"Not the best we could offer."
"Don't expect much from this group."
We've heard these words and phrases thrown at our current national basketball team since its conception. With more than half of last year's FIBA Basketball World Cup roster replaced— some circumstantial (Jimmy Alapag, Gary David), while others, questionably voluntary—local hoops fans had a reason to be cynical with our then-upcoming international campaign.
After all, the 2014 Gilas squad was touted as one of the best the country has ever put up, bannered by the likes of June Mar Fajardo and Paul Lee—both considered the future of Philippine basketball. Not to mention, the team's morale-boosting showing at the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Disappointment at hand, the ensuing storylines didn't help our supposedly reeling international basketball program:
- The return of naturalized ex-NBA player Andray Blatche, which should have been encouraging; the only problem was he was very much out of shape
- That underwhelming Estonia pocket tournament—winless against The Netherlands, Estonia, and Iceland
- And finally, Fil-Am Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson's paasa "inclusion" (Though really, it wasn't your fault, man)
More ignominious comments from netizens about the seemingly subpar squad—which at that time was still deciding on a 24-man pool—littered social media, with only a few brave enough to defend the national team and hit back at its faceless detractors.
The tomato-throwing subsided in the 37th William Jones Cup, wherein Gilas 3.0 had the chance to show what they're made of. But still, faultfinders were waiting to pounce on any flaw...
SAY HELLO TO THE MISFITS
Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva weren't really made for a lot of positive adjectives and association. The former was labeled as an inefficient shot-chucker, while the latter was tagged as an enigmatic and out-of-control on-court personality (except for the Alaska Aces fanbase). To no one's surprise, doubt filled the air when it was announced that both players will be part of the Philippine delegation.
But it seems critics forgot why Romeo and Abueva are in the PBA in the first place, and why they were drafted high. In the most recent Jones Cup, the wily GlobalPort Batang Pier guard was breaking ankles and scoring at will against his foreign counterparts (including a Taiwanese reporter, ehem).
The Beast, on the other hand, was just downright beastin' against taller and heftier opposition, gobbling rebounds and providing boundless energy whenever called upon.
Those two leading the way, plus promising contributions from this year's first and second PBA draft picks, Moala Tautuaa and Troy Rosario, Gilas placed second overall in what was considered just a tune-up tilt for the dog-eat-dog 2015 FIBA Asia Championship.
That's the thing with us Pinoys. Initially deemed too small—for some, misfits—for international competition, we remedied our "disadvantage" with our own brand of basketball: #PUSO. The popular hashtag referring to playing "with more heart and relentlessness than any other team" may have originated from previous national teams but this version of Gilas might just be its best representation.
Sure, a few skeptics lingered, but with what the team has been shown in the ongoing 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, it would not take long for them to have a change of heart.
GOOD TAB AND WHAT'S NEXT
With the level of praise the team has been receiving these days after sweeping and topping Group E of the tournament's second round (despite that lone Palestine hiccup in the first round), many seem to ignore the masterful job Coach Tab Baldwin, who took over Chot Reyes's reins, has been doing.
Blatche may be dominating day in and day out, and Jayson Castro looks like he has already cemented his place as Asia's top point guard, but it would be disrespectful to turn a blind eye on how Baldwin turned a usually offensive firepower-oriented squad into a no-nonsense defensive juggernaut.
Considering he had to make do with a more limited crop of players (he was vocal about being patient with Clarkson and Fajardo), local hoops aficionados are (albeit unconsciously) admiring the international tactician's undaunted commitment and solid body of work. Reducing dunks into simple yet effective D, and eventually into a W, Pinoys are now savoring the taste of actual victories. (Although we're not discrediting moral ones; you get the drift...)
As we eagerly wait for Gilas Pilipinas's match against Lebanon tomorrow in the knockout quarterfinals, let us not forget how many of us almost shunned this hell of a team at first (not entirely because they still represented the country), yet they didn't falter and still pushed through.
That's another reason to cheer our hearts out for them during the remainder of the tournament.