future na mga games na mas mahirap (We need to treat it as a regular game so we don't develop bad habits in the future when games become more difficult)," explained newcomer Allein Maliksi. 

"Ang mindset is, when you smell blood you go for the kill, mahina na nga eh tapos lalaruin mo pa. 'Di naman sa inu-underestimate natin kasi siyempre alam natin na kayang kaya, bakit mo pagbibigyan 'yung kalaban?"

(The mindset is, when you smell blood you go for the kill, it's a weaker team already so why would you toy with them. We're not underestimating anybody because we know they can play but why would we take it easy on them?)

The Philippines is the top squad in the region and is ranked 27th in the world, climbing a few spots over recent years. This was why it served as placeholder for the Asian Qualifiers draw – although the overwhelming expectation is that's already a done deal, barring a massive upset in this tournament.

Come August, should the Philippines win here and qualify, Gilas will revert back to its original role as perpetual underdog.

When they move on to the Asian Qualifiers – where they'll battle another world powerhouse in Australia – and make the slow, difficult march toward potential 2019 World Cup and Tokyo Olympics slots, it'll be back to familiar storylines.

For now, this is a welcome plot twist, a respite from the old wearying story arc. A reminder that the Philippines has some dominating basketball powers to speak of.

It shouldn't be the norm, naturally. Gilas should press on with its aspirations of being competitive on the world stage. But it must feel good to be on top again – at least for this week. –