To the Finals we go. To. The. Finals.
Sure, we knew we were going to be good. But this good? Come on. We all had our doubts. You won’t own up to them? That’s your call. But I’m big enough to admit, over the course of this entire tournament, Gilas Pilipinas has proven me wrong countless times: and thank the holy Lord above for it. I’ve never wanted to be more wrong in my life. I mean this is the FIBA Asia Championship. Our waterloo, our constant heartbreak, like the one that got away, like that irritating, flying little Quidditch thing. It was always outside our reach. “Dasal nalang”, I said.
I questioned the prep time, the forced familiarity, the quickened chemistry. I feared the lack of a Jones Cup run, the shortage of top-level competition, the chance to really see what we were going to go up against. I knew we’d make the quarters, but after that? “Dasal nalang”.
I always thought though, that Coach Chot Reyes was the man for the job. His experience, brand of basketball, premium on team play and overall bad-assery and willingness to put anyone in his place were all needed for the task at hand. That, and the fact that he understood and accepted that coaching the hometown heroes meant that you’re prime candidate to be the main villain as well. What concerned me going into it was that he couldn’t get all the guys he wanted. PBA duties, injuries, local basketball politics, all these kept the Arwinds Santoses and Calvin Abuevas off the training pool. Chot did the most with who he had. “Dasal nalang”.
Turns out, he had everything he needed after all.
Look up and down this roster. Sure you’ll see a crapload of talent, but you’ll also see glaring holes. Three sub-six footers? An ageing frontline? No true small forward? And just one guy under 25? Goodness gracious. By no means is this a perfect basketball team. But it is, without question, the perfect Pilipinas team.
Bear with me here.
Throw away basketball for two seconds and just try to truly understand this magnificent run that we’re on right now. Stop, stay in the moment and just try your goddamn best to grasp what these men have done. 20,000 in an arena jumping, screaming, hugging strangers they would have never talked to before. Millions more at home hugging family members they haven’t hugged with passion in years. Strangers all across the country, retweeting and conversing online, sharing views with faceless avatars that they will never meet. And thousands of our countrymen in various places in the world, sometimes working the most menial jobs, lifting their heads up high, knowing their team, like them, is sacrificing for flag and for family.
This goes beyond hoops. It goes past scoreboards and highlights. It’s an incredible tapestry of who we are, what we are and what we can be.
Gary David’s horrid shooting at the start of the tourney is our daily commute: tiring, frustrating, seemingly never-ending. June Mar Fajardo’s bench-riding is how we react everytime they say we’re the Next Tigers of Asia: “Will our time ever come or will all this potential be for naught?” Marcus Douthit and Ranidel De Ocampo’s injuries are our nagging disappointments: all these dreams, hamstrung by limitations and hurdles. The loss to Chinese Taipei is the equivalent of all our broken hearts, being so close to happiness, yet not knowing what you had and letting it slip away, never to be had again.
Japeth Aguilar’s ascend from punchline to knockout punch is that day in the office when you save the day. Marc Pingris’ toughness and scrappiness is our diskarte. The book can tell you how to do it. But we’ve all written our own chapters on how to do it when the situation isn’t even in the book to begin with. Every Jayson Castro layup, every LA Tenorio jumper, every Jimmy Alapag three, all symbols of how we find ways to make the impossible, possible. Whether it’s overtime at the office, cramming for the exam or taking that shortcut to avoid EDSA. The odds may not be in our favor, but sometimes a 5’9″ solution to a 7-foot problem is even sweeter.
Jeff Chan and Larry Fonacier’s shooting? Only comparable to The One, lying down next to you, her eyes and fingers locked with yours, in the silence, knowing full well you wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. Yup. That and a Larry/Jeff three. Tied for sweetest thing in the world.
And then there’s Gabe Norwood’s excellence on both ends, every single game. A testament to how we, as individuals and as a country, keep at it day in and day out. The daily grind rarely gets easier. We hurt, we bleed, we cry and we fall. But we wake up the next day, body tired, mind weary. And we do it all over again. Because we must. Because there is no other recourse. Because we would rather run into a hundred screens, take a thousand elbows to the chest and get called for a million phantom fouls, than quit.
At the start of the tournament, I had questions about Gilas. I believed in them, don’t get me wrong. But trying to be an “objective sports broadcaster”, I was just trying to be realistic about our chances. That’s where I was wrong the most. See, as a country, we are full of bright, intelligent, talented people. But that was never our strength. It was never our calling card.
Standing in the crowd as our team finally ended the South Korea curse and barged into the Finals, it all became clear to me. In between hugs from total strangers and high fives from an infinity of random hands, I realized: the tears falling down my face weren’t because 12 men won a basketball game. It was because I was wrong to use my head, when I should’ve gone with the beating pulse a foot below it. See, those guys were crazy enough to think they could go to the World Cup. And they did. They had the audacity to say they would do what we have not done in decades. And they did.
We say these ludicrous things all the time too. “Yayaman ako. Magkakatuluyan kami. Aalagaan ko pamilya ko. Mai-in love sakin si Anne Curtis.” Very rarely do we get it done. And then this happens. And then we’re reminded that only the crazy and the audacious have dream-come-true stories worth telling. See that’s what I was wrong about. It was never about numbers, or logic, or even basketball for that matter.
It was about the hearts that we have in us all. And the heart that we all share. When you go with that, when you’re unreasonably hopeful, when you’re tenaciously optimistic, when your heart beats so loud it drowns out all your doubts, you will never stop. You will never quit. You will keep fighting.
Maraming salamat, Gilas. For reminding us all of who we are, of what we are, and of what we can be. May we all dream as you dream, and fight as you fight.
Laban Pilipinas. Puso.
Photo by Paul Ryan Tan of InterAKTV