The members of Gilas Pilipinas display the Philippine flag during the awarding ceremonies of the recently concluded FIBA Asia basketball championships at the Mall of Asia Arena last Sunday. FIBA Asia photo by Nuki Sabio
When both the Philippine and Iranian basketball teams stood in front of their respective benches for the playing of their respective national anthems, that presented a pre-game opportunity to size up the two squads physically from afar.
“Man,” I remember thinking to myself. “The Iranians are so much bigger. We’re going to need to move that ball around real quick, make sure we hit our shots, and play real smart to beat these guys.”
It isn’t that I didn’t know that fact. I’ve seen this Iranian team since 2007 and knew how they were so much bigger, athletically gifted, and skilled than many other teams. It’s a thought that comes to mind time and again and I am sure not only the coaches and the players but just about everyone with some connection to the game.
Did I think we could beat the Iranians? Yes, of course.
No, I am not into crack. But sports history is littered with the corpses of heavy favorites who were upset by the most unlikely of contenders.
Remember 23rd ranked Robin Soderling who prior to the 2009 French Open had never won a third round match at the French Open? He defeated number one ranked Rafael Nadal who was never defeated, much less challenged, en route to four consecutive titles at Roland Garros. But Soderling defeated the Spaniard in four sets in their fourth round match up.
There was James "Buster" Douglas, a 42-1 underdog against the unbeaten Mike Tyson heading into their February 11, 1990 bout. Douglas knocked Tyson out in the 10th round despite also being sent to the canvas by a huge haymaker from the erstwhile champ. Douglas’ win remains the biggest boxing upset of all time.
There was also the US Olympic hockey team composed of amateur players and college stars that defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union, 4-3, during the 1980 Winter Olympics in a game that has been dubbed "The Miracle on Ice." Imagine that, the big bad Red Machine that had won so many titles were upended by a scrawny but no less scrappy team.
And perhaps closer to home, there was the Philippine Men’s Football Team that defeated defending champion Vietnam, 2-0, in the 2010 Suzuki Cup. That win caused a football revival in the country that has gone unabated to this day.
Things had fallen into place for an incredible finish for the Philippines.
Lebanon, one of the stronger Middle Eastern teams, was suspended by FIBA. They were bracketed with the Philippines in Group A along with Chinese Taipei, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Jordan was missing several key veterans and were practically fielding a young team. They were beatable.
Chinese Taipei was cause for concern and they showed it by beating the home team on their home court.
Into the second round, Japan was another team with all sorts of internal issues. These were further magnified when they were blown off the court by Gilas.
Against Qatar, some coaches wondered how the dribble drive offense would work against a team that was tall and athletic. My gut feel was we’d beat them because I felt that they weren’t particularly concerned about their defense. And if the Philippines could play an uptempo game, these guys were goners. And it was so.
China was hurting with Yi Jianlian not 100%. Furthermore, the Chinese had not embraced Panagiotis Giannakis’ European style to spread the minutes and shots around. It took a while for the Chinese to embrace previous head coach Bob Donewald’s defense-first style of play that was once infamously rebutted by Wang Zhizhi’s statement of “This is China. We don’t play defense.” But Donewald won the Asian Games championship so there was some buy into his style of play.
However, when China suffered their FIBA Asia opening day loss to Korea and lost a succeeding one to Iran that really hurt the morale of this team and their faith in Giannakis.
This is where I believe that, on basketball terms, we are fine with having a local as a head coach. It is common now for Filipinos to study the game abroad and to transfer that knowledge on the grassroots level. How many times have I heard local coaches pooh-pooh some seminar from a foreigner because they’ve either been implementing that for years and they know it’s not something new? Whether it’s valid or not, that’s one case. You can only play basketball in few new ways. If anything, it’s a new wrinkle here and there.
When China was struggling, I wondered how Giannakis would be able to inspire the players. For one, English isn’t his natural language. So is it with the players. They have a translator but what gets lost in translation?
