Like all other Pinoys, I’m all praise for Gilas-Pilipinas despite its loss to Iran last Sunday. The squad members have been a revelation, exceeding all expectations. The night before, they sent their countrymen into rapturous delight with a win over heavily-favored Korea after a titanic battle whose outcome was never in sight until the end.
I watched last Sunday’s game on TV with my head waging a titanic battle against my heart. My head told me this was a David-and-Goliath thing, and though Davids tend to win in the Bible and Hollywood, they lose most of the time outside of them. Iran was the easy Goliath, not least in the literally Goliath figure of Hamed Haddadi who had just finished a stint with the Phoenix Suns. He might not have shone brightly in the NBA sun, where towering figures and middling talent just huddle in the shade, but you knew, or suspected, he’d do so in constellations with less brighter suns.
My head said this would be a massacre. But my heart said, no, this would be a miracle. Stranger things have happened, and this country being a land of miracles, or a land of people who believe in miracles, who knew? Maybe at the end of an arduous climb we’d find ourselves at the top of the world.
Alas, things didn’t go the way of the Bible or Hollywood.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. The half-full way is to see this as a sign of the rekindling of our prospects of becoming a basketball power in Asia. We haven’t done this well in a long time. Not since Danding Cojuangco brought in all those imports during Marcos’ days—Chip Engelland, Jeffrey Moore, Ricardo Brown et al.—who allowed us to win the Asian championship at one point. Today’s second place isn’t so bad with only one import, or naturalized citizen, who wasn’t there anyway in the end due to an injury. The second place qualifies us to play in the Basketball World Cup next year in Barcelona, which is going to generate more excitement and anticipation among us.
The half-empty, or even three-fourths empty, way is to wonder after the cheering and toasting and celebrating have died down what madness has persuaded us to make basketball the stuff of our dreams, the apex of our aspirations. I do like basketball and watch the NBA passionately. I used to watch the PBA until the NBA came to cable TV and hammered home the tragedy, or battiness, of our national preoccupation, or obsession, with the game. The coming to cable TV of the US NCAA nailed it completely: The finest selection of PBA, or national, players will be hard put to avoid a slaughter by any of the Final Four or, hell, any of the final 16 teams, there.
It’s a lesson in humility, but a lesson we ought to learn, if indeed we have not done so already.
We cannot become an Asian, let alone a world, power in basketball. That is almost a given. The long-term prospects are not bright, they are dim. We can always have bright days like this, which can spark a wild belief that we are experiencing a renaissance in it—I worry that that is exactly what our appearance in Spain next year could spark—but the rest of our days will be stormy. More than any sport, basketball is about height. You might argue that there are other factors involved—speed, dexterity, athleticism—but between two players who have these things, the taller one will always be better than the shorter one.
You need not go far to see proof of it. The fact that Iran, China, Korea and the Arab countries have progressed rapidly in basketball shows so. Once they learn the skills, their height will make the difference. And they have been learning the skills over the years, ironically no small thanks to our coaches whom the Arab countries have been hiring for the purpose. Indeed, they have been making all these strides despite the fact that basketball is not their national passion. Football is. Iran is a football powerhouse, China is a football powerhouse, and Korea is most certainly a football powerhouse.
We’ve managed to snag silver in basketball? Well, against a field that’s preoccupied with other games. Basketball is all we do.
Which brings us to a reality check we should be making. Silver isn’t bad, the heroic efforts of our boys against Iran, playing their hearts out before an admiring and adoring public is a joy to behold. But I cannot look at these things without also feeling awed by the cost of all this. That cost isn’t just the fortune we pour into basketball, it is also the fortune we deny our other sports. (Except, of course, for boxing, which is quite another sport in itself.) Sports where we have at least the chance to excel given the limits, or potential, of our innate physiology. Football, where Asia and Japan are excelling, is one of them.
Unless you propose, as some people have actually done, that we adopt a regime of growing taller players. What, practice genetic engineering? Just so we’d play better basketball? Talk of the tail wagging the dog. Well, that’s our other favorite sport.
At some point, you must wonder if our dogged, and profligate, pursuit of basketball excellence is not a case of relishing the role of Sisyphus walking up the mountain while being doomed to fail. Or for those who do not like classical references, banging our heads against the wall.
It’s nice porma , of course, to cut the figure of an underdog bucking the tide, and no one loves porma more than we. But it is one thing to buck a tide not of your own making and quite another to buck one you have artificially created for yourself. It is one thing to fight your way through obstacles you’ve accidentally found yourself in and quite another to fight your way through obstacles you’ve gleefully put up in your path. In the first, you are an underdog.
In the second, you need to see a doctor.