Forty years from now, we’ll remember that day. It was the day that united young women in high heels and aging grandmothers in their dusters, the richest of businessmen and the strongest of club bouncers, five-foot-nine high school centers and fifty-year-old former varsity players, and even tricycle drivers and English-speaking Filipino-Americans. It was the day when the nation stood as one, behind a basketball team of 12 men who gave the Filipino people their all.
It was an improbable story that was destined to become a fairytale run from the beginning. After Lebanon was deemed unsuitable to host the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, the qualifiers for the 2014 Basketball World Cup, the Philippines was tapped as the replacement host country last January. The construction of the modern Mall of Asia Arena in 2012 was a big help in obtaining the hosting rights of the tournament for the first time since 1973. Back then, the Philippines came out on top against South Korea in the final held in the Rizal Memorial Stadium to take home the gold medal.
The hosting of this year’s tournament brought about both anticipation and tension among the people. Who would be in the roster? Did we have a legitimate chance? Would we be embarrassed on our home court? Several questions of the nation were still left unanswered even in the final few days before the tournament. The infamous politics surrounding Philippine basketball were at an all-time high and it added to the pressure and expectations from the team.
Since winning the tourney in 1985, the Filipinos have endured an extended drought and many of our heartbreaks have come at the hands of the Koreans. Of the many losses that we have been dealt, the sting of the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan, South Korea hurts the most and still remains in the hearts of many Filipino basketball fans. With the Philippines up by two points, Korea beat the fourth quarter buzzer in the semifinals with a three pointer to steal the victory and a trip to the finals. 11 years later and this time on our soil, the Philippines had the perfect opportunity for revenge in the exact same semifinal scenario.
In the hours before the tip-off of the match, everyone in the country was in a nostalgic yet anxious mood. The media came out with excellent material building up the showdown between the old rivals while old men told tales of the countless battles between Korean legend Shin Dong Pa and Filipino icon Robert Jaworski. It was a mix between basketball and national pride; the only other thing you could ask for to unite the country even more was to have boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao start at point guard for Gilas.
Filipinos of all ages and from all walks of life who couldn’t secure a ticket to the sold-out arena rushed to the nearest television set or scrolled through their Twitter feeds to watch history unfold. As halftime came about, our team dubbed Smart Gilas Pilipinas trailed by just three points, but there was a collective air of nervousness around the country as naturalized seven-footer Marcus Douthit limped back to the locker room to nurse an injury he sustained earlier in the tournament. It seemed like the injury would keep him out for the rest of the game and we looked destined for another loss.
What followed though caught not just the local audience off guard, but the entire basketball world. Playing in the paint against Koreans who were four inches taller than them, forwards Marc Pingris and Ranidel de Ocampo stepped up to the challenge brought about by Douthit’s departure in the second half. Pingris seemed to grab every rebound that came his way and operated masterfully in the inside while de Ocampo bullied his way underneath and made several timely shots. Height was no longer a factor in this contest and all that mattered was heart. The Filipinos were the underdogs, but they never quit and stuck it to their opponents with their Pusong Pinoy.
Then the guards of Gilas led by the speedy Jason Castro began to hit their three pointers and made seemingly impossible shots that brought about bedlam amongst the audience. Friends, family and strangers were jumping up and down in the air, giving high-fives and hugging each other like there was no tomorrow. Social Media online turned into a chorus of praises for the twelve members of Gilas who seemed to be defying the impossible. The Koreans mounted a comeback, but the oldest player on Gilas, national team veteran Jimmy Alapag, hit timely baskets down the stretch that made the crowd erupt into a deafening frenzy. It was enough for the team to come out with an 86-79 victory that vanquished the demons of basketball past that have haunted the Filipinos for almost three decades.
For two hours on a Saturday night, the Philippines was one. Whether you were rich or poor, fan or not, you would have heard of the monumental victory at the Mall of Asia Arena. It brought smiles to the millions of Filipinos around the world and tears to the cheeks of even the strongest of men. The genuine emotion of the players amidst the euphoria of the crowd was felt even through television sets and radio broadcasts and it brought die-hard fans to their knees. The sheer joy and unity of the Filipino people at that moment was unlike any other and just like everyone else, at that moment I could truly say that I was proud to be a Pinoy. I myself was standing outside a bar in The Fort cheering and celebrating with bouncers, security guards, waiters and fancily dressed partygoers. I witnessed first hand how basketball truly is the greatest equalizer for all.
On the court, an African-American seven-footer from New York, Filipino-foreigners raised in different environments, Manila boys from private schools and hardened journeymen from the province all came together and fought for our pride. The spectators came from all walks of life, with men in suits and tricycle drivers in tsinelas cheering their hearts out for twelve men on a mission. For two hours, the Filipino people were given a reprieve from all the corruption and poverty that surrounds our everyday life. One basketball game brought us tension, nervousness and excitement, but in the end, we were given something that has been so elusive to Filipino basketball fans: joy and happiness.
Though we eventually lost to Iran in the final, the heart that this team and the rest of the Filipino people showed was admirable. With the runner-up finish, the Philippines gets a chance to make a name for itself in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup which pits the best in the world against one another. Though our lack of height will make it difficult to compete against towering Americans and Europeans, the Filipinos have established themselves once again as an Asian basketball power. It will be all uphill from here, but this team gave us a sense of hope.
If tournament has proved anything to us, its that our unity as a people is our biggest asset. Its been done before, like when Jaworski and company toppled the Koreans for the championship forty years ago behind the support of the rabid crowd or when our entire nation ousted a dictator in 1986. If we stand united and fight for a better country together each and every day, there’s no doubt that we can regain our place as Asia’s premiere nation. Can’t we all act like there’s a Gilas game going on everyday? Together, we can change our country and this time of nationalism is the perfect springboard.
Forty years from now, our basketball team may find itself in the same situation hosting once again and we’ll all remember the magical run of 2013. It could be years before we find ourselves back in the FIBA Asia finals or maybe we end up making it every year from now on. Maybe we’ll get that first Filipino into the NBA within the next forty years or we might still be looking for the one to make it to the big league. It should be definite though that forty years from now, we’ll be a better nation than we are today. Forty years from now, we can look at this as the moment that united the Philippines. The support of the crowd during the duration of FIBA Asia was something else and it elevated the team to unimaginable heights. Now its time for us to do it hand-in-hand for the country, regardless of social class, school or province.
They say basketball is just a game, but to Filipinos it is a way of life. Our team has proved that the Pinoy can do amazing things and its time for each and every one of us to shine. The tournament may be over, but the fight remains and if we’ve learned anything over the past two weeks, its that our unity is a powerful tool. Just like in basketball, we’ve always been the underdogs and its time for us to prove the world wrong. Let’s show the world that gilas isn’t just the name of our basketball team, but a way of describing Filipinos and how we always bring our best. Let’s show them our gilas, Pilipinas!