July 15, 2024

GUTS AND GLORY | A band of brave soldiers finally ended decades of anguish in Asian Games

GUTS AND GLORY | A band of brave soldiers finally ended decades of anguish in Asian Games
Art by Royce Nicdao

Hangzhou, China - Millions of Filipinos watched Gilas Pilipinas defeat Jordan for the gold medal in the 19th Asian Games. Most of them don’t know of a world where the Philippines was the best basketball team in Asia.

Many memories of Asian Games basketball are embedded into our collective memories and most of these are seared in there with pain.

As a sports fan, I don’t know of a heartbreak worse than Busan 2002

I still remember being seated with my dad in my grandma’s nook. We were listening to the radio as sir Sev Sarmenta annotated the game. I remember asking my dad over and over if there was still time left after Lee Sang Min hit that cursed three-pointer. 

He shook his head. And that was it. No words were exchanged. No words needed to be said. Our best chance at ending the Asian Games gold medal drought fell apart. 

The pain of 2002 was followed by the disappointment of 2006 when the Philippines was not even able to send a team due to a FIBA suspension. In 2010, the first iteration of Gilas Pilipinas lost to South Korea in the quarterfinals. In 2014, the team lost to South Korea (again) and Qatar in the quarterfinals. In 2018, the country lost to South Korea (again).

Asian Games basketball, for you and me, was all about pain.

This was the reason why we took a few seconds before celebrating the win against China in the semifinals. The buzzer sounded, but still, the celebration was delayed as the moment did not feel real.

At the Asian level, China does not lose in China. The stunned Chinese fans inside the HOC Gymnasium did not know what that feeling was. On the opposite side, we weren’t familiar with that feeling either.

On that night, China had already secured 171 gold medals in this year's Asian Games. 

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But for at least one night, the conversation of Chinese sports fans wasn’t about the 171 golds they’ve already won. 

It will be about the gold that they can no longer get.

It would be about the gold that Justin Brownlee took away.

Gilas Pilipinas came into the gold medal match against Jordan with confidence but they also had their worries. It was their fourth game in five days against a team that defeated them 87-62 in the group stage. 

But coach Tim Cone said it best way before the rematch was even set. 

“If we get another shot at Jordan, I think we can beat them. We’ve learned so much from that game,” he said. 

Cone said PBA players and coaches were built to win a rematch. While they can lose a game, they were so used to playing long series that adjustments for the next game felt like second nature.

Jordan’s fans were confident. Some of their journalists even told us Gilas only made their path to the gold easier by beating China. They laughed after, maybe to hide the shot as a joke, but I’m sure they believed that too.

Unfortunately for them, Gilas had other plans. A big part of that plan was centered on Chris Newsome defending Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The coaches discussed starting big, altering their usual first five to better match up against the tall Jordanians. 

They stuck to their guns and decided that the 6-foot-2 Newsome was going to defend the 6-foot-6 super athlete. 

Cone still remembers how Newsome looked after their Southeast Asian (SEA) Games campaign. Almost passed out on the floor, sweat seeping through his jersey, fingers crooked as his whole body cramped up.

If Newsome was going to put himself through that to win back the SEA Games gold after two years, imagine what he’d be willing to do to win back the Asian Games gold after 61.

It was more than just Newsome though. It was about Brownlee’s brilliance and Ange Koaume saving his best for last. It was dropping everything for the call of the country for Kevin Alas, Arvin Tolentino, Chris Ross, and Marcio Lassiter. It was about Japeth Aguilar and June Mar Fajardo always being available. It was about Cjay Perez staying confident even with the FIBA World Cup DNPs. It was about Scottie Thompson rising to the occasion and FIBA World Cup cut Calvin Oftana proving he belongs.

This is for Terrence, Calvin, Mo, and Jason. This is for RR Pogoy, definitely for RR Pogoy. This is for everyone in history who put on a PILIPINAS jersey even if it was just for practice.

This is for Coach Jong, Coach Rajko, Coach Chot, and Coach Yeng, and every coach who was brave enough to take on the most pressure-packed job in Philippine sports.

This is for the late Sheryl Reyes who first believed in Brownlee. 

This is for MVP. This is for RSA. This is for the entire PBA.

This is for my dad and your dad and our granddads because, man, we waited for this too.

Yes, there were times when our faith wavered. There were times when we became jaded, bitter, and even hateful. There were times we got too used to failing, too used to falling short. 

But we kept coming back. We kept cheering, kept believing that, this sport that has caused us so much pain would one day bring us unbelievable joy.

As the "Lupang Hinirang" was played and the Philippine flag was raised inside the HOC Gymnasium, we all felt that joy. The long wait only magnified the moment. A reminder that even if things have not been done for a while or have not been done at all, it only takes the courage to try.

(PM)

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