Gilas Pilipinas 2014: The team that brought Philippine basketball back on the world map.

Prior to writing this one, I have seen a lot of writers and bloggers that have already written their take on this matter. Even so, I will still write this one. The passion is burning high on my body, on my mind and in my heart. So let’s get to it.

 
For the last six days, Filipinos within our soil and around the world witnessed one of the defining moments in the history of Philippine basketball. The story of a nation’s unlikely love affair where in the eyes of anyone outside a Filipino is a genetic mismatch when it comes to the international stage.

For the last six days, Filipinos set aside their differences to unite as one nation in support of a team carrying “PILIPINAS” in their royal blue, white and red jersey. The nation went through a lot over these six days over Sevilla, Spain. From the glimpses of brilliance that shocked the world of basketball to the unimaginable heartbreak when we fell short after a great fight against the countries this team battled. When it all ended with a sweet and hard-earned victory over Senegal. There was pride, hope and optimism running through every Filipino who bare witness to this moment. Whether they were in Sevilla throughout their run, on home soil, or around the world where a Filipino is watching this moment.

Truly this was a team that despite falling short of victories on the win column will be remembered as the team that brought Philippine basketball to where it truly belonged, on the basketball world map.

Let’s run down a few of the memorable tournaments of this run by Gilas Pilipinas at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.

When Gary David or Japeth Aguilar, despite playing limited minutes giving a boost on the scoreboard whenever they score a basket. 

LA Tenorio competing tooth and nail with Puerto Rican NBA veteran J.J. Barea in a showdown of court generals.

Ranidel De Ocampo, Paul Lee and Jeff Chan dropping three point bombs on the scoreboard.

The grit of a Marc Pingris and Jayson Castro who played through the injuries to give everything they have and show the world what “PUSO” means to the Filipino nation.

Gabe Norwood’s work on the defensive end and two Kodak moments when he delivered two highlight reel dunks over Argentina. One of which was over NBA and international veteran Luis Scola.

The overall efficiency that June Mar Fajardo brought throughout the tournament and a inside presence this team lacked in previous tournaments that spanned over generations of basketball.

The play of Andray Blatche, our naturalized NBA player who lit up the scoreboard with three pointers and drives to the basket. He also played through injury showing that he may not be a born Filipino, but his heart and passion showed the grit of a Filipino.

The Captain Jimmy Alapag who played in his final international tournament carrying the PILIPINAS blue, white and red. Dropping three point bombs that were beyond NBA range. The steady play on running the offense and sending us home with our heads up high by nailing clutch free throws in the team’s final game over Senegal.

Of course the coaching staff, led by Coach Chot Reyes together with assistant coaches Norman Black, Jong Uichico, Josh Reyes and consultant Tab Baldwin. It was with their sacrifice of calling the shots for the team that bare fruit. They went through a lot especially in a nation where both players and the coaches are under the microscope at all times.

For everyone following the PBA every conference, they set their differences aside for each other. Imagine this, Alaska fans cheering once again for LA Tenorio. San Mig Coffee fans cheering every Jeff Chan and Paul Lee three point bombs or Gabe Norwood tearing the rim down and stop. San Miguel Beer fans (just like me) cheering a Jimmy Alapag long bomb or Ranidel de Ocampo bucket. Rain or Shine fans cheering on the grit of Marc Pingris.

This team gave the world of basketball something to remember. Who would have thought that this team would compete in close games to some of the world’s best countries when it comes to basketball? Prior to the tournament, people expected Gilas Pilipinas to lose by huge double digit margins. This team proved to the world otherwise. 

They only lost by three points in a game that went into overtime, in the very first game of the whole tournament against 16th ranked and 2013 Eurobasket 4th placer Croatia

They lost twelve points to 5th ranked and one of four tournament wild cards in Greece

They only lost by four points to 3rd ranked and one-time Olympic champions Argentina.

The biggest heartbreak came when we competed well against 17th ranked and 2013 FIBA Americas runner-up Puerto Rico only to fall short by four points. Sealing our fate of not advancing into the next stage of the competition.