Someone who speaks the same language can reach into the deepest recesses of a compatriot. Someone who knows the players on a personal level. Someone who knows the heartache of previous losses. Someone who knows what buttons to push.
The team assembled by Chot Reyes might have been imperfect in some form but for the moment, for who is available, for the system, it is just right.
This is, of course, not to say that a foreign coach cannot get the job done. Some things work, while some don’t. It's just the circumstances people find themselves in.
And that leads me back to the circumstances Gilas Pilipinas found themselves in.
The opportunity presented was to demolish these myths that we cannot regain out lost stature in the basketball world.
And those myths crumbled. Not only for us but also for other countries ensuring a very memorable tournament.
Prior to China’s match versus Chinese Taipei, Chinese journalists asked Giannakis if he was aware of the fact the they had not lost a game to what they consider a renegade province. Ever. FIBA may try to be politically correct but inside the media room, you can hear it first hand from my counterparts from other countries. About how they are looked down on. How the game means much for national pride.
So China fell to Chinese Taipei and Lin Chih Chieh’s scream after hitting a huge three-pointer for a dagger to the mainland will remain one of the games’ most indelible images.
Now that served as a precursor for what was to come for the home team.
In the knockout stages, Kazakhstan, which had always given the Philippines trouble, was dispatched in devastating fashion.
With the first chance to bag a slot at going to Madrid, standing in Gilas Pilipinas’ way was long-time nemesis and tormentor, Korea. The Filipinos played a strong endgame to repulse Korea that put on a spectacular shooting display that reminded the old timers of ghosts of defeats past. It was especially sweet to do it in front of a home crowd that knew all too well the heartache that the Koreans have inflicted through the years.
Chot Reyes said that the objective was a slot to Spain. That had been achieved. The dream now was to win the championship against mighty Iran, the class of Asian basketball for about seven years now.
Without the injured Marcus Douthit, our chances of an upset went from doable to almost impossible.
When Gilas started out like a house on fire and Iran in a state of panic (watch how Samad Nikkhah Bahrami constantly berated his teammates for their and his own miscues) were we going to witness our own miracle?
It was the players' craftiness, derring-do and timely three-point bombs that had us in the fight early on. I have to say that those ticky tacky and even spotty calls hurt us. What was especially frustrating was the fact that Iran is a good team that does not need help from the officials.
For the second consecutive game, we had officials stop the clock and seem to be in disagreement over a call. What gives? Do the powers that be fear a basketball revolution should this nation of over 7,000 islands win the FIBA Asia championship?
Can you imagine that, an upstart Philippine team, beating Iran for the title? That would upset the balance of power. That would send ripples all over the region. That would have home countries look at how the Filipinos turned the Mall of Asia Arena into a bastion of nationalism and a killing field for teams that were taller and even more experienced and funded. They would look for their own versions of Jason Castro, LA Tenorio and Jimmy Alapag, who courageously and fearlessly drove down that lane and laid those balls in for buckets against much taller foes. If other countries had drums and vuvuzelas, we had chants of “Laban Pilipinas,” “De-fense” and “Ga-ry, Ga-ry.” Imagine how many Filipinos would have named their offspring born this August 2013 "Gabriel," "Lewis Alfred," "Jeffrey," "Japeth," "Marcus"or even "June Mar"?
But the players got tired from pushing and battling behemoths. The shots began to fall short. Once Iran got their groove, they never surrendered the lead.
As the game wore on, Gilas battled back. And I am sure that all over the land, people wondered, “What if this PBA player was allowed to suit up?” Sorry now. You missed the bus. You’ll have to wait for the next one.
“What if we Marcus Douthit had played?” Maybe we would have had a fighting chance.
As for me, it isn’t misplaced faith that I think we could have upended Iran. All tournament long, we had been demolishing those myths one after another. That belief by the coaches and the players saw them overcome those long odds, naysayers, doubters and terrible officials to book tickets to Spain.
But I am sure that after this, people are also wondering, “I can’t wait to see where we go from here.”