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Dear Rohan,

it says it all. COPA DEL MUNDO. basketball’s world cup.

i’ve been staring at a blank screen for the better part of an hour, thinking of how to start telling you about this experience that your mom graciously allowed me to savor. someday in the not so distant future i hope to re-experience this with you all over again, as spectators, or maybe, just maybe, cheering you on as you take the floor with the words PILIPINAS on your chest.

ESPN ranked the Philippines as the second lowest team in the tournament, this despite the fact that we placed second in Asia, beating out South Korea in a thrilling semifinal a little over a year ago. and for the first quarter of this game, we somehow seemed to play that way, turnovers, no ball movement, a stagnant offense, a sketchy defense in the face of a taller more experienced Croatian squad. but I feel like i’m getting way ahead of the story.

going to the arena in this beautiful city of Sevilla, the energy was contagious, Filipinos from all walks of life, some flying in all the way from the Philippines, others taking time off from their jobs all over the world, lined the streets, shouting PUSO! and PILIPINAS! exchanging smiles and greetings like only Filipinos know how,  it was…electric.

the entire stadium was filled to the rafters with everyone decked out in the PILIPINAS colors. it did not matter if you were seated beside someone you did not know, or someone you probably would not meet again. for the next couple of hours you will sit there and talk about the game during timeouts or in between quarters. you will be exchanging stories and jokes like as if you knew each other for years. it felt like home, it felt, frankly, like family.

as I watched these young (and in the case of captain Jimmy Alapag, not so young ) men stare at an 18 point deficit nearing the end of the first quarter, with around 3000 of our country men, sitting beside each other, waving flags, shouting themselves hoarse, i kept thinking, how could you not be moved by this? On paper, we were the smallest team. on paper we were the least heralded. on paper, we were the weakest team. That is why the game is not played on paper, because paper can not account for the heart the passion and that never say die spirit instilled not only in these players but in all Filipinos, a never say die spirit born out of necessity to exist amidst the hardships, the daily grind, the poverty,the hunger and the stinking mess of a government. A never say die spirit that makes Filipino resilient, and strong enough to bear everything, to be away from families to work abroad, the strength to rise up after calamities hit, this is the spirit of Filipinos the world over, and by God! these boys of ours will show the world just that! paper be damned!

a wise man once said that you have to strive to be better. it doesn’t mean that you have to be better, but you gotta try, that is where character is defined. in the trying. in that moment where against all the goddamn odds, you rise up, just because you know you have to at least try. and try they did, slowly, inch by damn inch, they clawed their way back into the match.

suddenly, shots were falling in, as the confidence grew, the defense came to life, and then it happened. a momentum swing. Jimmy Alapag, with the shot clock winding down and a defender hounding him about 28 feet away from the basket, heaved what seemed like a hail mary, straight and true and hit nothing but net plus a foul. the crowd, literally exploded. As one, our team, with Andray Blatche taking a breather on the bench subbed by Junemar suddenly found new life, moving around fluidly and cohesively to end the half on a good note. it felt to me like, the team suddenly figured out for themselves that they belonged here. that they can go toe to toe with the best in the world.

As the Third quarter started, the tide swung ever so slowly in our favor as Jeff Chan led the rest of Gilas in finding the bottom of the net with their outside shooting while our big-hearted “big guys” led by Marc , Ranidel Junemar and Andray battled for every lose ball and every rebound.

I was seated behind the Croatian bench and could see how they could hardly believe this resurgence. “who the fuck are these Filipinos and why are we not blowing them away as the script says?” must have been on the minds of every concerned person on that Croatian bench. led by Andray Blatche, faking and driving, Marc Pingris and his battle for every offensive rebound and putback We came storming back to cut the lead to single digits as we headed to the 4th quarter.

Ahhhh the 4th quarter.for about 7 minutes in, we struggled so hard, to get close, a 3 pointer by Croatia was answered by a 3 of our own and add a driving lay up or a putback shot in for good measure. with 2 minutes remaining we found ourselves down by only 2 points and at this point, the crowd had already whipped itself into a frenzy.GILAS GILAS GILAS thundered through out the stadium as two missed free throws by Croatia was followed by a foul on the other end, as Jeff chan lined up a 3 point shot that would’ve went in.

coolly and calmly he made all 3 free throws and suddenly we were in the lead for the very first time. Croatia rushed their offense in the next play then Andray Blatche drove down the lane, missed grabed his own rebound and made the put back and I started fistbumping other people and just screaming my lungs out while the Croatian bench  furiously called for a time out. but this was Croatia, a top ranked team and they came back with a vengeance. with a chance to take the last shot, Jeff Chan went for a go ahead jumper that went in and out, to the dismay of everyone watching. OVERTIME.

In the overtime period, both teams hit big shots til we found ourselves down by 4 with less than 15 seconds left. Andray hit a 3 point shot and suddenly we were down by just 1 with about 7 seconds left and no time outs remaining.  Croatia made both free throws and we had to convert a 3 to extend the game.

I wish there was a story book ending to this narrative, but we missed that last shot, and Croatia escaped with the win.

Son, years from now, the record books will show that Croatia won and we lost. supposedly, there are no moral victories in sports. you lost. that was it. That’s what the record will reflect.

but no one, no record book will ever quantify just how much pride this team gave us.how much of themselves they poured into this match and the preparations leading to it. that was a gutsy stand by a team that played it’s collective heart out to the joy of the Filipinos and earning the respect of opponents, and the entire basketball loving world.

heading out of the arena, you can see Croatian fans approaching Filipinos and saying things like, “congratulations, that was a hard fought game by a fighting team, we will be rooting for you in your other matches.”

I looked around me, and our country men were, as expected still smiling, ruing some non-calls in the game that could’ve won it for us, as if they just weathered another super typhoon and having assessed the damage, still smiled because they were alive.

“we could’ve won that one” “sayang. muntik na” were the common sentiment. but it was not said in sorrow or sadness. they were saying it with pride. PILIPINAS!

 

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