Well, that's it. The national basketball team, as we know it, will never be the same.
In losing to New Zealand last Wednesday, 80-89, Gilas Pilipinas bowed out of the Olympic Qualifiers—and from further competing with the core that has endeared itself to our country since beating South Korea in 2013.
But here's the bigger reason: This core has peaked. That's it. What a wonderful, incredible journey for these guys but it's a journey that's nevertheless over. It's a journey that's worth a salute from every Filipino—these warriors gave it their all. But in the end, there was just nothing left in the tank.
"Puso," the catchword that had fueled our underdog squad through so many battles finally gave out. Deep down, these players knew that the word was a psychological shield. It was a barrier that allowed them—allowed us—to tune out the odds. From a more objective perspective, say that of an odds-maker's who bases his choice on statistical fact, we had no actual chance of winning. "Puso" blocked all that out. "Puso" ignored the gap in experience, skill and height. "Puso" allowed us to just go out there and play. Without "Puso," without that blind faith, our team wouldn't have been able to come out there with the force of a raging bull. We truly were a raging bull, no question. On the court, nothing mattered but charging headfirst and goring the matadors with our horns.
Sometimes, the bull is victorious. Once in 1987, a bull fatally pierced a Colombian matador's lungs. That was the last matador on record to have died, according to BBC. Nearly 30 years have passed, and no matador has ever died again on record*. More often than not, it's the matador that gets the best of the bulls. We aimed and had our chances and in the end, our heads were left spinning. "Puso" could only endure so much.
With every defeat—or euphemistically speaking, "moral victory"—the barrier becomes progressively frail.
In the New Zealand game, it shattered. Before the final score had been decided, it felt like we all knew this was the end of the road. We only got to watch on TV so we can't speak for those who were there live but there was just a lack of spirit surrounding the final game. To put it bluntly, we went out with a whimper and not with a bang.
What we witnessed was the breaking point of Team Puso.
This is not, however, the end.
There have been so many lessons learned in this chapter of Philippine basketball; so many wounds to toughen us up, so many possibilities left to fulfill. It would be a terrible, terrible waste to up and leave, and discontinue the program. The inspiration that Team Puso has offered must not be wasted. Whatever Team Puso lacked in actual wins, it more than made up for with its demonstration of grit, resilience and will. The team's examples have now been tattooed onto the fabric of Philippine basketball permanently—examples that a kid in Pampanga, Cebu, or Davao may have seen, and later emulate. Maybe much, much later, that kid will be carrying that elusive world championship trophy for us. (You heard it here first!)
A wild dream? Well, isn't that the biggest lesson Team Puso has taught us—to go for the most impossible dreams? Isn't that what we need to thank this team for? It is. So from the bottom of our hearts, thank you, Gilas.
From your ashes, we shall rise again.
(* - UPDATE: On July 10, a day after we wrote about the last bullfighter death nearly three decades ago, U.S. Cosmopolitan published a report about the death of 29-year-old matador Victor Barrio. Barrio was the first Spanish bullfighter to have died in the ring since Jose Cubero Yiyo was gored in Madrid in 1985. The bullfighter who died in 1987, as referred to in this article, was the last to have died outside of Spain on record.)
Photography KC Cruz