The final game against Senegal is when the door was finally broken as they won in overtime by two points ending their run on a positive note and to the delight of every Filipino as they win a game for the first time at the FIBA Basketball World since 1974. Imagine that, 40 years since the last time a team carrying “PILIPINAS” won on the world stage of basketball.

What also made it special is that this team gained new found respect and along the way. From international sports writers and analysts like ESPN’s Mark JonesMike Prada of SB Nation, and NBA writer Couper Moorhead. To  who is in a way a Spanish equivalent of Grantland writer, Pacific Rims author and Pinoy Hoops host Rafe Bartholomew, who followed this team starting from their tune-ups in Guadalajara, Spain against teams like Angola, Egypt and the Dominican Republic and drove 600 miles to Sevilla to follow the team into every single game of this tournament. 

The team also gained the respect also from opposing players and coaches, Argentine coach Julio Lamas was quoted that their game against the Philippines was “the most difficult game he coached” in his coaching career. Puerto Rican point guard J.J. Barea giving props to Gilas guard LA Tenorio. Greek coach Fotios Katsikaris acknowledging the tip he got from his Philippine-based friends about how good the team is.

Also on a personal note for me, there was also a guy who goes by the name of Jason Williams who like me is a huge Houston Rockets fan. From the first game of the team in the tournament, he fell in love with the team. He said to me after the Philippines lost to Puerto Rico that it was like seeing the Rockets misfortunes the past season all over again. But when the win over Senegal came. He gave me a nice shout-out.

Photo ©Karl Carandang
Well, there will always be scrutiny about how this team played out. Filipinos whose love for basketball is unlike the world has ever seen (take Lithuania as our equal when it comes to passion) will have something to scrutinize. As they say, it’s always easy to scrutinize whenever you’re sitting at home eating good food, drinking a good cup, and being with your family watching the game. 
 
People pointing on coach Chot Reyes and his choice of rotation of players, on why he didn’t play certain players in crunch moments. People pointing on Andray Blatche’s play in which some critics reminded them of his notoriety during his playing days in the NBA with the Washington Wizards and the Brooklyn Nets. People pointing on Jayson Castro’s late game decisions. And a host of other scrutiny a person can think of.
 
And also the thought of racism among some Filipinos over opposing players. One notable victim was Croatian player Dario Šarić who was born with a cleft lip, bore the brunt of racist comments by Filipinos on the FIBA Facebook page showing his photo. Again, just like everyone who carried the “PILIPINAS” royal blue, white and red. He was carrying the “CROATIA” red and white and the hopes of another nation.
 
Nobody wearing their respective colors, whether it be PILIPINAS, USA, España, Lietuva, Brasil, México, Srbija, Dominicana, Slovenija, Hellas, Türkiye, France, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Angola, Croatia, Argentina, Finland, Australia, Ukraine, New Zealand, I.R. Iran, Korea or Egypt (Yes, I have to mention what is on the jersey of every nation that played in this tournament) deserves to be disrespected like that.
 
But enough with my rant, let’s keep this as optimistic as possible. The run of our national team may have come to an end. However, we’ll come out of this with renewed optimism. Optimism and hope that this run won’t be the last one we’ll see in our lifetime. For Team Gilas Pilipinas, this ain’t the end but only the beginning of something special
 
I believe, we believe. Let’s move forward, on to the next tournament, in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea and the next FIBA Asia Championship in China come 2015. Hopefully we can play on the Olympic stage on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And I am supporting our bid to host the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup which will grow from 24 teams this year to 32 teams.
 
Let me say this with pride once again. 
 
“Ako si Karl Carandang, pinanganak at lumaki sa Quezon City, buong pusong sumusporta sa Team Gilas Pilipinas.”
 
In English:
“My name is Karl Carandang, born and raised in Quezon City, wholeheartedly supporting Team Gilas Pilipinas.”
 
THANK YOU GILAS PILIPINAS. For giving us a reason to come together as one nation. Looking for more journeys with our team in the future. Thank you for a great run at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
 
LABAN PILIPINAS! PUSO!
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