I caught the Philippines versus Kazakhstan game at the worst possible time. It was past 11 p.m. on a Sunday, the bottom half of the second quarter ticking away, and Andray Blatche just bricked an off-the-dribble, hand-in-his-face three-pointer from the top of the key.
And the shitstorm was just brewing.
Kazakhstan’s Anthony Clemmons calmly dropped an uncontested shot three feet away from the basket, trimming Team Philippines’ lead to one. Then Jayson Castro, in a very off brand manner, threw the ball away in a panic that sparked a three-on-zero fastbreak for Kazakhstan.
June Mar Fajardo, who had a cold, was fouled on the next play and missed both free throws, uncharacteristically. Then Kazakhstan scored on a nicely done pick-and-roll. That’s six straight points in a span of a minute.
It’s these kinds of sloppy one-minute episodes—symptoms of another catastrophic ending—that usually put to test the very spirit of fans rooting for the national team. If you’ve been toiling as an emotionally-invested Gilas fan for the past decade, this is familiar territory. This is the moment when you lose your shit, basically.
Still, you don’t leave. Hope reels you in.
Stay and hope for a Paul Lee gauze pad in the form of a three-pointer to stop the bleeding. Stick around and hope for June Mar to sweat off his runny nose. Watch and hope for any type of good karma.
Turned out that the moment I tuned in on the game was the perfect one. Because to truly, holistically appreciate the joys of a Team Philippines win, there must be suffering first. The begging and the hoping enhance the experience.
On Sunday, I hoped for nothing short of a miracle.
A number of routes will get you to the World Cup and Team Philippines drew the most convoluted one. Calling it a bumpy road to the World Cup is like saying the moon has potholes. They must win against Kazakhstan, was the first requirement. Hope Blatche goes nuts. But either New Zealand or Korea (which were simultaneously facing Jordan and Lebanon, respectively) must also win. Hope Ricardo Ratliffe goes nuts.
But how did it get here? Several unforeseen circumstances the past two years bled into the next. If it isn’t an injury, it’s a suspension. If it isn’t a suspension, it’s either ineligibility or unavailability.
Team Philippines had to go through many facelifts, many iterations, before this scene: New Zealand was losing; Korea was holding on to a flimsy two-point lead in the fourth quarter. Hope Blatche can donate a portion of his points to New Zealand and Korea. Gilas was up by nine in the third and Blatche just committed his fourth foul. Hope he didn’t do that.
He was replaced by June Mar, cuing a perfect set-up from veteran analyst Andy Jao: “He’s there to prove he’s not the five-time MVP for nothing.” With Blatche on the bench, June Mar poured one for his “Pang-PBA lang” critics. His bouncy step, accentuated by his towering presence and extremely high basketball IQ, towed Team Philippines to not only survive, but thrive in the Blatche-less lineup.
Then, Jayson Castro put his foot down and said, “Enough.” Enough of the uncertainty. Enough falling short. Enough hoping. He splashed back-to-back threes and my mind instantly flashed back images of stone-faced Jimmy stepping in for the ballsy three; emotional Ping running back with pumped fists after a putback; Larry on one knee, his arms stretched high to the heavens, celebrating a tough win.
Iconic moments stick, on rewind forever, regardless of context, as long as its tied to the Pilipinas brand. There’s more hype: Gabe posterizing Scola, Paul Lee’s clutch free throws, Terrence sticking Js on Tony Parker, Jordan Clarkson getting hot, Thirdy stealing a soul in Qatar. Make space for new ones. World Cup, here they come.
The last 10 minutes of the game became the basketball version of the closing scenes of Avengers: Infinity War, where a lot of head-spinning stuff happened. Ratliffe was doing work for Korea. Philippines led by 11. June Mar with a hook shot, padding the cushion to 13. Korea up 10, two minutes left. Philippines up 16, six minutes left. Magoo Marjon can taste it. Clemmons not letting go, hits back-to-back threes. Korea’s lead up to 12, 40 seconds left. Samgyupsal jokes abound. Philippines up 15, three minutes left. Dr. J is playing it cool. Korea defeats Lebanon, 84-72. Oh, the irony. Does Coach Yeng Guiao know? Does anyone on the Philippine bench know?
With two minutes and change left, Philippines up 15, Blatche scored points 40 and 41 on a putback. As he walked to the bench, he let out an emphatic yell. I imagine many others were yelling with him.
Rooting for the Philippine team is peak fandom. The only two options are jumping for joy or throwing the remote. There’s no in-between. I feel like what ties everything and everyone together, and sometimes tears it all apart, is the sense of hope and hype that the national team champions.
Whether it involves roster tweaks (Hope they let [insert name of half-Filipino] play) or fantasy matchups (Hope they play against Team USA) or mere admiration (Hope they win), we buy in fearlessly.
The World Cup tips off months from now. Hope it gets here sooner.
Photos from FIBA.com