April 14, 2024

If it's not yet clear enough to everyone, Justin Brownlee is a national treasure

If it
Art by Royce Nicdao


That's Justin Brownlee's nickname. It's not original. It's not creative. It's an easy reference to his childhood idol. But it works. 

More importantly, he gives it justice.

On Tuesday, he waved his wand yet again and—poof!—a gold medal for Gilas Pilipinas. But doing without the convenient hyperbole, Brownlee once again carried the national team, exacting sweet revenge on Cambodia with an 80-69 win to reclaim the championship in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.

When Brownlee's much-awaited naturalization was finally made official last January, he probably didn't think that the biggest challenge he would face early in his Gilas Pilipinas career would be the SEA Games. After all, the Philippines has routinely lorded it over in the region since the biennial meet's inception in 1959. The FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, where Brownlee made his stellar debut for the flag, was also deemed as the tougher competition. But alas, it was the SEA Games that brought the best out of him.

Gilas Pilipinas lost to the souped-up, supercharged, extra-fortified roster of Cambodia in the group stage, with Brownlee feeling lethargic due to the sweltering weather in Phnom Penh. He only scored 10 points. Then they got heavily tested by defending champion Indonesia in the semifinals. But as he always does, the 35-year-old Brownlee came up big, saving Gilas Pilipinas in the fourth quarter with clutch hit after clutch hit to avenge last year's finals defeat and return to the gold medal match.

At the risk of sounding absurdly blasphemous, Brownlee wasn't as heroic in their rendezvous with Cambodia. He didn't have to. Many of his teammates did their part, particularly Chris Newsome, Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser, Marcio Lassiter, and Christian Standhardinger. But when he drove strong to the rack in their very first possession, even though he missed the layup, it was clear: It was a different JB from their first encounter.

He almost had a no-relief job in the first half, resting for just exactly two minutes and 10 seconds. He set the tone. His teammates followed. The story was pretty much the same in the last two quarters. Brownlee hardly had a breather. But under the same humid conditions, with an even more raucous crowd—which felt like the entire kingdom of Cambodia rooting for the Philippines' demise—Brownlee persevered. Again. As veteran analyst Andy Jao said during the TV broadcast, Brownlee is "the real thoroughbred." 

When the smoke cleared, Brownlee abracadabra-ed his way to a game-high of 23 points on 50% shooting on top of seven rebounds and four assists. Plus, his first-ever chip with Gilas Pilipinas. Wearing a Nike Kobe 5 Protro Bruce Lee, it was only appropriate. Mamba Mentality isn't much different from Magic Mentality. In fact, when Brownlee drained a three-pointer in the fourth quarter to douse cold (or hot?) water on Cambodia's mini-run, he confidently nodded his head as if saying, "OK, let's go!" That was the closest JB could be to KB. Even when he's feeling himself, he's not really feeling himself. 

Which makes him even more magical. He doesn't need anything to get fired up. He just shows up, laces up, and gets up. High. Right there with other Filipino legends that also represented the country. It's also worth noting that the yellow-and-black shoes were inspired by Lee's jumpsuit in the movie "Game of Death." Because on Tuesday against Cambodia, it felt exactly that. 

But death, it seems, is just a construct of a feeble mind for Brownlee. His wasn't. His mental toughness has been proven time and again. And if there's one thing that was also proven in Gilas Pilipinas' golden victory, it's this: Cambodia can have 12 naturalized players. The Philippines only needs one. 

That, however, doesn't dismiss the stern challenge that Cambodia gave. Or even Indonesia. It was the toughest SEA Games the national team has ever competed in. But with a sleight of hand, Brownlee and company came out on top. 

"Oh man, I'm just proud of the guys for bouncing back from the first time we played Cambodia. We knew it's gonna be a tough battle for the whole SEA Games. There are some really good teams out here," said Brownlee, with the Philippine flag draped over his shoulders, in an interview with One Sports' Paolo del Rosario.

He could've gloated. Especially after how Cambodia behaved or how the poor playing conditions (the linoleum floor should be displayed at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame) made it even more difficult. He had to use an ice pack or a towel dipped in ice water to keep cool during games. It was the perfect moment to thump his chest and brandish his gold medal. But he didn't. He's always been a class act. 

"I'll play in any type of environment as long as it doesn't kill me," said Brownlee. "I love representing the Philippines, it's very special to me and my career. I'm just ready to keep repping the flag."

Gilas Pilipinas could be playing in a burning field with hundreds of fire-breathing dragons raining down on everyone like it's the apocalypse and Brownlee would still be casually dropping 30 points. 

At this point, it feels like a disservice to call Brownlee a naturalized player. Leave that tag to the hired assassins of Cambodia. Justin Donta Brownlee is a Filipino. Live with it. It was even more pronounced when he was standing on the podium, with the gold medal on his neck, his right hand on his chest, and the "Lupang Hinirang" being played in the background as the Philippine flag was being raised. 

Afterward, as they were getting their pictures taken, an ebullient Brownlee looked at his teammates and playfully cajoled them to bite the gold medal. Almost instantly, they all followed. Like magic.


(With reports from Paolo del Rosario, One Sports)