Tuesday, 27 September 2011 4,109 Views / 242 Comments
We have reached the end of the road. After three years of preparation, controversy and hope, the country’s final standing in the basketball hierarchy has been determined.
Fourth best team in Asia.
Although “third runner-up” has a nice ring to it, it still falls short of what was expected. From the beginning, the dream was to either earn a spot at the 2012 Olympics or die trying. After another heartbreaking loss to Korea in the Asia qualifier and with the London games now officially out of reach, it sure feels like the country has breathed its last.
Both that game and the semifinal match against Jordan are too painful to remember, the game recaps too hurtful to read. I readily admit that I cried at the end of both, realizing that these setbacks would only add to the burden that has been weighing down on the nation’s back for decades now.
Any medal would have sufficed, really, because this was supposed to be our year. The year when we would stand triumphantly in the spotlight for all the world to see. But no, the country has once more been cast off to the sideline’s shadows.
But as China, Jordan and Korea were feted as Asia’s top teams and the anguish of being left out again was at its most agonizing, I was struck by an unexpected realization.
For the longest time, the Philippines has been aching to reclaim past glory. For the longest time, the Philippines has watched with envy as teams from North Asia and the Middle East have matured into basketball powerhouses. For the longest time, the Philippines has formulated strategy upon strategy to claw its way back up, only to be struck down again by heartbreak upon heartbreak.
Then Smart Gilas came along. This was the team handpicked to reverse our FIBA fortunes under the guidance of proven winner Rajko Toroman. This was the team bankrolled by Manny V. Pangilinan with no expense spared in the name of achieving greatness. And at the end of the tournament it had labored so painstakingly for, this was the team that etched its place in history as a fourth place finisher with not even a pennant to show for its efforts. Its performance this past week in China has effectively shattered our basketball frenzied nation’s dream.
Despite this seeming failure, I realized that having our age-old dream broken may actually be a good thing. And rather than be chastised, each member of this squad deserves to be welcomed back to the Philippines as a true, selfless hero.
We were all so focused on the prize that we had forgotten how Philippine basketball essentially had to start from scratch. Just a few years ago, our country’s hoops scene was a scattered mess of factions and cliques. We were in fact erased from the global hoops map until the MVP-led Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas was officially recognized by FIBA.
And after the Smart Gilas team was formed, it had to navigate through constant challenge and criticism. Its choice of a foreigner as coach was (and surprisingly, still is) questioned. It got into a big argument with its big brother, the PBA, over some players, while other players and executives moved out. Their requests to allow some of the biggest names of the PBA to suit up for the flag were denied. It dealt with injuries. And up to the very last minute, it had to fight the outrageous ineligibility issue of its key wing men.
Yet, for all the hardship that this team needed to hurdle, it played some of the most beautiful basketball the country has ever witnessed. Ever. When at its best, it ran a confident, fluid offense and disciplined defense seldom seen before on our shores. To make such a giant leap forward and go from zero to hero facing such adversity is nothing short of incredible.
Coach Toroman put it best: only players with big hearts can win under such situations. When put in this context, who needs medals, then? There just isn’t any place for them, what with fighting hearts and a big, bold PILIPINAS proudly crowding the national team members’ chests.
The goal hoisted onto these young men’s shoulders was herculean. With all the useless politicking, some might even say that it was unattainable. But placing fourth was not a failure. Rather, it was a resounding success and a testament to a model that finally works. This isn’t really the end of the road, just a pit stop. The country’s basketball heartbeat hasn’t flatlined just yet, it’s just reeling from the effects of coming up a bit short this time around. And with MVP vowing to continue the fight into “2016, 2020, or even beyond”, hope springs eternal.
To everyone involved with the Smart Gilas team: as you pack your bags and drag your battle weary bodies back home from Wuhan, keep your heads held high because there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You took that first, and often most difficult, step. Your sacrifice and dedication have hopefully made the task of future Gilas teams that much easier. And every one of you (yes, including Coach Rajko and Marcus Douthit) has shown more love for the Philippines than many of us who were left behind ever have. Forget about the detractors and crabs out there. We are — and will always be — extremely proud of you.
Most importantly, thank you for shattering our 40-year old Olympic dream. It was too old and pathetically out of reach, anyway. With the new system firmly in place, the refurbished Olympic dream is so close, so confidently real, that a nation 92-million strong can almost touch it. When you eventually make it to the big dance, we will all look back at 2011, marvel at the revolution you have kicked off, and finally understand that standing on a spotlit podium isn’t really necessary to be embraced as an honest-to-goodness champion.