The good news is that we showed heroic effort. Puso, or heart, has been Gilas’ battle cry at the Fiba International World Cup, a battle cry echoed by their countrymen, and that was just what Gilas showed, a lot of puso, a lot of heart.
Of course, as of this writing, we’ve lost for the third time in as many games. But it’s the quality of the losses that puts the effort on a heroic plane. Two of these were hard-fought games, with Gilas almost snatching a victory in both. Only our match against Greece proved a little lopsided, but not until toward the end. The ones against Croatia and Argentina were not, the first going into overtime and the second a golden opportunity that slipped away. If you watched the game last Monday night, as I did, you would have shouted yourself hoarse too.
Jimmy Alapag was particularly magnificent, almost singlehandedly keeping Gilas within arm’s length of Argentina after it threatened to pull away in the last quarter. He dropped four of his five three-point bombs in that stretch, some of them well past downtown. That’s shooting more commonly associated with Stephen Curry and Klay Thomson. He was supposed to take the last shot, which would have tied the score or given the Philippines the lead. Alas, Argentina built a Great Wall around him, forcing Jayson Castro to make the attempt instead, and fumble.
But none of this was supposed to happen. Happily, the Gilas players did not get the memo, the one that said they were just saling pusa, they were supposed to lose by a mile. Croatia is a basketball powerhouse, having sent a dozen or so players to the NBA over the years. And Argentina ranks third in the world, after the US and Spain. Yet the Philippines battled them to near-victory. These were heroic defeats, these were victories in defeat. That took a lot of courage, that took a lot of heart.
That’s the good news.
The bad is not that we lost three in a row. The bad comes from the fact that much of our respectable showing owes to Andray Blatche, an NBA player who last played with the Nets. His sudden conversion into a Filipino—the Senate was all for it and gave it its blessings—was near-miraculous. It was more miraculous than Ronnie Nathanielsz’s becoming Filipino by presidential, or dictatorial, fiat during martial law. Nathanielsz at least invested a great deal of time, and heart, in the Philippines and would prove true to his national preference by remaining a Pinoy body and soul to this day. I don’t know if Blatche’s desire to be Filipino will last a minute longer than the games in Spain.
The tradeoff—citizenship in exchange for a crack at the Games, or at least not being unduly embarrassed there—raises all sorts of questions about how we value citizenship. If we ourselves do not take it seriously, how can we expect others to? Hell, how can we expect our own citizens to?
Quite apart from that, Blatche of course proved to be the critical, if not decisive, difference in the Philippine cause. He was a huge presence in the paint, literally, his height and heft preventing the taller opposition, like Luis Scola, from running the local crew ragged. Of course in the heat of battle, you forgot that he was an ersatz Pinoy. But you wondered what the sentiments would be, here and abroad, once the smoke cleared.
The far more sobering thought is the future of Philippine sports. Our team’s sterling showing in Barcelona is not going to expose our limits in basketball, it is going to highlight our possibilities in it. It is going to spark some sort of resurgence, reinforcing our belief that our national pride, sports-wise, lies in it and is extended by it.
The problem with that you see in Blatche carrying our team. There is one irrefutable truth in basketball, and that is that height is might. Of course speedier small players can always beat lumbering tall ones. Which not quite incidentally makes for great drama, and we are nothing if not fans of great drama, particularly of the kind that has us battling near-impossible odds. But speedy small players can never beat speedy tall players. All other things being equal, height rules.
And things have been equalizing over the years. As basketball goes global, so the skills of basketball players in other countries go global. You need no further proof of it than that other countries, including China, have produced NBA players. The equation is simple: Other countries can improve their basketball skills, we cannot improve our height—short of genetic engineering.
That’s what has given me two minds, or hearts, about watching our exploits in Spain these last few days. On one hand, like every other Pinoy here or abroad, I’ve been cheering Gilas lustfully and feeling the pangs of their painful losses. On the other, I’ve been wondering what the future holds in store for us in sports.
Unfortunately, which brings the question past sports to national character, basketball is the national passion. It is to Filipinos roughly what football is to Brazilians. You see that in impromptu basketball courts standing in the middle of streets in Sampaloc and other densely populated, and impoverished, areas. You see that in the ferocity with which colleges contest the NCAA and the UAAP, if not the PBA which has waned in popularity over the years. You see that in the millions upon millions poured into the sport by companies and taipans, not least in La Salle and Ateneo.
The gritty showing by the Philippine squad, such as you can say “Philippine” without reservation, will reignite the conviction that heart, and not height, wins basketball games. Arguably, it makes for high drama, battling impossible odds. But it would really be nice to win now and then.
It would really be nice to have a future to look forward to.
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